Friday, March 23, 2007

Recalling A Small Town

About a decade ago, two sociologists studied the Illinois town I grew up in. They looked at their data, then pronounced the community one of the 50 most stable small towns in America.

Stable.

Growing up, I hated that stability. It meant only the seasons changed. Everything else stayed the same.

In that town, you had to put change under a microscope to see it. Folks would talk about a new car --- their own or someone else's new car --- for weeks on end. There was no point in talking about anything else, because nothing else had changed.

By the time I left my home town for college, I had come to hate even the very word "stable".

Perhaps the worse thing to never change in a small community can neither be seen, nor heard, nor smelled, nor touched. That's your reputation.

You get a reputation early on in life before you even know you have one. It's spread by gossip, and the gossip proceeds you. Even when someone in the town doesn't know you, the odds are excellent they know of you.

Some will say reputations can and do change in a small town, but that's not entirely true. The fact is, they can be added to, but not subtracted from. Once a thing is known about you, it sticks to you.

It is sheer irony reputations are intangible. Ironic, because a reputation has a discernable, almost physical, impact on how people treat you. Many folks can stand face to face with you, yet look right beyond you and see only your reputation. Maybe you're being nice to them, but if they've heard you're sarcastic at times with others, they will be on the look out for a twist in every word you say --- then they think they hear clearly what you didn't mean at all.

Because reputations are almost tangible in a small town, so are memories. Even if you've forgotten something about yourself, others won't have. There's always someone who remembers what you said in second grade, and someone else who remembers who you played with in third, so that, were you to gather together 50 people from the town, you could fairly well reconstruct a man's whole life in the town.

A wise man once said, "We have so many memories to forget before we can know who we really are." In some ways, it is almost impossible in a small town to know who you really are. That's because it is almost impossible to think of yourself apart from the town's memories of you. You become confused, and think your memories of you are you. When you try to think of yourself, you so often end up merely comparing yourself to your reputation and pointlessly arguing with it. "Am I really who Sue thinks I am?"

I couldn't stand the memories of myself. Neither my own nor anyone else's memories of me. Instead, I wanted to become myself, so I left town.

5 comments:

Mystic Wing said...

Pity that so many small town are ruined for us this way. My home town was a beautiful little river town of 12,000 people, but still there is a feeling of oppression when I return there.

That's why we leave, isn't it?

Paul said...

Yes, I think that's why so many of us leave, Mystic.

Sometimes, I think living in a small town after high school must be a lot like Springstein's "Glory Days" -- or Cougar's "Jackie and Diane". The past, especially the four years you spent in high school, defines you, your life, and it's worth.

eolake said...

Well, I was a "nice boy", so that was not my problem. My problem was a lack of cultural influx and diversity. Once the local library is raided, what's left?

Today I can stand living in a smallish town, but this is after the event of the Web.

One sister of mine stayed, and she apparently thrives in the small local culture. My two older siblings and myself all left as soon as school was out.

Paul said...

Eolake, that's a good point about the Web. It can bring the world to us. I'm not sure what I'd do without it anymore.

My two brothers travel back to our home town on a regular basis. I guess they don't feel the same oppresiveness I do, for like your sister, they seem to thrive in that small town environment.

Brendan said...

“I hate small towns because once you've seen the cannon in the park there's nothing else to do.”

-Lenny Bruce