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Wouldn’t it be great to live in an affordable home with a huge backyard and with sweeping views of a pristine valley in which deer graze at sunset? When you’re exhausted at the end of the day from work, doesn’t it sound ideal to avoid the traffic of your lengthy commute and instead walk up the hill to your cozy home? Do you dream of falling asleep to the coyote’s call and waking to bird song? Especially now that remote work is more acceptable and logistically easier to do, moving to a small town makes sense.
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I love small towns. When on a road trip, I really enjoy pulling off the highway and exploring prairie towns. I search for churches, cemeteries, local museums, and history. I am rarely disappointed by what I find. As I drive the quiet streets beneath spreading tree branches and admire the spacious residential lots, I can’t understand why people want to live in increasingly populated areas. Especially during this time of the coronavirus pandemic, we think differently about the perils of being crammed together and we consider the perks of fresh air, a big backyard, and a vegetable garden.
I do understand that it’s more convenient for financial institutions, large retailers, and government to have the residents of our vast land centralized and clustered together. This way, all three can streamline (cut) the services they provide and still have us clients, customers, and taxpayers nicely within reach. Density benefits those who provide goods and services because it’s less convenient and more expensive to provide services to a scattered population. Services are often retracted to discourage people from living in rural areas and conducting business there. Our Credit Union has cut its five-day-a-week service down to two days in the hopes it can Servus better by fading away.
A Common Criticism of Small Towns
Small towns are criticized because of their intimacy. “Everyone knows what everyone else is doing.” In these days of increasing isolation, that can still be true but it’s not always a negative. It’s reassuring to know that if you get sick, your neighbours will help you out. People shovel each other’s walks in a small town and keep an eye on one another’s property while one household is away. So, yes, when someone drives by on a skidoo or with a wagon pulled by a matching team of horses, I’ll look and wave and maybe even take a picture. That’s small towns for you.
Other criticisms, valid ones, include the difficulties between people, the gossip, and the resistance to change found in small communities. But isn’t this the nature of human relationships no matter where we live and no matter the size of our community? Aren’t all interactions subject to misunderstandings and pettiness, and can’t they all (ideally) be repaired by patience and forgiveness? Change is hard and gossip is toxic. These facts remain the same whether you live in a city or in a village. The only way to avoid cruel deeds and words, our own and others’, is by living high up in the mountains in a cave alone. Some days, that does seem like an appealing option but it’s no way to build community.
In small towns, we’re more familiar with one another and so the stories are closer to us and our families, and sometimes they directly involve us. Human relationships unfold and unravel everywhere in the world, but in a small town we have a front row seat to this constant evolution. It isn’t always pleasant but it’s not often dull.
The Best Stories Come Out of Small Towns
It’s that close up, in-your-face human drama that makes many writers set their stories in small towns. Big events happen in large cities and everyone watches, but in a small town everyone is a part of most events because we know the people involved or we are the people involved. Authors weave stories about the people in small towns and create characters from the relationships formed within the context of smaller places.
I think of the 2004 Leacock Medal for Humour Award Winner, Ian Ferguson’s semi-autobiographical book Village of the Small Houses, set in the remote northern Alberta community of Fort Vermilion. Only this place and the set of circumstances it provided could give rise to these stories. Luckily, this gifted and funny storyteller was born and raised there to write the tales down.
Another great storyteller uses the small Minnesota town setting of fictional Lake Wobegon and its characters around which he has woven several novels. You see, it’s the soil of those close personal interactions within a small group of people who know each other well and know their surroundings into which writers plant their story seeds. The stories are dependent on a small town back drop and small town characters to come to life. These tales depend on closeness and relationships, and on Garrison Keillor to present as hysterical that which small town residents find, at best, annoying.
As a writer – and here I do not compare my skills to those of Mr. Ferguson or Mr. Keillor – I write stories set in small towns and about small town history. Little places on the prairies are stuffed to bursting with stories. There’s murder, suicide, betrayal, sorrow, and lust. Think of that next time you’re gliding down the highway. Depress that brake pedal and swing into that small town. Who knows? You might decide to never leave.
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I was talking to a friend the other day on the phone. He told me, “I’m driving into the city when we’re off the phone to get a steak sandwich.”
“I thought you mentioned that the pub there in town had really good steak sandwiches,” I responded.
He answered, “They do but their sandwiches cost too much.”
Just prior to this part of the conversation, he’d shared with me that his pickup truck is a real gas-guzzler and that he was exhausted from that day’s work. Call me lazy and cheap, but I’d rather have my expensive steak sandwich in town and save my gas money and my time.
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So often it’s habitual to hop in our vehicles and drive to a larger centre a couple hours away to search for what we want to buy. I agree that a shopping adventure is also fun. Unlike in the old days, our roads are smooth and wide, and our vehicles are reliable. Heck, you hardly even see anyone broken down at the roadside or anyone fixing a flat tire. It’s convenient and entertaining to travel far to shop. And it’s one of the many factors killing our small communities.
A small thing but great to finally find for sale locally
This is just a small thing, but I had been looking all over for this item. When I’m invited out to dinner at someone’s home or when I attend an event to which I bring a dessert, it’s always best to bring the food in a container that I don’t need returned to me. Apparently these 8X8 inch aluminum pans can be tough to find. I searched all over cities and box stores for these but with no luck.
Then one day we were shopping locally for something else we needed. I’d pretty much given up on ever finding the pans when, as I was wandering the aisles, I saw them sitting on the shelf, a shining beacon of portable-baking optimism. My heart leapt with joy when I spotted them and then it leapt again when I realized that each square foil pan had its own plastic lid. It was better than I could’ve hoped for.
A larger item and awesome to find it on sale locally
This year we needed to replace one rain barrel because someone didn’t drain the old one in the fall and it split right open. (That someone was me.) We had our collective eye on a barrel from a large retailer, but the rain barrel was never in stock whenever we happened by one of the chain’s stores.
Once again, we were shopping for something else locally when we stumbled upon the exact same rain barrel conveniently close to home and a whopping 35% off the original price! It’s now sitting in our garage until the earth thaws and the spring rains fall. And next autumn, someone will drain it properly.
A big-ticket item that I usually wouldn’t buy except that it was on sale locally
This past summer, we got a new covered deck built. It’s a comfortable outside space that made me consider for the first time in my life sinking money into decent patio furniture. I didn’t want anything too big, nothing that I considered too extravagant. Initially I thought that the best place to find good quality furniture would be online. So I scoured the retail sites, clicking on outdoor furniture tabs and hoping that what I had in mind would pop up. All the furniture was too expensive, too cheaply made, or not available for delivery to our relatively remote area.
I was out and about shopping locally this fall and I saw a sale price on a patio-furniture set that I would’ve not usually considered buying because it was so big and so beautiful. It was much more than I thought I’d ever need. Heck, it was nicer than most of the indoor furniture I’ve ever owned. But the price and the proximity to home made it irresistible.
The sales staff came out and loaded that furniture into our van, placing each section and each cushion like interlocking puzzle pieces and, amazingly, the whole thing fit!
Years ago, we were in a box store parking lot in the city removing the table and bench we’d just purchased from its cardboard boxes so that it would fit in our hatchback. No one offered to help us get our purchase to our car let alone to load it.
When I shop here in town, the store owners take the water jugs I buy out to my car for me. If I’ve got several bags of groceries, they take those out, too. They thank me sincerely for shopping at our local store because, to them, my patronage makes a big difference.
Yes, I could drive to the city for a cheaper carton of milk and a steak sandwich, but I’d rather save my money and my time and buy locally while I still can.
Thanks for reading and listening today. It was nice to have you here with me. If you’re not already following me here on WordPress or through email, please consider it. That way, you’ll never miss a post. Take care. ~ Lori
This photo blog is lovely, but it is also a cop-out. This is me still avoiding writing about Anthony Bourdain’s suicide that took place on June 8th in a hotel room in France. Many of the pieces I’ve read about the incident state that Bourdain was staying in a “luxury” hotel, as if it’s impossible for dark despair and self-loathing to seep through luxurious walls. As if wealth and fame can prevent cruel suicide by hanging. They can’t. Of course they can’t.
Hear me read this post:
I’m dodging chronicling a suicide that somehow touched me a little personally. For now, I’m avoiding putting on paper words that can’t come close to describing the depths of hopelessness that cause suicide. I’ve visited some of these deep, desolate places, and I suppose that in reality, I’m avoiding my own pain. I’m avoiding telling what Mr. Bourdain’s story reveals about my own story.
So this sunny Friday morning, I’m writing about the riotous birdsong that woke me at 4:30. Instead of cursing it, I rolled out of bed, pulled on my yoga pants and a sweatshirt, and I grabbed my camera and headed out the backdoor. During the summer, time lets me do that.
It was just dark enough still for the light mounted on the garage to detect my movement and flood the backyard with light. It was dark enough for the decorative solar lights in the garden to still be glowing.
No wonder the racket woke me up. The birds were going crazy! Groups of four to six magpies flew by low and directly ahead of me, squawking and zig-zagging, still drunk from last night’s party and making their crooked way home. Wrens were singing songs sweet enough to make love by, and sparrows were tweeting to friends and neighbours today’s local gossip.
The train’s whistle, the steady creaking of its cars, and the thrum of its wheels, steel on steel, joined me as I walked up the hill. Already the weather warned me about the daytime heat to come. I wore two shirts on this adventure. I could’ve comfortably worn one.
When I got home, the itching notified me that an early-rising mosquito had bitten my rearend, sneaky little insect. I didn’t see any bugs out this morning, and yet somehow a mosquito found me. Truthfully, mosquitoes always bite my butt when I wear my yoga pants out walking. Note to self: Don’t wear yoga pants when going for a walk.
I crawled back into bed feeling sleepy and satisfied. I’m sorry that Anthony Bourdain will never again have to worry about a mosquito biting his butt in any region of the world. I’m sorry that he will never again wake at 4:30 a.m. to hear birdsong sweet enough to make love by.
Did you like what you read here? Consider following my blog either right here on WordPress or through email. See the right sidebar to follow me. It’s easy and it’s free. This way, you won’t miss any of my posts. Thanks for reading! ~ Lori