A small town story

I look and feel older than my years, and I’m pretty worn out now. Lately, I’ve been thinking back to my growing up years and looking at them in different ways. I wonder what got me to where I am now. Where did I change over time? Those are the kinds of questions in my mind.

I grew up in a small farming town. This summer, there has been a lot of controversy about a country song about small towns, and I want to disavow any link between this post and that song. Instead, my point is to reflect on the good and bad in my upbringing in a small town. That is the reality: there is good and there is bad in that experience.

Good things I recall include freedom to go anywhere and do anything without the worry of something or someone bad happening to you. We were, in many ways, free range kids. I especially enjoyed exploring the countryside and found many secret and special places I’d return to again and again over time and as seasons changed. I loved being outdoors. I am so thankful for that freedom, looking back, and the things it taught me. If there is one thing I regret about my own kids’ upbringing, it is that they mostly had no taste at all of what I experienced when I was their age.

By and large, it was a safe and peaceful time. We learned to swim at the community pool in a larger nearby town. We rode our bikes everywhere. We caught butterflies and other insects and learned how to mount them on a display board. We fished a lot and spent time building model airplanes, ships, etc., purchased at the local hardware store. We also built and launched model rockets. There was a lot of scope for imagination and a big part of fueling that was the local and nearby public libraries.

We had a good school system with teachers we generally admired and respected. Many of them were our neighbors. We rarely, if ever, locked our doors. I remember us going away for two weeks or more and coming home to an unlocked house and having no concerns about safety. It was also very common to leave our cars unlocked with keys in the ignition.

If this sounds idyllic, it is not meant that way. There was plenty of negative stuff as well, both in our family and in the community. Drugs and alcohol were certainly present; pornography, too. There was a lot of bullying and peer pressure in school. Looking back, I can see how homogeneous we were (white) and I regret not being exposed to and learning from diversity. I see now how privileged we were, too. There was and is a lot of poverty and suffering in small towns that seemed to be swept under the rug. I saw this firsthand when delivering newspapers.

Then there was the Christian fellowship I grew up in that in many ways has permanently warped my understanding of what it means to be a Jesus follower. It will always be a part of me, even though I want no part of it. I left that fellowship in my late 20s. I am grateful to have been raised in a Christian home and there were some other good things about the group I was part of. But overall, I have spent the past 25 years deconstructing that experience and reformulating my understanding of Christianity. It is still a work in progress. One of the things that I hold most strongly to is the notion that I not dwell on that past any more than is necessary and without bitterness. That, too, is a work in progress, especially since many of my extended family are still a part of that way of thinking and believing.

Growing up as the youngest in a large family, I remember thinking I wanted to never, ever leave home and that small town. But the reality turned out to be much different. I left after grad school for the big city and never looked back. To this day, I have no interest in moving back even though most of my extended family still live there. We occasionally visit them, of course. I have almost completely lost touch with people I grew up with.

In some ways, those occasional visits are a bit sad as that small town seems to have gradually changed for the worse over the decades. I will hold onto and appreciate the good memories and people I knew there, while recognizing that I don’t belong there. I am a different person and in a different place (in all senses).

This is how life goes. I am not against small towns but I am not defined by or confined to them. I’ve changed, too, hopefully for the better.

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