Life in a Northern Town

For this former small-town girl, rural renaissance is an oxymoron

| May / June 2005

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.