Lake Wobegon is not Mayberry
Peter Lawler saw the film “Young Adults,” which has something to do with an unhappy small-town Minnesota woman unsuccessfully managing her re-entry into her small hometown, and says he agrees with John Presnall’s review of it. Writes Lawler:
The movie mocks the heck out of the pretension that “going home” can cure what’s being ailing you in the big city. And it turns out that small towns are pretty cruel and boring and not all that strong on love for the unfortunate and lonely. People there are satisfied with so little, in most cases, because they ARE so little. So the movie a good antidote to reading some touching article by Rod Dreher, although it goes without saying it exaggerates in the other direction.
Well, okay. But this remark, perhaps unintentionally, brings to mind something annoying that keeps coming up in online discussions of my return to my hometown. There seems to be among some readers an assumption that I have declared my hometown a Mayberry-like paradise, and that I am preaching homecoming to all small-town natives who left for the big city.
Er, no. And no.
What I learned over the past couple of years, watching my sister fight cancer with the help of the people of this town, is that there’s a lot more going on here than I thought — and a lot less going on in the big city than I thought, at least in terms of the life I lead. Let me unpack this.
The usual complaint about small towns is that they are cramped and confining, and everybody’s always in your business. They’re boring. They can be, yes, cruel. All of this is true. It is not the whole truth, not by a long shot, but it is a truth felt acutely by the kind of people who pick up and leave, looking for a bigger place, where they can thrive. These are the kinds of people who usually end up writing about their lives in small towns. In his book “The Lost City,” Alan Ehrenhalt observed that the kinds of people who actually love the close confines of community, and the ways of small towns (or close-knit neighborhoods) aren’t the kind of people who typically have a platform from which to proclaim their love of ordinary places. Our received opinion of small towns typically comes from those who left. For every Wendell Berry — a small-town writer who left, and returned, and became a champion of small towns — there must be 20 or more writers who hated it and wouldn’t move back if you put a gun to their heads. I get that. Small towns aren’t for everybody.
I did not learn that all the things I disliked about life in a small town were untruths. The bad part of what I experienced here growing up is still here. In meeting all kinds of new people, and becoming reacquainted with old friends after many years away, I’m hearing the same complaints I always did, the same complaints I made myself. It’s still here, and it’s still real. Once, in the taxi back to our place in Brooklyn after flying in from a holiday visit to St. Francisville, Julie and I laughed over all the scandalous stories we’d heard on that trip about who’s sleeping with whom, who had turned into a dipsomaniac, etc. “Sure are glad to be home in Brooklyn, where that stuff never happens,” I wisecracked, the point being that all this stuff happens around us all the time, but city life had enabled us to live in a bubble where we didn’t have to confront it. In a small town, you have to be living in a bubble to avoid seeing it.
Anyway, what I learned from Ruthie’s death is that you cannot have the incredibly beautiful and life-giving goodness that surrounded my sister during her sickness and in the aftermath of her death without accepting all the limitations and frustrations that come with small-town life. It is certainly true that you have more freedom, social and otherwise, in a big city, where you are at far more liberty to choose your friends, and to construct the kind of life that suits you. But that freedom comes with a price — and it’s a price you may not find much of a bargain, over time.
In my case, it wasn’t that I was unhappy with city life. Not at all! I’ve always enjoyed the life I’ve been able to build in the various cities in which I’ve lived. I found life to be friendly, pleasant, and enjoyable in most respects. Ruthie’s suffering and death changed my vision. It cast the things I rejected, and the things I’d come to love, in a new light — a light that made it possible for me to see my way home. By no means was it the case that I exchanged a fairly jaundiced view of small-town life for one minted by the Chamber of Commerce. (For example, I’ve already had my ears singed by stories of nasty local politics.) It’s only that the events surrounding the death of my sister compelled me to reconsider my own life, and my choices, in the light of what Eliot called the Permanent Things. And in so doing, I saw possibilities here that I wouldn’t have otherwise seen.
Not only possibilities for living, but possibilities for writing. The other night, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen since childhood. He works as a prison guard at Angola. Somehow we talked briefly about how strange it was not long ago for him and another childhood friend also working there to pat down the serial killer Derrick Todd Lee in his cell. Lee was another classmate of theirs. He also murdered at least eight women. He banged on the door of my sister’s place one night during his killing spree; the only reason he didn’t come through that door was because she had a gun, and she yelled that she was prepared to use it (when people make that threat around here, you’re wise to believe them). Once my young cousin heard a commotion downstairs at her family house, and came down to find Lee standing in their living room. Nobody knew he was a serial killer then. He was just a weirdo. Ruthie told me that had he shown up in daylight and asked to come in, she would have let him, because he was a nice guy she knew from school. Anyway, after that brief bar conversation, I’ve not been able to stop thinking about what it must be like to serve as the guards of a classmate who became a notorious serial killer. This is just one story from here, and a vivid one, to be sure. But there are so many human dramas playing out around here. I used to have impatient eyes. I used to think life was elsewhere. In fact, life is all around us, for those with eyes to see.
In my case, I had to leave, and leave for a long time, to have my eyes opened to what is here for me and my family, and what always was. It won’t do to replace one flawed vision with another. This is one reason I find Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon stories so interesting is that he manages to write with affection about the people in his fictional small town without sentimentalizing them (well, without overly sentimentalizing them), or ignoring their flaws and foibles. I find that people who denounce the “Mayberry” view of small towns (charming, folksy, etc.) tend to do so with some sort of agenda. Of course Mayberry is a lie! But who actually believes in Mayberry? Nobody who actually lives in a small town, unless they’re some sort of kook. If you read the comments under David Brooks’s NYT column about my return here, you’ll see a number of people trying to debunk the favorable portrait David painted of life in St. Francisville, often, it seems to me, to make a political point. Someone, either on that comments thread or on another blog entry, said David ignored the shocking truth in this story, which is the scandal that the townspeople felt compelled to hold a fundraiser to pay Ruthie’s medical expenses, and that this is why we need universal healthcare.
This is deeply annoying. Ruthie’s medical expenses were paid, entirely or mostly (I’m not sure which), by her health insurance. Doctors and hospitals aren’t the only entities that need paying, though. There was the matter of the maid Ruthie had to hire to clean her house, because she was too sick to do it on her own. After her diagnosis, Ruthie was too sick to work. She had retirement, but money was still tight. The cash raised by the townspeople gave her family a cushion, which relieved a huge emotional and psychological burden. Besides, people who loved her and her family just wanted to do something practical for them. It was a grace. They’ve done it for other very sick people around here. They’re doing it now for a young cancer patient. It is frustrating when people cannot observe and be grateful for an act of communal solidarity and kindness without imposing a political agenda on it. Private charity could never have paid Ruthie’s massive medical bills, and nobody is, or should be, claiming that it could. But even if Ruthie had had the finest medical insurance in the world, it still would have been important, on a moral level, for people to have done what they did for her and her family. Being there at the concert was one of the most meaningful things I’ve ever participated in, because I saw what love is. When Ruthie, whose head was bald and whose beautiful face was badly swollen from the chemotherapy, walked into the barn where the concert was about to get underway, and everybody — half the town was there — let up a full-throated cheer, I thought that this is how life is supposed to be. They loved her, and they were honoring her for her service to them, and for her friendship.
That night didn’t take away all the bad things about life here, any more than the heroism of firefighters and others in New York City on 9/11 — to use an extreme example — turned Gotham into the New Jerusalem. No one deed makes us saints forevermore, but deeds, especially in times of crisis, reveal character. The deeds of the townspeople here in response to Ruthie’s crisis revealed things I had forgotten, or never before seen. This changed me, and changed my life. It’s not too much to say it converted me. To use religious language, it didn’t make me an evangelizer for small-town life. But it did give me a perspective along the lines of what I read last night in “Anna Karenina,” in a luminous two chapters (26 and 27) describing the rejected suitor Levin’s return to his country house, and life, from Moscow. In those two short chapters, Tolstoy constructs an entire world. He brings to life the world of home that Levin had been given out in the country, and for which he was grateful. As Levin is riding the sledge back to his place, his disappointment in Moscow (Kitty had rejected his marriage proposal) mellowed in the light of home: “He felt that he was himself and did not wish to be anyone else. He only wished now to be better than he had been formerly.”
Just so. I want the same for myself. Besides, let me paraphrase Walker Percy: where would you prefer to be as a writer, stumbling around Greenwich Village, or sitting on your front porch in St. Francisville? There are saints and sinners in both places, and human dramas all around. It’s only a matter of what the writer can see in front of him, and what he can learn to love. Can you, as Auden says we must, learn to “love your crooked neighbor/With your crooked heart”?
It seems to me that we need fewer writers and storytellers who pick out the faults of small towns and small places, and more who can identify and explore the life-giving aspects of these places. But that’s just me. The reasons people leave are still there, and always will be. The reasons people like me come back are there as well. There is also a reason so many city friends, when they learned what I was going to do, said with sometimes-raw emotion that they wish they had a place like this to come back to. Not that they would necessarily do so, but that they wish it were an option. That option had been foreclosed on by the choices their peripatetic parents had made, or that they had made. There’s a story in that. It’s the story of our time, actually.
UPDATE: I just rediscovered this entry from October 24 on this blog. Excerpt:
One pal in another part of the US did say, “Aren’t you going to be lonely for someone to talk to?” — the idea being that in a town of 2,000 people, I would be a loner when it came to the sort of things he and I like to talk about. No, I told him, and gave him an answer that was better articulated whenWendell Berry explained it to an interviewer:
HB: Many people grow up in small towns and find great comfort in their natural and familial surroundings, but their thinking and ambitions aren’t rewarded there either by lack of jobs or lack of embracement of ideas—certainly, a misuse of the community’s resources. How can youngsters and young adults be encouraged to stay home and still be fulfilled?
WB: This question depends on what you mean by intellectual stimulation and whether or not you can get it from the available resources. It’s perfectly possible to live happily in a rural community with people who aren’t intellectual at all (as we use the term). It is possible to subscribe to newspapers and magazines that are intellectually challenging, to read books, to correspond with like-minded people in other places, to visit and be visited by people you admire for their intellectual and artistic attainments. It’s possible to be married to a spouse whose thoughts interest you. It’s possible to have intellectually stimulating conversations with your children. But I’ve had in my own life a lot of friends who were not literary or intellectual at all who were nevertheless intelligent, mentally alive and alert, full of wonderful stories, and whose company and conversation have been indispensable to me. I’ve spent many days in tobacco barns where I did not yearn for the conversation of the college faculty.
[Rod here:] I’ve spent many days in tobacco barns where I did not yearn for the conversation of the college faculty. Preach it, brother. A prejudice professional class urbanites and suburbanites have about small places: that because people aren’t interested in the same things they are, that they aren’t interesting, and have nothing to teach.
Anyway, I said to my interlocutor concerned about my putative lack of conversation with like-minded folks: when do I ever see my friends here? It’s like moving heaven and earth, just trying to get together for a simple meal. I live in a beautiful neighborhood, have wonderful friends, and yet, for some reason, I rarely see them. I’m not sure why this is, but it … is. I mentioned this frustration to a friend in DC, who said that this was his life as well — that he had to schedule simple get-togethers with friends far in advance.
I can’t believe anybody actually enjoys living this way. But I think if it were easy to change it, we would have done so by now. Right? Anyway, nobody lives this way back home. I had a good e-mail exchange the other day with a reader of this blog who trashed his Washington career and membership in the Ambitious Professional Class to move back to his hometown, and live poorer but happier. What he wrote was so smart and true that I forwarded it (with his permission) to an editor I know, saying that this sort of wisdom ought to be more widely disseminated. His basic point, though, was that so many professional types have it within their power to solve the problems of loneliness and atomization and displacement by moving back home – but the thought of abandoning all the consumer comforts of the big city (Thai restaurants, indie movie houses, etc.) and professional advancement is too frightening. So they slog along, homesick to death, but unable to take the cure.
(If that cure is open to them, I mean. We’ve had a surprising number of our friends say that they wish they had the chance to consider moving Home, but that their parents moved so many times that they have no place like St. Francisville to return to.)
UPDATE.2: Jeremy Beer, in a 2006 speech about the Brandywine Conservancy, a Pennsylvania preservationist group:
The conservers, preservers, savers, and protectors—conservatism once stood for such folks, and such folks were at one time conservatives. But they make bad apparatchiks. They aren’t ideologically motivated and aren’t “thinking big.” They are simply concerned, if often locally prominent, citizens. They may also be sentimental saps, but that’s understandable. As normally functioning human beings, they have formed dear attachments to their social and physical worlds. They like their communities, want to see them thrive and prosper, want to see them made or kept beautiful, want to preserve (or reinvigorate) their sense of their places as unique, and prefer to interact daily with people they know and love—or even hate.
Here is where Russell Kirk was truly exemplary. He ought to be remembered not as “the principal architect of the postwar conservative movement,” as the quasi-official adulation has it, but because he went home. There he restored an old house, planted trees, and became a justice of the peace; took a wife (and kept her) and had four children; wrote ghost stories about census-takers and other bureaucrats getting it in the neck; took in boat people and bums; and denounced every war in which the U.S. became involved—especially the first Gulf War, which he detested. And he also denounced abstractions because he knew they were drugs deployed to distract us from the infinitely more important work of the Brandywine Conservancies of the world.
If there is ever to be truth in our political labeling, we need conservatives who will go home, or at least make homes somewhere, conservatives who will abjure Washington and New York and pick up the struggle in their own burgs to help (re-)build real communities, work to conserve the land and its resources, and ally with their naturally like-minded brethren in order to revive—locally—the religious and historic traditions that might sustain us. In fact, those are the only conservatives we need.