I Used to Be Scared of Living in a Small Town.
I think I'm a city girl, but I'm not sure anymore.
It's quiet here, on the acreage. I love it more than I ever imagined. I wish it was mine to keep, but even so; I revel, still, in the space around me that is mine-for-now. It's peaceful here, un-rushed and spread out. We can be loud and wild, or secluded and soft without irritating, or worrying, the neighbours. Our indoors and outdoors are homey and uninspected by anyone except the wildlife.
Yet there is home in the anonymity of the city, too. People need people and I see that in the crowds and the space-sharing, though everyone rushes about and pretends it isn't so. I like watching other humans being, imagining what their lives are like as I watch them walk down the sidewalks, hurry to their vehicles, mow their lawns. Even if they catch me being curious about them before I glance away, chances are pretty good they don't know who I am anyway; I won't earn a reputation. I even like that people don't care about the details of my life too much. I like that everyone has too many of their own details in this busy place to concern themselves with mine.
I used to be scared of small towns. Everyone knew each other, but didn't actually really know each other, too. I heard my relatives and their friends in small towns talk about fellow town members and their business, knowing things I only knew about my very closest friends, maybe. These people knew each other through their shared history, but not well enough to hug them in the pain of their divorce, of which everyone seemed to know every gruesome detail. It was startling to realize it was hypothetically possible for someone to know all my quiet, painful secrets like that...but not love me and know me well enough to hold me through them. I could not see how that could feel comfortable and safe at all.
I imagined myself in a small town. But in my daydreams, I couldn't keep my mystery and I didn't like it. In the big city, I could be a kind stranger in those few minutes in a grocery store line, disappearing into the parking lot with no other expectations. In a town where everyone remembers the time you lost your temper in public...could they be sure of your kindness? Or would they count it as feigned because, throughout the time they've known you, they have seen your unkindness, too? It scared me that I wouldn't be able to try on different personalities for size, just for fun, or that I couldn't wear my pyjamas and smeared makeup to Wal-Mart and not worry about seeing people I knew.
I was scared of the Big Fish in the Small Pond, the people who everyone admired because they did admirable things, worthy of fanfare, of congratulations. It seemed like it gave them an uncanny power over the community. It worried me that this influence never seemed tempered by the reality of many people around you being able to do similar admirable things, with no one fussing over it, no one feeling submissive to their awe of you. It felt like the definitions of someone worth admiring were too narrow.
It scared me how new people could move in and feel like shiny new toys held at a distance. How they could try and attach themselves to neighbours who weren't sure how to start fresh, who were nervous about making room for people who didn't share their history and who smelled like change?
I saw these things clearly, I was sure of it, and they scared me. I never wanted to live in a small town, ever. Too close, too much knowing, too familiar with each other without being careful and tender with all the information. No, thanks.
But in my youth I missed things.
I mean, I saw the way things sometimes played out like people had never outgrown their high school drama, still juvenile in their grown-up wrinkles, beer guts, and mom bodies. But I missed the ones who had outgrown it and were brave enough to stay anyways. I also missed the ones who had left and seen the world, and come back. Both were the ones who knew the limitations of their small town, but endured the small things with grace and forgiveness, the way a wise grandma finally understands and appreciates the childishness of her grandchildren and loves them deeply...albeit sometimes with rolled eyes. These people lived bigger and deeper, lives full of meaning, happy with exactly who they were, unshackled from the expectations they had once endured, bit by bit. I can see them now.
I initially saw the ones who were afraid to leave and afraid of change and afraid of being someone different than who everyone expected them to be, but I only felt afraid and sorry for them. I didn't have the maturity to feel compassion and hope for them yet. Didn't I feel afraid of things, too, sometimes? Don't we all? Sure, I saw the ones who hated the smallness and felt trapped, but I didn't see the ones who had hated it and had the courage to change their story, either through getting up and leaving or simply changing their perspective. I didn't see the ones who were able to appreciate and experience the depth of history, of love, of human relationships that grow and change, the ones who knew the secret: that we all build our own small towns, no matter where we live.
Because that is what I have learned, finally: even when we live in a city with millions of people, even if we live in the middle of nowhere, we still build our own small towns. We build it with the friends we choose, the teachers and classmates and coworkers we don't, the family we belong to, the other communities of people we gather to us that may have nothing to do with proximity or city limits. The internet lets us build our small town with increasingly distant pieces of people, all added to our own small towns. We are not immune to the petty; we are not shut out from the ability to be known and loved completely.
We eventually see that in order to live a deeply fulfilling life, we cannot help but endure human relationships that change. We still must face our own history eventually so that we can take charge of our future; we will need to stand up to the people that don't seem to let us change. We still must learn to endure and resist the influence of the "Big Fish" and find our ability to go our own way despite what others think, even those who think they know us best and know what is best for us. We still must learn to have patience, grace, forgiveness, and even love for the people we cannot escape. We will need to recognize our own fears and challenge them in our own ways and in our own time. We may need to completely change everything around us and walk down strange streets and smell air foreign to our lungs for a fresh perspective, a new tenderness for where we came from. And we all must learn to appreciate what we have in our own hand-made village collage simply for what it is, with all its quirks and limitations, because it's ours: strangely, endearingly, our own.
I'm still a city girl, I think. I still like the mystery, the anonymity, people not paying attention to me. A childhood of moving frequently and lots of change has made that familiar and reassuring to me. But I'm also not afraid of living in a small town anymore. I am practicing being okay with all the things that scared me about living in a small town in the first place: being seen, being widely misunderstood, feeling limited and controlled, allowing myself to be held back by my own fears, being angry with people I also love dearly, feeling powerless, and being wise and compassionate when faced with small minds and loud opinions...even when it's my own, on occasion.
Because now I know that all of those things aren't limited to the boundaries of a small town at all. They're just easier to hide from, to run from, to ignore in a big city or in the middle of nowhere. And what's startled me most is that my fears about ending up in a small town were, perhaps, simply me fearing my own humanity all along. I feared being real and vulnerable for everyone to see and remember, being known by imperfect people and while we all struggle to love each other through our mistakes.
When I was young, I saw all the characters in a small town, the parts they played. But I missed all the humans, the humanity, all magnified and caricatured on their small patch of earth. I know now that no matter where we live, we are all a familiar character in a small town to someone.