And Am I Born To Die?
Between I-295 and the Penobscot Bay, past the Hussey’s General Store sign that reads “Guns – Wedding Gowns – Cold Beer”, down narrow potholed dirt roads lacking signposts or street lamps, over a steel bog bridge, and among fiery oaks and pines, rests Karen Keller’s square farmhouse. The house teeters on a rocky foundation. It has no running water or electricity. The grey wooden shingles are weathered from years of blizzards and nor’easters. Gusts of wind pass through the closed rectangular windows just as easily as the sunlight, and only the bedroom is insulated. “There is a plan for this chaos,” Karen says of her home, “it just takes time and energy.”
Three 20-foot tall ladders rest against the south side of the house, waiting to be scaled for painting. The shed on the opposite end, a recent addition, is made of dry, fresh wooden planks – also waiting to be painted. Gardening tools are scattered throughout the yard, but the garden is partly a plant cemetery. Karen hopes to restore it. Beside the wilted flowers is an aged water pump that has been dead for 10 years. She hopes to replace it. A ramshackle barn with a white roof is a short walk from the house. Karen hopes to save it from collapse. Rusted rubicund farming equipment is dormant in the green fields behind the house. It hasn’t been used in ages. “I’m just starting to take care of things that haven’t been taken care of in years,” she says.
Karen has been living on her own for quite some time. The 60-something-year-old Mainer rises nearly six feet in height, blending in amongst the young autumn trees. Long, curly strands of black and grey hair form a billowing mushroom-top haircut. Her hands are scarred and soiled by countless hours of yard work, and are large enough to palm a regulation NBA basketball. She has a kind face with few wrinkles, faint eyebrows, one tooth missing on the side of her mouth, and soft eyes the color of a clear blue ocean. Like her home, she’s uniquely rugged.
Karen lives in Hibberts Gore, a 640-acre enigma of sprawling green fields and soaring New England trees. A gore, by definition, is an unincorporated area of land that is not part of any town and has limited to no self-government. Many are uninhabited. They’re often the result of mapping errors from when the land was first surveyed and towns were first laid out. Karen happens to be the lone resident within the imagined confines of Hibberts Gore.
Just a hundred-yard-dash down the dirt road from Karen’s home in Hibberts Gore is the town of Palermo. No signposts mark this sudden and seamless change in location. To the naked eye, Palermo looks just like Hibberts Gore: similar homes, same scenery. But according to the US Census Bureau, Karen makes up the entire population of her respective area of land. As a result of this anomaly, Karen has been profiled in numerous newspaper articles over the years. She doesn’t understand the attention.
“These people from these big papers come. Why? What have I done? It’s a bunch of lines on a map. Nothing else.” Karen says she doesn’t find her story to be relevant or important. “What have I accomplished? What have I ever done to make anyone’s life better? What good for the planet? What good for people? What good for anybody? Why? It’s hogwash. It’s a crock.”
In 2001, Cindy Rodriguez of the Boston Globe was one of the first reporters to write about Karen’s life in Hibberts. The 2000 Census listed her as the only person living in the gore, so, the Rodriguez article was entitled “Population 1″. It paints a vivid description of an “A-frame home” with “no mailbox” and says that Karen was “driven to seclusion by [bipolar disorder].” In fact, Karen’s home is a square frame, the mailbox sits steps from her home, and her solitary existence is the result of a failed marriage – not bipolar disorder.
As Karen puts it, “Somebody writes a bunch of bullshit and everybody else repeats that.” Since the publication of the Rodriguez article, Karen has been badgered with unexpected phone calls, unannounced visitors, pushy photographers, and a continuation of inaccurate articles all focusing on the same thing. She doesn’t want to be known as the only resident of Hibberts Gore, and dealing with the US Census Bureau has been a monumental headache with no remedy.
“I wrote them and said I had concerns about being one person in what they had considered a district. Why can’t you throw me in with the next territory in Lincoln County? But their letter came back; it was utter bullshit.”
According to the US Census Bureau:
Because Hibberts Gore is a legally defined geographic entity, even though it has no governmental functions, the Census Bureau must recognize this existence as a political unit and does not have the authority to incorporate it into the neighboring towns for the purpose of data. If collection tabulation and presentation of the boundary was to change for the 2020 census legal action would have to be taken on the local level.
The letter didn’t sit well with Karen. “I just didn’t like the whole idea of it. Makes you feel vulnerable. You’re isolated and you’re one female. It’s not cool. It’s not reassuring.” Peace and privacy are the luxuries of living alone, off the grid. However, since the Census has made her residency status public, Karen doesn’t even have that. Reporters swoop in like vultures, retrieve the meaty story they were looking for, and move on to the next carcass. The media sees Karen Keller as a mentally-ill woman living alone in the backwoods of Maine, but that’s not the real Karen Keller.
Inside her home, boxes and boxes of books that originally belonged to deceased family members sit in every other corner of the living room. Karen’s parents were the first in their families to leave the farm for a college education and successful careers. A picture of her late mother sits atop the smoldering stove, looking over the home, as Karen tends to her fire in order to heat water for tea. A free flowing faucet would be a luxury for Karen, but she manages without one. Sitting by the door is a cardboard box full of empty containers: an oversized plastic Gatorade bottle, a glass Carla Rossi jug, two milk cartons, and two thermoses. Karen uses them all to haul drinking water from wherever she can find it.
She has an obsessively hands-on approach to life, a do-it-yourself mentality. “When I was in school they didn’t let girls take any trade courses. And of course, what am I interested in? That kind of stuff. Horticulture, carpentry, even plumbing.” In certain ways, Karen is a reflection of Hibberts Gore. She’s a mystery, an enigma unto herself. Karen says she was the black sheep of the family. She received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan, but chose to walk about. In the 1960s she hitchhiked across America. Soon Karen was living in a remote area of Quebec surviving off the land. She then worked on bridges with an almost entirely male crew. Eventually, she found a permanent home in Maine.
Her sink is filled to the brim with soiled dishes. Pieces of paper with random phone numbers and addresses are pinned to the kitchen walls. Newspapers, magazines, bottles, boxes, and bags occupy most of the floor-space in the house. A table next to the wood-burning stove is covered with so many papers and books that the wooden surface is no longer visible. The few chairs within the home are taken by lifeless objects. A gradual accumulation of mental and physical chaos in her life has manifested itself into a minefield of clutter. But it didn’t used to look like this, and she hasn’t always lived alone.
Karen met her husband at a horse-barn in Vermont. Perhaps, at the time, she saw a like-minded person who shared her interest in the land. Perhaps she was just tired of being alone. Whatever the reason, she moved with him to Maine. She says, “He kept bugging me to marry him and my instinct said no. Once, I caught it out of the corner of my eye. His face went like thunder one of the times I said no. Finally, I was just hounded into marrying the guy. And then things changed.”
“Once we were married he took the mask off. And it was…I call it living in a war zone.” Years of nightmares grew from an assumed act of love. She married a self-styled farmer who was, in fact, an alcoholic and drug addict; an adulterer; someone who cursed the heavens when the weather did not meet his approval; a man capable of bashing his wife over the head with a rolling-pin; a man who made idle threats with a loaded rifle or a butcher knife.
“I learned the hard way that all kinds of things can be a weapon,” Karen says, “You could just see him working up to…I just called ‘em spells. I would go sleep in the pick-up truck around the corner, and not come back till he’d gone off to work.” But the monster would return in the evening. She says, “And then that night, I’d only get verbal abuse about how I was out and he’d use the word ‘fucking.’ He’d just say I was out fucking somebody. The neighborhood or whatever.” The verbal abuse was as destructive as the physical abuse, “I was told once a week that I was worthless. That’s what I was told by the guy that married me that was supposed to love me and cherish me.”
Her disturbing relationship was a bubbling caldron of suffering, soon to boil over. The mounting stress, torment, and anxieties sent Karen into a daze. She couldn’t sleep. Late one night, she hopped on her horse, got the dog, and rode over the nearby mountain. She rode all night, the moonlight illuminating the way. In her manic state, she didn’t feel safe going home. This was the beginning of her struggles with bipolar disorder.
The torturous marriage ended in divorce. She kept the house in Hibberts Gore, but her husband took the things that mattered; namely, the animals. He threatened to kill the horse and the dog if Karen kept them. Her husband squandered their finances during the course of the marriage as well. She had the house, but essentially no money.
Only the bedroom is insulated. She would love to accommodate the entire home, but she can’t afford it. During frigid winter nights she may wear a wool hat, a scarf, gloves, and a jacket to warm up her bed. Karen says that the insulation is fiberglass and the rodents love it. “They got tunnels all through it. I got flying squirrels up there. They’re moving in for the winter. Bringing all their aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers, sisters.” She recently snatched up a vole on the prowl and wrung its neck.
Karen continues to suffer through bipolar disorder, swaying between manic spells from hell and paralyzing states of depression. In a manic state Karen won’t be able to sleep for days, maybe weeks. Sometimes she’ll lie in bed, and just ride out the storm. If she is depressed, she escapes into books – Harlequin romances, mostly. They take her mind to a distant place of refuge, far from all her burdens.
She used to take psychotropic medications for bipolar disorder, but they caused permanent organ damage. And in the past few years she was diagnosed with colon cancer, Lyme disease, and mercury poisoning. According to her doctors, she was supposed to be dead last winter. On bad days she says, “I feel like the shit that didn’t get warmed over.”
Karen may have a house all to herself, but she is not entirely alone. “See, I have true neighbors,” Karen says, “When I had a broken wrist I was panicking because we had all these little snowfalls. How am I going to figure out how to shovel? How am I going to do this? Well I look out the window, here comes the neighbor with a shovel over his shoulder. Ta da! Shoveled the driveway. I’ve had people come by with pick-up trucks, I don’t even know who the hell they are. I’ve just had people come by and plow the driveway.”
A white sticker plastered on Karen’s midnight black wood-burning stove reads, “The secret to life isn’t what happens to you, but what you do with what happens to you.”
With the inevitable onslaught of winter, she has to carefully and quickly fortify her home to survive the elements. She hurries to install storm windows and haul in wheelbarrows full of firewood before the encroaching cold-fronts arrive. It’s taxing on her body and mind. The months preceding winter can be accompanied by debilitating depression. One past Saturday, she lost herself in a book – Texas Bound – a history book about Texas declaring independence from Mexico. Karen says, “History is key to the present.”
She’s a fighter. She’s rebuilding a life that has been continuously torn down. A naturopathic doctor told her that people have gotten cured of cancer by just cleaning up their mess. From the outside, you can see nothing amiss with her house, and similarly, Karen looks far healthier than she truly is. Each day is a struggle, yet despite Karen’s suffering she perseveres. She does whatever she needs to do in order to keep going.
On the eve of Hurricane Sandy, violent winds howled through her fields. A dying tree in her front yard was a potential threat to the house if it were to fall, so what did Karen do? She tied a 20-foot extension ladder to the weakened tree, carefully scaled each rung, and dragged up a chainsaw with a rope and pulley system. She then proceeded to cut away the hazardous limbs of the trees, scattering wounded branches all across the yard. Perhaps, by removing the diseased tree, Karen was simultaneously freeing herself from her own diseases.
She overcomes her troubles any way she can. Parked in her driveway is an uncooperative black and rusted Ford Escape. On Thursdays, when her car is willing, she drives to Tai Chi classes in Rockland. She finds joy and beauty in small things. When the weather is nice she’ll go for a swim in the bog pond behind her house. And on good days, she goes singing. It feeds the soul.
Karen is a longtime member of the Sacred Harp Shapenote Singers, an a capella choral singing group that originated as Protestant Christian music in the southern United States. She only goes to a handful of singing events a year because of her health, but she was able to attend a recent singing at a church in Waterville.
The church walls are white, as are all the singers. They open their Sacred Harp texts and the singing commences. Members go around the room one at a time, each picking a song they would like to sing.
Some of the members sing with their eyes closed, or with their hands over their hearts. Inexperienced singers follow the notes on each page with their index fingers. The more confident singers wave their arms up and down along with the music. The hardwood floors provide ideal acoustics for foot-tapping, the closest thing to a musical accompaniment. Spellbinding harmonies echo and linger throughout the room. A call and response erupts between the gruff baritone voices of the men, and the piercing wails from the soprano voices of the women. It’s otherworldly.
Karen picks a song for the group. She chooses “47B – Idumea (And Am I Born To Die?)”. She rises from her seat, takes center stage, and conducts the group through the song. With her eyes gently closed, she swings her arm like a pendulum, she sways, she dances, her voice soars over the others:
And am I born to die?
To lay this body down!
And must my trembling spirit fly
Into a world unknown?
A land of deepest shade,
Unpierced by human thought;
The dreary regions of the dead,
Where all things are forgot!
Soon as from earth I go,
What will become of me?
Eternal happiness or woe,
Must then my portion be!
Waked by the trumpet sound,
I from my grave shall rise;
And see the Judge with glory crowned,
And see the flaming skies!
“Oh my God,” Karen exhales with satisfaction as the song concludes, returning to her seat for the next tune.