Updated: Nov 5, 2020
For as long as I can remember, I have loved small towns. Growing up in the suburbs, which are the worst of the city and country in one place, I loved the idea of knowing your neighbors and being able to walk everywhere. Perhaps in was an idealized view, built on Hallmark movies and that one time I got lost in a small town so idyllic that I wrote down its name and came back later. The image of that town center with its red brick clock tower and bike rental shop is always what comes to mind when I imagine a small town. The picture gets stuck in my head, the cathedral spire dwarfed against the distant mountains. I suppose I didn’t really have any good evidence for my idealism about small towns, but then again, I’m not sure that idealism requires evidence. Just an idea. Just the stories passed down of times of old…
And so, for years, my happy place in my mind was a small cottage that I longed to build, situated in a wooded patch, just outside of a small, bright, little town where someone sells flowers on the corner and the mailman knows my name. I would bake bread and have a garden and ride my bike into town to buy my groceries or have tea with a friend. It would be so quaint and lovely, wouldn’t it?
Or so I thought.
But up until a few weeks ago my experience with small towns had been lit up main streets on the Fourth of July and a scattering of pictures and books and movies. It consisted of day trips and shop windows, historical tours and legends. It was built on stories and romantic notions. Nothing real. Nothing I had ever been a part of.
Then, a few weeks ago, I was invited to visit a friend’s family with her. Now, visiting with other people’s families has always been odd for me. My family is troubled to say the least. In fact, I can almost still hear the echoes of the last thing my grandmother said to me (she’s still alive, I just think she pretends I don’t exist), something along the lines of “you’re nothing more than a puppet, defending your mother like that!”. I can see her wrinkled face further contorted into a look of disgust as I stepped between her and my mother, telling her to stop her saying such terrible things to my mother, that she was a terrible parent and “demon spawn”. It was a strange day… but anyway, families are odd, and, when visiting with others, I find that I have this pull between jealousy -- for they have what I so desperately want, even though I often refuse to admit I want it -- and pride -- thinking that I don’t need any of that and will travel the world solo, a solivigant traversing the globe.
So, as my friend and I passed field after field of crops on the outskirts of this small farming town, I wasn’t really sure how things were going to go. Would I feel awkward and like I didn’t belong? Would I fit in? Would I be asked questions about myself? Or worse, ignored altogether? As it turned out, it was fine. I mostly followed my friend around, staring in confusion at farm equipment that could double as torture devices, and discovered that everyone in the town was somehow related to her. At least, she knew of almost everyone. And she hadn’t lived there since middle school! Growing up, I was lucky if I knew the names of more than two people who lived on my street.
I found myself, as I always seem to be, confused. Here were lovely people, who genuinely seemed to care about one another, who liked to spend time with each other… and they were related. Families can like each other? I mean, I know they’re supposed to, but I had never really seen it on such a large scale. Back when my nuclear family still talked to our extended family, meetings were rife with disagreements and raised voices echoing down the hall where my ear was pressed to the door. I hate to admit it, but I was defiantly jealous. At the same time, I felt oddly trapped in the place I had thought I would love. It was a small town. It should be perfect, right? Just what I want? Where I would want to live forever?
Well, for all the kind people, there were some things that struck me as odd. For one, there was no coffee shop for a ten plus mile radius. The area was so unpopulated that I was too nervous to go out for my morning run; there had been a bear sighting, and I got an ear infection from the scummy pond water. My friend had to explain all that farm equipment to me because it all looked the same to me. (Like something that belonged in a medieval dungeon.) I was a little out of my element. I had never felt more like a city person. I was confused, because, while I was jealous of the people I had met and their relationships, I did not envy where they lived at all, even though I was supposed to love it. For so long I had loved the idea of small towns, but it just wasn’t what I thought. There was no red brick clock tower…
Nothing was going how I had expected. For years I had told myself that I didn’t need family (extended family, that is) and that I would love small towns. But now here I was, wanting nothing more than to have what that family had and all but hating the place. It just felt so small. Good for a visit but constricting. The gas station only had four gas pumps and you couldn’t pay with card outside! And it seemed like no one ever left. When I went to the hospital for my ear infection, the doctors kept walking in and out, their faces all scrunched up as they looked at their clipboards. They were confused that I wasn’t on file already, because most people who came there were. It was so surreal.
I have this ongoing war between my heart and my head. My heart wants stability. It wants a family and loved the idea of small towns. It thinks that I would do best to remain with the same people and have consistency. But then my head goes off dreaming of far off places, homesick for things I have never known. Ireland. Scotland. Norway. Greece. It wants adventure. It wants to do everything, leave no rock unturned. But my heart is scared. That town was too small even for their bickering. Sometimes it seems that one will eventually kill the other and thus my decision will be made. Stability or adventure. Roots or wings. Heart or head.
“Why can’t you have both?” my friend asked me, as I sat on the couch in the cabin that overlooked the glassy lake as the sun set over the water. Perfect? For some reason, the idea of both, too big for that town I dreamed of, had never struck me. “What if the family you build loves to travel? Or if you meet someone while traveling?” It was an interesting thought. The consistency of loved ones with the adventure of new places. But to accept that new dream, I would have to let go of an old one. I would, perhaps, have to let the main street of shops and the cathedral spire against the mountains fade. I would have to accept that I am not the version of myself that I used to be. And that is difficult to accept.
That town was something like a cocoon, I think. Without seeing its straitjacket-like constraints in beautiful colors, I could not have come away different, ready to take to the skies. Perhaps, then, it was a dream fulfilled after all. That town, for those days, was part of me, and it taught me that what I really loved about the idea of a small town was not living in one and never leaving but community. Neighbors that know one another and smiling faces walking down the street. Genuine “how are you?”s and the intimacy of friendship. But community does not exist in just one form. It exists in college dorms, friends skyping from across the country, churches meeting once or twice a week, small towns knowing all their members, people listening to the same music or reading the same book…
There was a battle that took place in that town, part of the war between my heart and head, that spilled out into the fields and onto the highways and up the mountains and into the sky. I do no know when the war will end, but I think that the battle that day was a win for all sides. It taught me something new about myself. It was uncomfortable and strange and confusing, but even if just for that glimpse into myself, I think I will still love small towns. Sometimes, I think, I must visit to remind myself that it is possible for both sides to win the war, for my head and my heart to live in harmony, to dream a new dream. It is okay to come out of the cocoon and change. We do not have to be who we used to be. Even when everyone expects us to be a caterpillar or to stay in the cocoon forever, we are allowed to become a butterfly. We are allowed to transform. We are allowed to dream new dreams.