No Place to Hide
In a town this size, there is no place to hide. Everywhere you go, you meet someone you know. - From the song, In a Town This Size, by Kieran Kane
If you grew up in a small town, that lyric by Kieran Kane (who, according to Wikipedia was born in Queens, NY) will likely resonate with you, possibly in alternating recognition of comfort, and something just short of terror. Because life in a small town provides both aspects, the comfort of knowing that you’re never far from a helping hand, and, conversely, that everyone there knows your business. Small towns are proof that it’s a fine line between “looking after,” and “being nosey.”
I suppose whichever side you’re on is largely a matter of whether or not you live within the expectations of the community. If so, a small town can be a warm, encouraging, non-threatening place of refuge and support. If, however, one has other ideas about how to live or is even interested in exploring other ways of living, one is for the most part discouraged, even if subtly so. Perhaps this attitude is merely a sub-conscious, community-sustaining, evolutionary imperative. (If so, it's not sufficient.) I was always aware of a general lack of tolerance for ambition, or improving oneself, or educating oneself past where the majority of citizens had ended their education (which, in Elmo, was high school). I was liked by most, I suppose, and I was certainly tolerated, but I was also acutely aware that there was an aspect of my being that I would be wise to keep to myself, and that I was completely on my own if I was to figure out how to become what I wanted to become - an artist.
After I graduated from West Nodaway R-1 High School (in a graduating class of 32), I enrolled at the University of Missouri and spent an unsatisfying year and a half there. At the encouragement of my mother, I ended up reluctantly enrolling at Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville, and taking art classes. Maryville is a half hour away from Elmo and I was not particularly thrilled about being back so close to home, but the fact that I was learning what it meant to be an artist made the experience worthwhile. Three and a half years later, I had my BFA and then I left the small town, presumably forever. But the small town didn’t leave me.
I still respond to the kind of intimate and modest exchanges and kindnesses I witnessed growing up in Elmo. I still am most heartened by being given the benefit of the doubt in transactions (such as when the barista at my local coffee shop lets me slide when I’ve absentmindedly left my wallet at home). I still seek and love deals sealed with a firm handshake; being looked in the eye when spoken to; not expecting financial compensation for a kindness rendered. All of these are touchstones of my small town experiences and when they occur in my urban interactions, they take me back there. Thankfully, though, only in my mind and heart.