It wasn't a terribly small town. It grew from about 10,000 to about 16,000 while we lived there, which is huge. It's about 20,000 now. When we go back for a visit, I am in awe of how the town has crept southward to meet my old house, which seemed a good ways (a couple of miles) outside of town when I was growing up. We moved there when I was a week shy of three-years-old, and my mom sold our house when I was 22.
When we go back there, I'm filled with nostalgia and longing. Here is the town square, where the eagle on the civil war monument is turned to face the college whose team won the last football game. Here is the bank that the famous robber band failed to rob. Here is the bakery where I worked one summer, the thrift store where I bought my halloween costumes, the art gallery and studios where I did watercolor painting and modern dance. There are coffee shops and sandwich shops, new restaurants and old ones, a travel agency and a furniture store, all on a quaint main street.
The bulletin board in the coffee shop is layered with notices about dance classes, church groups, school activities, clubs, apartments for rent, upcoming plays at the local theater, and music gigs. It's a town that is still vibrantly alive, thanks to good industry, strong agriculture, proximity to a major metro area, and two very good liberal arts colleges.
When you live in a small town, you are dependent on the community. You have to stay on good terms with people, because your neighbors might be the fire chief or the ER doctor. You want people to come to help you when your house is on fire, or when your child is sick and you can't get to the store. You can be different, as long as you aren't TOO different, and as long as your difference doesn't threaten the status quo.
I knew my place in our small town. Much was expected of me; I was said to be very smart and creative. That was hard to live up to; to feel safe, I had to stay in my place. I had to get good grades, read thick books, use big words, and not quite fit in. I had lovely friends, but was never "popular," as I didn't even understand what that meant. I think it meant you had the right clothes and the right friends, and played the right sports. I didn't actually play sports. I was in countless community theater productions, and found my people in the M-wing of the high school, where musicians had their lockers in one long row.
When we go back to visit for an afternoon, I worry that we'll run into people who knew me, and I worry I'll be a disappointment. I didn't go far. I didn't become anything big or notable. I'm not sure that was really the expectation then. There were no "influencers." No one really expected any of us to be famous for anything. There was one girl who had an acting career on the big and little screens, but I'm not sure where she is now. (Of course I had to go look her up on IMDB. She's done well).
After my last visit, not long ago, I wondered what it was I wanted. What was I looking for? Could I create that kind of feeling for myself in my very-close-in suburban life? Perhaps it was about joining the choir, or connecting with local groups. Maybe it was shopping more locally, and reaching out more to my neighbors. All of these are lovely ideas, but none of them will be enough, because I will still be feeling all the pressure of my city life underneath all of it. And nothing will guarantee a sense of belonging and having a sure place in the community, especially when it comes with such strict boundaries.
A while back, I picked up a free magazine at the co-op called Real Small Towns. It featured several small towns in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa, and the pages filled me with longing. The longing is for community and belonging, without the strictures of "not being too different." I want my child to have friends who are close enough for impromptu playdates, and schedules that allow those to happen. I want community festivals and feasts, and honest connection with the farms and families who feed us. I want fewer choices, so that I can invest in the choices that are there, and help to improve them. I want my child to feel safe and free to move through his world with independence.
All of these things are possible where I am. They take intentionality, and a feeling of security within myself. That feeling of safety and belonging, which quite honestly, can be very hard to come by for those of us outside the norm of the small town because of race, gender, orientation, religious difference, or even age, don't necessarily come from outside of us, especially in the city. We have to find it within ourselves.
In the meantime, while I work to create that for myself, within my own heart and mind, I'll keep driving the long highway towards "home" every few weekends, and see what I can bring back with me from my journey. We fairytale wanderers must remember that when we go out on our quest, we have to end by bringing our treasures back with us, and finding welcome at the end of the trail, back into the world we knew, and yet knowing ourselves, and our world, changed.
Hi. That's me. I write, sometimes, about parenting, storytelling, and about living a life with stories.