Thursday, May 25, 2006

The 'benefits' of small town living

I read a post of Mark Bertrand's yesterday that got me thinking. He shared a response he had to a discussion about whether or not Christians should choose to live in small towns or in cities. I sensed a certain idealism about small towns and commented on the limitations of small town living. I started thinking more about this and decided maybe it's worth an actual blog post.

I've lived in small towns all my life -- the largest "city" I've ever lived in had about 16,000 people. The town I live in now has just under 5,000 people. It's the county seat, so it has the essential services. And we belong to a great church -- one of the best church families I've ever known. It's one reason we stay where we are instead of moving to Manhattan and saving some commute time.

Growing up in small towns -- and I'm thinking of one in particular -- has shaped me in ways good and bad. The town where we lived during the formative years of my life was (and probably still is) an ingrown little town in west-central Illinois. If you want to live someplace where people leave you alone and mind their own business, it's a fine place. If you're a sensitive child who longs for even one true friend, it's not so fine. We moved there when I was 2 1/2. I've been told it was a confusing move for me -- I couldn't understand why we had left the only home I'd known, and all our friends. My mom says I became much quieter and introspective.

School did not bring me out of my shell -- I was one of the youngest kids in the class and somewhat immature emotionally. I cried easily and probably seemed like a weird little kid so I got picked on. A lot. Which only drove me further into myself. I was imaginitive and intelligent and preferred reading and playing pretend to the more socially acceptable entertainments of sports and cheerleading. I hung onto my imaginary friends much longer than anyone else. Class field trips or other occasions where we had to pair up with a buddy were nightmares for me. No one wanted to pair up with me. I was always the odd one out. A girl in my class lived near me, but she only played with me when there was no one better around. (At least that's how I felt.)

But I also have to admit that in many ways, I had a pretty good childhood. I grew up in a stable, loving family and knew that home was my sanctuary. I got along pretty well with my younger brothers and we played together a lot. I had a best friend, but she lived in another town so I didn't get to see her as much as I wanted. I got to go to church camp in the summer and that was always fun, though I often felt out of place, there, too. But I could alway earn points for my team by doing all the Bible memory verses. I had a lot of fun during vacations when I got to see some of my cousins who were near my age. Still, when we moved away from this town when I was 12, I was happy about the move.

When I look back on my experience growing up in this very small and insular town, I can see how it has shaped me. My self-esteem took a beating, but I also began the process of learning that popularity isn't worth chasing after. I learned to rely on my internal resources, to go my own way instead of following the crowd. I accepted Christ and was baptized when I was 10 and began my walk with the Lord. I'm more willing to accept people who are a little different because I know what it's like.

So in many ways, I can be thankful for the difficulties I experienced as a child. They've had a lot to do with who I am now. And I think they help me be a better writer.

I think God places us where we need to be -- whether it's a small town or a big city or the suburbs. Sometimes -- probably many times -- we wish we were somewhere else. But we're called to be God's people wherever we are. Contentment is a lifelong learning process.


bitsoys said...

I'm currently swimming, or perhaps drowning, in this very debate: do we keep the family in small-town USA, which is hardly idyllic but keeps our stress-level down in so many ways? Or do we head back to the city, where the jobs are more plentiful, the stimuli is abundant, and opportunities for writers -- idea-wise and career-wise -- are plentiful?

Though I wouldn't consider the following a decisive factor, I went to my local AAA yesterday here in rural Pa. to register my car, and had to wait in line for a full thirty seconds as the friendly agent attended to the one other customer in the office. As I stood there waiting, I thought back to a day many years ago when I wisely showed up at the door of the State Motor Vehicles Office at least 15 minutes before it opened for business, abruptly realizing that the nearly 100 people ahead of me had arrived 16 minutes or more before business hours. Hours later, I had wound my way through the cavernous halls of the Manhattan facility (NY, not KS, that is), and finally took care of my vehicle-related documents.

Perhaps that's a poor example -- and has little or nothing to do with my Christian journey -- but the thought of working and living in or around New York City again alternately fills me with excitement and makes me cringe.

Regardless, the job is NYC that I thought for sure was coming my way this week has fallen through. Perhaps God wants me to remain in the hills of Pa. and become a teacher (and part-time writer) after all. I wish I knew for sure.

lindaruth said...

It's a cliche to say "bloom where you're planted" but when I learned to accept where I was (even when it was a state that I'd had no idea I would ever live in) my outlook improved tremendously. I know people who are so discontended with where they are or what they're doing that they can't enjoy the blessings they have.

I'm not advocating complacency, but I am learning (very, very slowly) to live on God's timetable.

Blessings as you wait on God. :)

beccamercy7 said...

**I** was NOT happy about your move when you were 12. I was devestated when you moved. Small-towns are intense. If they're good, they're very, very good, but when they're bad, they're horrible.

lindaruth said...

Being far from you, Rebecca, was the only hard part of the move. :)

Katy said...

Linda, I identify with your childhood. I think there's a rule somewhere, that writers have to have a hard time, growing up. To my mind, it's a fair trade.

I've lived in all kinds of places, and finally settled in a small town. There's nothing in this place more than five minutes away. I think we have three stoplights in total, and nine parking spaces for every car. It's not a perfect place, but people are less rushed here, and they have time to talk. I never want to leave.

lindaruth said...

I understand that feeling, too, Katy. I didn't intend to rant against small towns -- I'm happy where we are now, too. I think, though, that people who have never lived in a small town have an idealized image and that's just not the reality. Small towns provide just as much fodder for story ideas as a big city. :)

Julana said...

Interesting post.
Small towns are a mixed bag. They're usually not Jan Karon's Mitford!