Saugatuck/Douglas Commercial Record

Life as Performance Art

By G.C. Stoppel
I read Mike Wilcox’s father’s reflections on small town life with delight.
I grew up in a city of some 30,000. After ordination I moved to a church in a hamlet of 92 people, with one gas station, one grocery store, the grain elevator and a county-chartered bank everyone called Bob’s Bank. The sign over the door had a picture of a sock and the logo, “Sock away your money with Bob.”
Now I live in a city of less than 1,000 people and have the fun of driving to the big city of Allegan to serve Good Shepherd Episcopal parish.
Many years ago as something of a gag gift, I gave my parents half-dozen guinea fowl. Mother’s first comment was they weren’t coming into the house; she had the same rule about all animals.
Father looked at them and me dubiously and seemed unimpressed with the gift.
After a couple weeks I dropped by to see The Olds and asked about the birds. This time there was a bright smile on his face. “I like them,” said Father. “They make good guard birds. They make enough racket to wake the dead. If anyone comes up the driveway, we know right away.”
It would be horrible to keep guinea fowl in town, even in a small one, because they are noisy. Even more so, as evangelistic preacher Charles Spurgeon observed, “A small town is a hive of glass where nothing goes unobserved.”
We might not catch someone across the street peeping out from their curtains, but we know they’re there. The English call them “Curtain Twitchers,” and it is not a term of endearment. Of course they know we know what’s going on in their lives.
To a certain extent I like that way of living. It means we all more or less keep an eye on each other — not because we are snooping or unduly curious, but because we care. We have a connection with each other.  
This time of year, for example, if we know if a neighbor’s not out of town on vacation but his driveway and walk aren’t shoveled, we pause and wonder, “Are they OK? Should I knock or call, or do they want to be left alone?”  
Those are the questions of people who live in small towns, not metropolitan areas. Most times, before we invite the local authorities to earn their keep by doing a wellness check, we’ll do it ourselves.
We don’t even have to look; listening works too. On a winter night a few years ago a fellow out for a walk heard a smoke detector alarm in a nearby house. When he found the right house and no one answered the door, he called 911. The police and fire department came, investigated, and determined there was no danger.
Later, the police called the owners who lived in another state most of the year and were new to small town life. They were surprised by the call and pleasantly astounded by the care of their neighbors.
Another benefit of small town life is the joy we feel seeing neighbors on the street and talking with them for a few minutes, or running across other people at the post office or checkout lane at a store. It’s the sharing of news, both good and bad, that binds a small town together. We have a wonderful newspaper, but it’s weekly. The human connection is our daily update.
People in small towns see a need and respond. City dwellers more often step around or pretend not to see a place where they can lend a hand. 
A classmate who served at a Lutheran church in rural Iowa wrote that she was surprised to see three or four men from another church in the kitchen, helping with the cleanup from a funeral reception at her church. When asked, one of the fellows said that their group does it all the time to help the host parish. 
“None of us are spring chickens anymore,” he went on, “so we just do it. Besides, the eats (leftovers) are pretty good. They always fix a plate for Jenks to take home so he doesn’t have to cook.”
Of course some of it isn’t so nice. Small towns can be hotbeds of tension — something we murder mystery writers find as a constant source for a plot line. 
It is the person constantly looking out their window, much to the annoyance of others. By the third chapter of the mystery, they are either the suspect or victim with a knife in their back. It’s the not-so-gentlemanly rivalry about who has the best tomatoes that almost casually leads into death by poisoning by weedkiller or herbicide. Grudges can last for generations, and it is all fun and games until someone puts poison in the elderberry wine.
The good news is if you get murdered in real life, it likely will be intentional, meaning we should give serious thought as to how we get along with others. It’s safer that way.
In reality, murders and great mysteries are rare in small towns. That’s because we’ve grown tolerant of one another’s foibles and eccentricities as long as they’re mostly legal and don’t interrupt our lives.
For example, if someone wants to learn how to play the medieval serpentine (you can look it up), as long as they don’t practice outdoors after midnight they’re welcome to have their fun.    
Perhaps most important, we share a geography and heritage. Newcomers may be watched carefully for a few generations just to be sure they fit in, but right from the day they move in they are invited to share in a common heritage.
Within a day or so, the newly-arrived will be invited to the community picnic, asked about joining a church or other organization and otherwise made to feel welcome. If they are retired, they’ll soon get an invitation to every group looking for volunteers.
It’s said people who live in big cities know pleasures because there are more cultural opportunities to visit museums, attend concerts or see stage performances. There’s a wider variety of stores and restaurants.
Those, however, who live in small towns know deep and long-lasting joy.

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