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To Be Placeless In Place

Matthew Lee Anderson likes his Mere Orthodoxy colleague Jake Meador’s take [1] on the value of life in small towns, but with a caveat [2]:

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.

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17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "To Be Placeless In Place"

#1 Comment By RadicalCenter On October 24, 2013 @ 4:48 pm

You drive me crazy, Rod, but you are a well-intentioned guy and have been through a lot. God Bless and good luck. Looking forward to arguing with you after your next book 😉

Also, my wife and I met in a small, very rural town in southeastern Colorado — near that famous Colorado / New Mexico / Kansas border — and I moved there for a time. I’m especially interested to see what you have to say further about small-town America, and we will be glad to offer our own impressions by blog or otherwise. Living there changed my life and my outlook. If I can ever find another good-paying job that lets me work online, we’d consider moving somewhere like that again….

#2 Comment By Mike W On October 24, 2013 @ 4:53 pm

My wife and I have gone through a similar series of traumas the past few years, including death, moving, job change, and so on. I left a fairly high profile/high stress job in the town we used to live in and I was doing quite a bit of speaking and performing in schools in support of my latest book. Anyway, a friend of mine recently asked me why he hadn’t heard much from me the past year or so and I said, “I’m trying to disappear.” That sounds bad, I know, but the strange thing is that I haven’t felt this good in a long, long time, so becoming a hermit, well, I understand the impulse.

#3 Comment By grumpy realist On October 24, 2013 @ 4:55 pm

The other very useful aspect of things like Facebook and email is that it allows a link to the outside world for people who are either shut-ins or people who are caretakers out in the middle of nowhere.

(One thing we really have to address is the absolute patchwork care system we have for our elderly. Up to now the traditional method has been to dump the problem of care on the unmarried daughter of the family. Which is pretty unfair if she has a career or other things she wants to do and there are other offspring.)

#4 Comment By Charles Cosimano On October 24, 2013 @ 5:10 pm

I know the feeling. Living among people with whom I have nothing in common except a zip code, life online is a lifeline.

[NFR: Well, in truth I *do* have more in common than a zip code, but I’m so worn down that it’s difficult to make myself get out of the house, even though I’d like to. — RD]

#5 Comment By R Hampton On October 24, 2013 @ 5:18 pm

This precisely why the Amish reject many forms of technology:

“The Amish do not consider technology evil in itself but they believe that technology, if left untamed, will undermine worthy traditions and accelerate assimilation into the surrounding society. Mass media technology in particular, they fear, would introduce foreign values into their culture. By bringing greater mobility, cars would pull the community apart, eroding local ties. Horse-and-buggy transportation keeps the community anchored in its local geographical base.”

[3]

#6 Comment By Karen On October 24, 2013 @ 6:48 pm

I’m an overeducated female INTJ (the Myers-Briggs type you are least likely to be if female) trying desperately to fit in with the other homeschooling moms in a small rural working class town so that my kids can have a social life. The hardest part is trying to soften my very dry sense of humour and tone down my vocabulary because I intimidate most of them without intending to. Sigh. I’m looking forward to resuming my life as a hermit when my kids get old enough to manage their own social schedule. Until then, I’m hanging on to my sanity by my fingernails. I think it was Jonathon Rauch who wrote an essay about introverts with the insight that it is a special kind of hell to be a female introvert and that is even more true in a small town setting.

#7 Comment By known as 332 On October 24, 2013 @ 7:04 pm

Although slightly ancillary to the topic and related to an earlier one…your wife’s facebook use is similar to my linkedin use. It facilitates meeting people in person for job hunting. However, I don’t do Facebook – don’t need it.

#8 Comment By Sam M On October 24, 2013 @ 7:08 pm

But what value is it to live in and report from a place that doesn’t really exist? I’m on Facebook. I’m also president of the Heritage Council, I serve on the school advisory board and I’m running for borough council. The internet is part of all of that.

You are proposing something similar to what Alan Tate did, moving to a farm and acting like an agrarian from 50 years earlier.

You need to write about small town life as it is. Not as you wish it was, or what you suspect it might have like way back when.

Writing about an internet-less rural America seems like writing about Paris like Hemingway was still there. He’s not.

[NFR: You’re missing the point, which is that if you live in a place but spend most of your time on the Internet, or inside, you really aren’t living there. In fairness to myself, if I lived in a big city, I’d probably be hermitting right now too. — RD]

#9 Comment By Sam M On October 24, 2013 @ 8:10 pm

“You’re missing the point, which is that if you live in a place but spend most of your time on the Internet, or inside, you really aren’t living there. ”

I get that. But if that’s what small town living is actually like, that’s how it should be lived and reported.

I don’t want writers to forego the temptations of universalism if the temptation of universalism are things people in these communities face.

That’s cheating.

#10 Comment By Aroldis Votto On October 24, 2013 @ 9:43 pm

Hooray for your next book project! I look forward to buying and reading. How real writers manage I’ll never know. I teach in a college and greatly enjoyed every single aspect of writing three books, which over the last six years have collectively earned us…about half of a biweekly paycheck. So to those who really live off their writing, like you Rod, much admiration.

#11 Comment By naturalmom On October 24, 2013 @ 10:18 pm

Your wife’s discovery is why I may take a fast from FB now and then, but would not consider leaving it. Yes, I need to do a better job disciplining my time spent there, but just today I had the following two experiences through Facebook:

1) Had a great interchange with a number of other moms about your recent post, “Who Needs Higher Math?”

2) Found out a friend – another homeschooling mom – had a birthday today. (She’s a newish friend and I didn’t know her birthday.) I offered to bring her something from the coffee shop later in the day. I did so, and we had a great chat (face-to-face) for about an hour.

And shout-outs for help with random things happen every single day among my circle of friends. 90% of the time, the need is met in very short order. It’s an amazing tool for connection, for friends far *and* near.

#12 Comment By naturalmom On October 24, 2013 @ 10:25 pm

I want to add one more thing. There are a lot of reasons to hate Facebook, but I submit that disconnecting people from their small towns is not one of them. On the contrary, I am so much more connected with what is going on in our town than my husband is, who has a FB account, but doesn’t use it. I get posts about local happenings, how the football team did, invites to community events (some of which I attend), notices of new businesses opening, etc., etc. That doesn’t even include personal updates about my local friends, like the one about my birthday friend, or personal updates I share about myself that my local friends can respond to. Without Facebook, I would miss a lot more of what’s going on in my town, and my circle of acquaintances in town would be smaller.

[NFR: I would say that’s absolutely true in our house. She was a late adopter to FB, so the people who are her “friends” are her actual friends. I’ve got thousands of “friends,” and so don’t often check FB because 95 percent of what I see on my feed comes from people I don’t know. For my wife, it’s a useful tool that helps her be more engaged in the community and its events. I heard her telling someone in the coffee shop here the other day, “This whole town runs on Facebook” — by which she meant if you are a mom, you had better be on FB, or you’ll miss 90 percent of what’s happening. — RD]

#13 Comment By CharleyCarp On October 25, 2013 @ 1:46 am

Rod, you should hide everyone in your feed that you don’t actually care about. Then, wonder of wonders, all the posts will be about people you do care about.

#14 Comment By JonF On October 25, 2013 @ 6:04 am

Assuming we work indoors, don’t most of us spend the bulk of our time inside, internet or no internet?

#15 Comment By Sam M On October 25, 2013 @ 10:58 am

BTW, this is not just true of the Internet. People hide in books. They hide in bottles. They hide in sports and television and knitting. I fail to see how the Internet is uniquely bad in this regard. I guess the smart phone brings these hiding places public in a new way. But not really. I see people reading books and magazines in cafes and at soccer games. Should they not do that?

Seems to me like people are just extremely anxious about such things. For instance, the new criticism is that parents at the playground have their noses buried in the cell phones and don’t engage like they used to. But wait. The other criticism I hear is that these helicopter parents never used to accompany their kids to the playground at all. If that’s true, they were never at the playground engaging in the first place, right? So which is it?

Life is hard. Community is hard. Rather than accepting that, it seems like we are all seeking to blame some newfangled development for the difficulties we face. If only X hadn’t been developed, this would be easy and all my neighbors would be awesome and easy to engage.

Not really. It’s just hard work. And it always was.

#16 Comment By mrscracker On October 25, 2013 @ 12:18 pm

Do you get outside much? I know sunlight & fresh air can boost the immune system.It will sound weird,but old folk wisdom suggests going barefoot to be helpful.Something about contact with the ground/earth’s magnetism,etc.
I used to raise rabbits for meat & to show at the fair.An older rabbit raiser said a sick bunny’s cage should always be placed on the ground where it would have contact with the earth.Maybe there’s something to it.

#17 Comment By Sam M On October 26, 2013 @ 7:14 am

PS: “We may be given the time to “slowly, quietly live out the answers to the most important questions””

THat’s never what small-town living was like. if anything, it was the opposite. You never, ever get away from “it.” In the city, you can go to the grocery store and see hundreds of people who mean nothing to you. At my grocery store, I see the guy I am running against for borough council, the wife of some guy I fired last year, my aunt, my uncle, my sister, a former girlfriend, my kid’s teacher, etc. Each one requires you to put on a different face. At there very least, you have to say hello more carefully. Some want to talk. There’s some dude across the aisle you want to talk to, but you can tell he’s ducking you.

When was this slow and quiet time? If that’s what you think small towns are really about, you shouldn’t move to one because you will be really disappointed.