Stretched at the Seams

I’m living in a small, rural town again. It may have a university campus smack dab in the middle of it, but face it: Natchitoches, Lousiana is not a center of urban sprawl.

I’ve lived in small rural towns before. Hell, I spent 2nd through 8th grade 15 miles outside of one with a population of less than 8,000 (and even had the audacity, at 36, to move back). I like living in the middle of nowhere, geography-wise, and privacy-wise. But I have to tell you, if I were using either John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Small Town” and Jason Aldean’s “Hick Town” to describe my experience, I’d be a stone-cold liar — although there is a grain of truth in both of these paeans to Smallville. Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” is a lot closer to my truth. Closer even than Springsteen’s “Nebraska”. Maybe country living has changed, though. I said the other day that Aldean’s song seemed to be missing anything about putting M-80’s in mailboxes and tipping cows. And it certainly doesn’t speak to my experience with tractor training, 4H and FFA.

I guess the difference is living outside a small town, versus living in it. There was always a big difference between the country kids (like me) and the townies. Inside the city limits, any borough can seem confining, structured, staid, stilted, stuffy … a place where young people feel limited by the expectations placed on them by their elders and peers. On the farm, I never really had too much time for that kind of contemplation — there were chores, long bus rides, acres and barns to explore, fish to catch.

Of course, a lot of people I know who are from small towns have never set foot more than 50 miles from where they were born. And often, that natural insulation (and isolation) from the rest of the world is cemented and augmented by the institutions in which so many of us are indoctrinated from birth — churches, schools, social clubs. A lot of folks, in that kind of environment, do grow up to be on the outside just like their parents, just like their neighbors. Some of ’em are happy doing it. Many, though, it seems to me, are only happy on the outside. You can tell it in the way they talk about the government. Or foreigners. Or even just people from the next town over.

But I reckon it’s not just a small town thing. It’s a people thing. You either take responsibility for your own life, and get busy living it, or you are, quite bluntly, just killing time waiting to die. Most folks choose the former, and become wonderful parents, friends, spouses, lovers and business partners. But a few seem resigned to, and even rejoice in, their unhappiness — they say, “what this town (or country, or world) really needs is a …” and wonder why somebody else hasn’t done it. They’re starving for change, for growth, for individuality and a life outside the box, and simply don’t feel it’s their place to change, grow or step outside the establishment’s door. Granted, there are repercussions for those brave souls who do challenge the status quo, even in the smallest of ways. You do get talked about behind your back. You will get worse service at the grocery store. You may not get a decent table at restaurants. You may even have bricks thrown through your window, or crosses burnt on your lawn. You certainly will be going to Hell, one way or another — at least that will be the consensus of opinion, even among your own relatives.

Country or city, it seems like the most frequent thing you hear is “don’t get above the roots of your raisin’.” That’s like getting too big for your britches, I guess. But it seems to me that if all a plant ever has is roots, if it never breaks the soil and stretches out for the sun and makes, heaven forbid, a statement of its own potential — and that potential may be as a fruit, nut or vegetable (LOL) — then no matter how good the roots are, they haven’t done their job. They’re the foundation, and the source of nourishment and balance, but they are NOT the end product. Each vine and branch have their own path to follow, their own song to sing.

All that being said, I wouldn’t trade small rural town living for the metropolis. I’ve seen enough of big cities (on both coasts and in foreign countries) to know that urban existence is not natural. It leads to thinking that oranges come from trucks, and funds studies to prove that mother’s milk is the best food for infants, or that cheese is the best bait for a mousetrap. It creates country music that doesn’t have a damn thing to do with the flyover land between the Holland Tunnel and the San Andreas fault. It’s proud that only 5% of its population has to actually touch dirt for a living.

The friends that I’ve made in small towns are closer friends than those I’ve made in the city. Sometimes I wonder about their ambitions to get out to the “big town”, though. I don’t fault them for that dream, but have to filter it through my own experience. It ain’t what it’s cracked up to be.

I’d rather be a big fish in a small pond, than a wee little minnow in the ocean that is big city living. Give me the limitations of small town reality over the lunatic fantasy of the big city any day. I know ya’ll ain’t gonna believe me, if ya haven’t lived it yourself, but life under the Hollywood sign ain’t all that and a bag of chips.

Peace, ya’ll.

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