To Be Placeless In Place
But then, if what Jake thinks small town life provides is an “antidote to the frantic pace of life that defines the city and deadens the soul,” then I suspect there are no such thing anymore–not with the internet, anyway, and the inescapable mental franticness that the distractions of Facebook and Twitter introduce. It is doubtlessly the case that for most people in small town, Facebook provides additional texture to their embedded lives, rather than having the sort of globalizing effect that it does for other people. Yet even so, using them on a smartphone–as nearly everyone these days does, it seems–invariably tears our attention in multiple directions. It is not the “hectic, hypermobile life of the city” that we need to be concerned about but the online equivalent, which introduces placelessness as a way of life into every community no matter what the size. We may be given the time to “slowly, quietly live out the answers to the most important questions” (a perhaps very gracious nod to a recent work of mine?). But few of us will take it.
That’s dead right. Your Working Boy is a great example of that. I live online, for the most part. It’s where I work, and where my head is. I probably have more in common in that way with you, reader, than I do with any random person in my own town. Isn’t that strange? It is exacerbated by my having become far more introverted in recent years, and with the sheer emotional exhaustion of events of the past three years, a time in which I a) quit my job, left my beloved church, and moved my family halfway across the country; b) lived through my sister’s struggle with cancer, and death; c) experienced a sudden collapse of the job I was hired to do, followed by a year of extreme uncertainty about my employment future; d) moved my family once again halfway across the country, this time to a hometown I’d left under painful circumstances almost 30 years earlier; and e) wrote a memoir about my sister’s death and our family’s life, in six months.
Yeah, I don’t get out much. I’m worn out, and physically ill besides. And if Anderson is right in this passage, I’m wasting an opportunity:
Let me put the point differently, then: if we all need small towns, then we need small town writers whose fundamental interests and concerns are those which describe and recount their places in ways that the rest of us can learn from. It is not enough to hand out Wendell Berry and consider the work of describing the interests of small-town life done, though Rod Dreher’s Little Way does this too, it seems. If there is something distinctively good there, some sort of formation that can occur anywhere but which might be especially concentrated in the way of life that is wholly integrated into a small community, then we need writers willing to forgo the temptations of universalism that the internet presents and take up their pen and describe the granular, frequently petty and occasionally heroic forms of life that make small-town life uniquely indispensable.
Something like that needs to be my next book. I’ve just made a deal to collaborate with a really interesting and talented actor for his memoir, and that will take up most of my non-TAC time over the next year (more details to come). After that, I hope that I will have settled down enough in my small town to actually live there instead of on the Internet. I have turned into a hermit, and that’s … just not me. I’m told by people who know this sort of thing that this is understandable, given all the emotional stress and trauma, coming in such a short period of time (it’s why I’m so dogged by mono, the rheumatologist predicts), so I’m not that worried about it in the long term.
I want to say something a bit counter to Anderson, though, about the placelessness of life online. My wife was a very late Facebook adopter, but finally got on it because she observed that so much everyday mom business in our town gets done on FB. She is routinely amazed by how great FB is in our town, for integrating moms more closely together. Just this week, she put out a call for help with a costume for Nora, and immediately several women went to work on it. Nora had a costume by day’s end, I think, and wore it today to a homeschool class. My wife loves how Facebook helps her to get closer to the women in our town. She uses it not as a substitute for community, but as an enhancement to community — and it’s a significant enhancement for my wife.