Allegan County News & Union Enterprise

Viewpoints: Life as Performance Art

     I read with sheer delight Mr. Wilcox’s editorial of the 30th of December about the joys and benefits of living in a small town. I couldn’t agree more.  I grew up in a city of about 30,000. After ordination I moved to a rural church in a hamlet of 92 people, with one gas station and 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 about a 1000 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 a dozen guinea fowl. Mother’s first comment was a reminder that they weren’t coming into the house; She had the same rule about all animals. Father looked at them dubiously and then me and did not seem very impressed with the gift. Whatever he was thinking, he kept to himself.
     A couple of weeks passed, and 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.  They make good guard birds. They make enough racket to wake the dead. If anyone comes up the driveway, we know it right away.”
    It would be horrible to keep guinea fowl in town, even in a small town, because they are noisy. Even more so, as the great evangelistic preacher, Charles Spurgeon once 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 just know, we really know, they are there. The English call them “Curtain Twitchers,” and it is not a term of endearment.  Of course, they know that we know what’s going on in their lives.
    To a certain extent, I like that way of living. It means we all 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 that if someone in our neighborhood is not off on a winter holiday, but we see their driveway and walk have not been shoveled, we pause and wonder. Are they okay?  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 was out for a walk and could hear a smoke detector alarm in a nearby house. Pinning down the right house wasn’t that easy, but when he located the sound 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 live in another state most of the year.  They were relatively new to small town life and surprised by the call.  They were also delightfully astounded at the care of their neighbors.
     It is far more than looking out for the neighbors that is a benefit of small-town life. It is also the joy seeing them on the street and talking for a few minutes or running across other people at the post office or a check-out 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 in our small towns, but they are weekly. The human connection is the daily update.
    People in small towns see a need and respond; more likely than not, in the metropolitan area they step around or pretend not to see a place where they can lend a hand.  A classmate who served at a Lutheran church in a small town in Iowa wrote that she was surprised to see three or four men from another church in the kitchen, helping with the clean-up from a funeral reception at her church.  When asked, one of the fellows said that their group does it all the time, just to help the host parish.  “None of us a spring chickens anymore, so we just do it.  Besides, the eats [left overs] are pretty good.  They always fix a plate for Jenks to take home, so he doesn’t have to cook.”
     Of course, there is more to it than that, and some of it isn’t so nice. Small towns can be a hotbed 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 weed killer or herbicide.  Grudges can last for several generations, and it is all fun and games until someone puts poison in the elderberry wine.
    The good news is that if you get murdered in real life, it is unlikely it will be a random act. It will be intentional, which means we ought to give some serious thought as to how we get along with others. It’s just safer that way.
    In reality, murders and great mysteries are rare in small town. That is because we have become tolerant of one another’s foibles and eccentricities if they are mostly legal and don’t interrupt another person’s life. For example, if someone wants to learn how to play the medieval serpentine (you can look it up), if they don’t practice outdoors after midnight, they’re welcome to have their fun.    
      Far more important, perhaps the most important part, is that we share a common 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 is said that people who live in larger metropolitan areas know pleasures because there are more cultural opportunities to visit museums, attend a concert, or see a stage performance. There is a wider variety of stores and restaurants.  Those, however, who live I small towns know deep and long-lasting joy.

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