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    Life in a Northern Town

    I’VE BEEN A CITY GIRL for many years, and I’ve gathered the
    necessary accoutrements to prove it: a small house in a rough
    neighborhood, an expensive clothes habit, even the ability to
    differentiate maki from nori. But like Gatsby, I’ve never quite
    believed that the clothes and the fancy food and the well-lighted
    delusions make me truly, deeply urbane.

    I was born and raised in small-town USA, a mythical place that
    makes weary urbanites weep with longing for simpler lives, but
    where — and I do not intend to break this to you gently — the
    reality does not resemble the romance.

    Of course, many small towns have a unique charm. Life unfurls
    slowly in rural America, and it can be intoxicatingly serene. In my
    Midwestern hamlet, I took for granted a back yard the size of a
    city block and a breathtaking proximity to wide-open spaces. Mine
    was a dying agricultural community, but it certainly was beautiful.
    To this day, nothing is more precious to me than the memory of
    rolling corn fields, sculpted by John Deere and summer rain, seen
    from the back of my dad’s motorcycle as we drifted down a country
    road, literally in the middle of nowhere.

    Whenever we took the highway into town, though, I derived a
    different sort of pleasure from reading the hand-painted sign that
    announced the existence of our lone, crumbling gas station:
    ‘Welcome to Bob’s Convince Store.’ The word convenience
    was shortened to convince for, apparently, your reading
    convenience.

    My little town had 716 people and two acceptable hobbies:
    alcoholism and snowmobiling (the most popular residents combined
    the two). I enjoyed reading and writing one-act plays, which I
    performed alone in my bedroom, and to my peers these pursuits made
    me ‘gay’ (which was, and still is, rural street slang for ‘lame’).
    I was in sixth grade when my mother, anxious about my preference
    for solitude, dragged me kicking and screaming to that evening’s
    high school basketball game with a single mandate: ‘Talk to some
    people.’ Talk to them about what? Polaris jackets? I went out for
    cheerleading and I joined the speech team. Neither fostered the
    close friendships I had hoped for.

    This is all to say that my childhood introduced me to the most
    exquisite loneliness I have known in my lifetime.

    Statistically, the rural Midwest of my youth is not much
    different than it is today. Some issues are worse than before —
    rampant alcohol abuse is now augmented by an explosive (sometimes
    literally) crystal methamphetamine problem. According to the
    Southern Indiana Drug Task Force, annual methamphetamine lab
    seizures in that state have skyrocketed from around 200 at the
    beginning of the decade to over 1,500 in 2004. Meanwhile, alcohol
    abuse in small Midwestern towns is keeping pace. The 2003 National
    Survey on Drug Use and Health showed that North Dakota leads the
    nation in binge drinking.

    Economic crises continue to run Midwestern farmers out of
    business, consolidate land holdings, eliminate jobs, and deplete
    rural populations. In February of this year, The New York
    Times
    noted that Iowa’s brain drain — the mass exodus of
    creative people who leave for lack of options — is second only to
    North Dakota’s.

    Very small towns also tend to be monocultural; mine, for
    instance, was older, whiter, and less educated than surrounding
    urban areas. Lack of diversity fostered intellectual stagnation,
    and insularity was a way of life. Education was not a top priority
    for young people in my town, and this put my peers and me in
    greater proximity to life’s more dubious offerings — drugs, teen
    pregnancy, continued poverty, and a lifetime’s worth of corduroy
    jumper dresses adorned with appliqu?d geese.

    I won’t pretend city life is without problems. It’s exhausting
    and loud, and in my neighborhood an active drug trade and related
    crimes keep me vigilant and always vaguely paranoid. But rural life
    is not all maple syrup festivals and corn dog eating contests,
    either. The vandal who preyed on my town’s already delapidated old
    buildings never got arrested (even though everyone knew who he was)
    because he was related to the town’s sole cop. Summers were
    charming until agricultural spray planes dumped synthetic
    pesticides indiscriminately on crops and people alike.

    For what it’s worth, I got a short-lived popularity boost when
    my stepdad’s ex-wife supplied an entire generation of high school
    graduates with cocaine. But for the most part, difference of any
    kind was not tolerated in my hometown. I came out in college —
    fulfilling my former classmates’ belief that I was gay — and when
    I returned home for my 10-year high school reunion, my then
    girlfriend and I were met with wide-eyed stares, polite distance,
    and absolutely no questions about our relationship or our life
    together.

    I know progressive small towns exist and that it’s possible to
    create a renaissance community of like-minded citizens. But it’s as
    rare as it must be intentional. Keeping a small town thriving is a
    full-time job for all its residents. And moving to the wrong small
    town, even if you’re buoyed by the spirit of bringing education and
    change, is a risk: Small-town dwellers, set in their ways, distrust
    missionaries most of all.

    Laine Bergeson, pictured, is assistant editor of
    Utne.

    Published on May 1, 2005

    UTNE

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