My relationship status with my hometown reads: It’s complicated
I spent my entire childhood dreaming of the day I would leave my hometown behind forever. The day I would advance to the next level of life. I was convinced that out there whatever that was, was more. It was better. I was going to get away and I would never, ever look back.
My hometown is diverse only in that there are both Irish Catholics and German Catholics.
My hometown is so Catholic that the public schools did not serve meat in the cafeterias for the entire six weeks of Lent. None of us who were not Catholic ever thought to complain. It didn’t occur to us to protest. Dar Williams said it best when she sang “Way back where I come from we never mean to bother, we don’t like to make our passions other people’s concern.”
My hometown is so conservative that it’s actually managed to shove well-adjusted gay folk back into the closet and then parade them around as a “success stories.” So ignorant that I’ve heard the comment “there are no gay people here” more often than I can count. So blind that it sees no correlation between the strict abstinence only sex education/lack of access to birth control and the highest teen pregnancy rate in the state.
My hometown is a place where people are born and live and have children and die in the house their grandfather built with his own two hands across the street from the hospital where four generations of their family were born. Where the OB who delivered you is likely to be the same GYN who examines your cervix eighteen years later. Where you actually have to check on family history before going on a date, just to make sure you’re not 2nd cousins or something.
My hometown is everything I think is wrong with country.
Unlike Adele, my hometown has no glory in my eyes.
I claim no allegiance. I harbor no loyalty. I am mildly embarrassed to name it as my own.
But as much as I have tried to sever my ties with this place, I find myself back here again and again.
After college when I didn’t know what to do with my life…
after I left teaching when I didn’t know what to do with my life…
and now after finishing library school as I try to figure out what I’m doing with my life…
my hometown has cradled my fall. In a world where everything is a struggle and a fight, my hometown makes it easy to live here.
There are no new roads to learn, no cultural differences to assimilate, no networking web to unravel. I know where the Target is. Where the grocery stores are. Where the nearest pizza place lives. I know which roads to avoid as school’s getting out, and the shortcuts that get you across town. I know that the horns blaring at 1 am are the barges on the river and that the tornado sirens test on the first Tuesday of every month.
Many of the people I knew as a child, as a college graduate, as a young professional—are still here, in the same jobs, in the same roles. People who honestly, genuinely want to help me, to find me work, to find me housing. I’m one of them, you see, even though I’m really REALLY not.
It’s easy. It’s familiar. It’s even a tad nostalgic.
Because as much as this town has in so many ways remained frozen as the waves of change have crashed around it, it has not completely avoided the persistence of time to alter the things we once knew.
The theater that was more a home to me than my parents’ house, where I can chart my life by the shows I performed in has been remodeled, improved, and the dressing room wall that once bore all our signatures and messages to future thespians – a treasured rite of passage—is gone.
My high school has been remodeled so extensively that the last time I went inside, I got totally and completely lost.
The ballet studio moved. My coffee shop closed. A giant eyesore of a parking garage has gone up in the middle of downtown and a convention center now mars the once untamed river front where I had my first kiss—both of them.
And I have to wonder– if I care so little, if I hate this place so much then why am I bothered by the loss of my treasured memories? Why does the evidence that time here has continued marching on without me hit me in the solar plexus even though I do not for one second wish I had been here all along to see it?
Because while I was dreaming of leaving, of running away- I was making good memories too. I logged hours in the ballet studio while I learned to focus my mind and control my body, to enter a headspace that was only the now. I performed on a stage that has stood for 150 years where I met other people like me, though it took me a while to figure it out. I took tests, and read books in a school built without walls in the free loving age of the 1970s, then adapted for progressively regulated curriculums, where I learned from teachers who believed and encouraged my dreams and told me to do something to make the world more beautiful.
I grew up safe and privileged. I never went hungry. I never went cold. I didn’t worry about being mugged, or robbed (though crime certainly exists here). My parents knew my friend’s parents. I was always welcome for dinner. I had music lessons, and books to read. And while I always wanted things that I didn’t have, I had more than I ever gave credit to.
And when I put it that way, it doesn’t sound so bad. It doesn’t sound like anything to run desperately away from. But the instinct to flee here is just that—desperate, and I’m no longer certain of what I’m afraid.
Fear of failure? Fear of judgment? Fear of letting others down?
Or am I really afraid of letting myself down? Of judging myself against standards I set ten years, two careers and one identity ago? Of failing to live up to the dreams I dreamed as a child in the haunted tunnels below the opera house stage?
As I look for jobs, as I apply for them, as I look at suburbs, townships and cities, I wonder if they’re really that much different than here? They have high schools and community theaters. Local culture and regional quirk. They have liberals and conservatives; blacks and whites. They have churches, museums, and bars. I look at the lives I have spent a decade scorning, the ones who stayed, who manage the Panera or teach at the high school, and I realize that I have dear friends from college and beyond who manage stores, teach at high schools and tend to bars. The friends I support are not so different from the old classmates I judge. So what does that say about me? What exactly I’m I still running from?
Is it my past that I battle? Is it myself I fear disappointing? Is it the wide eyes of an 8 year old child who dreamed an impossible dream that keep me determined to prove that I’m better than that?
Better than what?
I don’t know.
Maybe I never will.