[18 February 2010]
A slightly different version of this essay was previously published on First Things.com.
American small towns are mysterious places to people who have never lived in one. Some think guns and religion dominate cultural life. Others romanticize them as places full of lost virtue and uprightness. For someone who actually lives in a small town, this all sounds strange.
I live in Catawba, North Carolina, population about 700. I have lived here for over 12 years as a Lutheran minister at Redeemer Lutheran Church on Main Street and this place bears little resemblance to familiar stereotypes.
Small town life has its advantages and disadvantages but they are not the obvious ones. When the media focuses on small towns, one gets the feeling that they were visiting a distant nation not their own. They are sometimes delighted to be somewhere they haven’t been before (much like a tourist in the third world) but are unsure how to react to something so different. The extremes of media coverage tend to be way off the mark. Small towns are not Edens of “real America” nor bitter enclaves of the small minded.
In many ways they are exactly like the rest of America. People out here watch CNN and Fox News. They have cable and satellite TV and high speed internet. Kids play the same video games and wear the same fashions. But there is a distinctiveness here and there is one word that captures much of it: connectedness. To live in a small town is to be connected, and not electronically or digitally. Rather, it means to be connected to people in the flesh, to actual places, to land and buildings, to a common past.
One cannot help but to be connected to those around you in a small town. Many of them are related to you by blood. They are kin. Folks can rattle off relations and branches of the family tree. As an outsider this can be quite intimidating. But there is a virtue in living in the midst of such family ties that is hard to describe. It involves living in such a way that you, as a person, are not an individual. You are not a solitary center of decision making. Rather, you exist in a web of tangled claims. You are a point at which many lives intersect.
You are at the same time a son or daughter, a granddaughter, a great granddaughter. Often you have ancestors, three or four or five generations, who are still living, sitting next to you at church. You are also a father, mother, aunt, uncle, niece or nephew, cousin and on and on the web wraps around you.
In a small town you are confronted with those connections repeatedly, even daily. One sees one’s uncle at the gas station. One buys groceries from a cousin, gets the car fixed by a brother-in-law, goes into business with a brother, lives on land that once belonged to grandparents or great grand parents.
This web also involves non family members, members of the community, people known to you. Being known in a small town does not mean you know a name or some casual facts about them. It means you know their family, you know where they grew up, where they went to school, stories about them.
One’s last name becomes a personality trait. One can say, “Oh, he is a Bolick” and explain some behavior or attitude with no need for further words. One is situated in the web of the community. Knowing someone means you share a common history, a common place, a common way of being raised. You have a shared experience of schools and churches and institutions and events.
When Hurricane Hugo came through this part of North Carolina, it was a community disaster. Everyone lost property and power and got through it together. This happens everywhere, of course, but in small towns such events become one more layer of common memory, one more story to be told, one more mutual thread fastening one to another. The remembering and the storytelling are as important as the actual event. Folks stand around and tell the story to each other over and over and reinforce the links, the cords of memory and connection.
Such connectedness often produces a reflexive attitude of caring that strikes a newcomer as strange. One does not hesitate to visit, be with, console, or give to those around you. The web of relatedness surfaces at times of loss and significance and stress. Often there are no concrete actions that express this attitude other than “visiting”.
Something that strikes many as strange is the visiting that occurs at a birth. Large groups of extended family gather at the hospital at the time of giving birth. They simply sit around in the waiting room for hours, talking and joking with other family members, sharing the time together, while someone in the room down the hall struggles in labor and delivery. They do not “do” anything specifically for the mom or dad in the birthing room. The caring is more subliminal. By being there, they ensure that the baby is not a lone human being, belonging to himself only or even just to his parents. He belongs to the community which waits for him in that room, recording his birth in the common memory, so that his story may be told.
Such connectedness is not all caring and bliss. It has its down sides. Gossips and hurtful chatter are native to small towns and thrive in such places The clichés are true. Everybody knows your business. Such gossiping and nosing around are the other side of the coin to caring for your neighbors. Caring about, or knowing one another does not happen in a small town because the people there are more virtuous. It happens because people literally live very close to each other. They cross paths every day and one’s “private” life becomes common property.
Virginia (1974), Photo permission of
©David Plowden 1994 from
David Plowden.com. Watch for his book,
Requiem for Steam, W.W. Norton (Fall 2010)
In small towns, one lives one’s life in public, in that shared mesh of relations and friendships. One cannot hide, one cannot be anonymous. So the same person who brings you a pound cake when your mother dies will burn up the phone lines when your son wrecks your car in the front yard (presumably he was drinking). The same connections that carry consolation and comfort bring backbiting and meanness.
Small town connections can also breed parochialism, an attitude of suspicion toward the new or the outsider. This attitude can refuse to accept or acknowledge those who are not “like us” or come from some other place. This suspicion can and often has slid into ugly prejudice or hatred. Some see community and family ties as absolute. You either are one of us or not. But such hatred is rare in my experience.
More often there is instead a deep reserve of caution. This wariness is a byproduct of living a connected life. The outsider does not know or feel the history of shared experience. He is not simply buying a house there, he’s buying into a part of that life. Living in a small town means being connected to its flow of collective life.
One does not jump into such a stream without a shocking jolt of cold water. It takes time to acclimate oneself to this river. One has to submerge oneself, drifting along for awhile before your system becomes adjusted. One adapts to the river’s temperature—not the other way around. The community molds the individual by including him in the story of the town.
Small town connectivity also ties one to a place and to the past. People are often born, grow up, marry, raise a family, work, retire and die all within the same few miles or even acres. Birth, childhood, family, place, memory and death are all tied tightly together. These few acres or miles are a part of daily experience. You drive by the place where you grew up every day. It is the same with the place where you went to school or played baseball or where your granddaddy used to work.
The past is not past in a small town. The past is experienced viscerally and concretely every day. It is a part of today as surely as the ground upon which one walks.
The locations where people grow up and marry and plant gardens and make hay and raise cattle and have families and retire and get sick and die are more than real estate. It is part of them. They are connected to it and it makes them more than individuals who just happen to live somewhere.
The sometimes fierce attachment to land can actually tear apart families and the fighting is not about money. An irrationality can take hold. Bonds can be broken over disputes measuring in feet and even inches of a surveyor’s rod. Such people are not fighting for dollars but for a piece of themselves. Identity is wrapped up in the place where they live, where they are from. The phrase “the old home place” carries a heavier weight than a zip code and appraised value.
Land and family inevitably bring one in contact with the past. The past lives here in ways that are inconceivable elsewhere. To go to the grocery store is to potentially encounter your entire past life and even ancestry: your grandmother, your first grade teacher, your girlfriend from high school, your cousin, your boss from years ago. When one lives in the place where one was raised and when that place is small and self contained, the past is its own character in the drama of life.
Indeed, memories are resurrected often and in many ways. The memories are also associated with place: a childhood accident there, your grandfather’s farm there, a marriage proposal there. All of it is just around the bend. People in small towns do not escape the past by moving to some other place. They confront it daily. They inhabit it.
They not only encounter a generic past but also the specific dead. One cannot live long in a place like Catawba, North Carolina and drive the same old streets and not mark the departed. That Setzer boy wrecked his motorcycle on that spot of the road and died there. Mrs. Sigmon moved in with her daughter in that house before she died. Old Mr. Smith owned that grocery. My mother is buried there just down from my place.
For those who have grown up here, the streets are crowded with ghosts, with reminders of those who are gone. They stare out at you from almost every house or vacant lot. Millions of Americans go to great lengths to escape the thought or remembrance of death. They surround themselves with young people like themselves, never go near a hospital or a funeral home. They scatter their remains and if there are graveyards holding their dead, they move far away and rarely visit.
But for the small town person, death is like the air you breathe. It surrounds you. You do not need to visit a cemetery to remember the dead; they go with you down every familiar street.
It is this sort of connectedness to place and people and the past that that makes small towns different. It is not an easy set of slogans that can be trumpeted by a political party or captured in a sound bite. It is the shape of the small town itself which has embedded itself in its people. That shape takes the form of a web that connects that person to a multitude of places and people and past experience. That web becomes the stuff of that person; it is his identity.
Such a way of being a person is slowly being worn away by the storm surge of generic commercial culture. The children feel less a part of the small town than their parents who are less connected than their parents. It is an inevitable process. Yet small towns are still here, struggling, battling tough economic. For those who live in such places, their shared past is still felt and passed on.
The stories are told. The visiting still goes on. The churches and groceries and service stations and post offices still function as gathering places. The connections are still being made.