Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Small town - open mind.

Having grown up in a very rural area of Michigan in the 1970s and 1980s, I fled for the West Coast at the age of 18, eager to join a world of riot grrls and grunge bands and people who use words like "paradigm" and "appropriation" in everyday vocabulary.  When I occasionally returned to mid-Michigan to visit family, it was like a slap in the face to hear racial and homophobic slurs cast around by the local residents, and to recognize how different the culture really was where I was raised from my new, chosen community.

But, in my early 30s, I found myself living well outside of any city limits, inextricably drawn to solitude and natural surroundings.  I spent the first 5 years out here deliberately avoiding any real interaction with the local community.  My social life was limited to the many friends I had made in Olympia and Seattle, and that was just fine.  I assumed that a small town on the West Coast would be just about the same as a small town anywhere else; i.e. full of right wing extremists, gun wielding libertarians, and people who hate anyone who doesn't look the same, eat the same foods, and practice the same religion.

When my daughter was 3, I enrolled her in a co-op preschool in Elma, only 6 miles from our house.  She attended for 2 hours, 2 days a week, and I was required to volunteer each month.  This put me in direct contact with other people living out here in the sticks, and I was terrified.  However, I was pleasantly surprised by many of the parents involved in the co-op.  I made friends with two of the moms, both amazing people with incredible talents and insights.  One of the dads was from Darfur, and had a story that was fascinating, tragic, and absolutely triumphant.

At the age of 5, my daughter entered kindergarten.  We enrolled her in the small, 3-room schoolhouse that was the original school for Grays Harbor County.  With only 50 students through 6th grade, it was pretty insulated, and that was a deliberate choice.  Anouk's kindergarten teacher had been a student at the school as a child, 55 years prior.  At the same time, I took a part-time job at a local building supply company, and forced myself to engage with a new section of the community.  Again, I met some lovely people, and I was impressed with the intelligence, kindness, and generosity of the people I met both at work, and at the school.  Granted, I'm a white, able-bodied person, and I may have had a different experience otherwise.  But, it was clear that this small community has a different atmosphere from the one near which I grew up.

Now, I have moved Anouk to the public elementary school where she attends 3rd grade.  It is still quite small, but it is innately connected to the town.  She loves to participate in local events, so we have found ourselves at football games, Santa greetings, craft fairs, Halloween parties, and more.  We see many familiar faces at all of these events, and I am pretty sure we are becoming familiar faces to the local people here.  The more I engage with this town, the more I'm impressed with the friendliness, intelligence, and work ethic that seems to be common among the people here.  I do not know who is "liberal" and who is "conservative" based on my conversations with people.  I've met folks rumored to be republican, only to find that we discuss issues of animal cruelty and sustainable agriculture, and these are shared values.  Sure, I've run into the mom who practically spits when she tells me someone gave her daughter a temporary tattoo (tattoos = evil) and the Variety Store owner once made a provocative comment about the phrase "Merry Christmas" vs. "Happy Holidays."  But, more often, I have heard people expound that everyone should be kind to each other, and I have seen local teenagers with t-shirts that say "Join the Inclusion Revolution."

I will say, on more recent visits to Michigan, people there have also changed.  I no longer hear my relatives use derogatory language, and my extended family is becoming incredibly ethnically diverse.  We are no longer Polish-Lithuanian.  We are now Polish-Lithuanian-Mexican-Japanese and then some.  I suspect the internet has changed small town mentality.  As a kid, when we visited other areas of the country, it felt like going into the future about 10 years.  Fashion statements like headbands, legwarmers and feather roach clips (for hair) were unheard of in my small school, along with social equality, feminism, and Howard Zinn.  The internet has granted everyone the same access to information everywhere, and it seems like a positive change.

The most surprising part of this experience has been the realization that, in larger cities, people seem more separated by their beliefs.  When I visit Olympia friends, we generally share political views, eating habits (with small variations), and lifestyle choices.  It is a given.  We do not intermingle with those who do not share our values, at least not on an intimate level.  Out here, I have not felt a sense of separation based on dogma.  There is a very good chance I am wrong, since I am still on the fringes.  I don't attend a church or work in town.  But, I do try to patronize local businesses as often as possible, and I chat with people, and I just don't get a sense of division.  In fact, people surprise me constantly with thoughtful, philosophical ponderings about having a positive attitude and trying to spread it around.

By assuming that small-town people were small-minded people, I was being the bigot.  And here I thought I was so enlightened.