Five years ago today my life changed when I left behind everything I had known for over twenty years to relocate across the state. I left my house, Dear One, my friends....all of it, behind. At the time I thought it was for five years or so. God had another plan that I was not aware of at the time. This was written in late November of 2002, about two months into my “new life” on the prairie, while I was still living in the tiny town where I first landed. I later moved to the "metropolis" of 14,000 or so where I am still happily residing. I thought I'd share this today...
On a gray day in October I loaded the cat and the last of my necessities into my aging Ford Escort and set off across the state for the beginning of what I have come to think of as my “great adventure.” I am a mid-life psychologist who came late to my career, and the driving force behind my move was to liberate myself from the crushing burden of my student loan debt by joining the National Health Service and practicing psychology in an under served rural area.
In addition to the lure of the other opportunities, I was propelled by a need for change, an opportunity to experience solitude and self-sufficiency in a way that my life, till now, had not supported.
On that cloudy afternoon, I completed the first step in my transformation from urban dweller to rural solitary. The three hour drive took me from a mid west urban metro area of over 500,000 souls to a tiny town of less than three hundred.
My town has a grain elevator, where most of the action is, a post office, a VFW, three churches and a convenience store that closes early. The day I arrived to pick up my key at the post office, the clerk’s first words to me were, “Oh you must be PO Box...” It’s hard to hide in a town of 270.
I have learned a few things since arriving. Allow more time to vote. The local folk will want to know who you are and why you are here and they will feel free to ask. There were direct questions as well as the craning over my shoulder to see my name and address in the book. Allow more time to pick up mail, too, especially on Saturdays when there is time to converse and ask the burning questions, “Who are you, where do you live, where you from and why did you move here?” I have heard about the lawn ornament thefts, the drug problem and the joys of retirement at the post office. And I would guess that about half the populace knows that I moved from the City, I live in the apartments and I work at the mental health center. There is no need to ask “which” of any of these.
Despite the simple categorization, don’t assume that small means close when it comes to neighbors. I live in the only apartments in town, a cute little mini-complex of twelve units. I have been here two months and I have yet to meet a neighbor. For that matter, I have barely seen a neighbor. The trash in the dumpster waxes and wanes, cars move from their spots; one Friday night there were clothes in the dryer in the laundry room. Other than that, I could be living all alone here. Once in awhile a door slams in the night or a shower runs loud enough to penetrate my walls. And it is not just the apartments, the town has an emptiness about it, too. I have seen the folks at the polls on election day, met a few at the post office and the c-store, but there are few souls on the streets. Despite a school, I think no children live here. It is solitude at its most basic. From Friday at the close of work till Sunday morning church I can easily keep silence.
There is a feeling of spaciousness that accompanies this isolation that makes it both easier and harder to bear. Somehow it seems right that in all this space, in the presence of all this sky, people too should not be encroaching on each other. At the same time, all the mythology of rural life, at least as it is passed to the urban beings, tells us that we in the country are friendlier, calling on each other with casseroles and brownies while minding each others’ business. For the transplant in the apartments, this has not been the case.
All in all I like this country life. I like the size of the sky, the scale of a land that goes on and on to the far horizon. There is a saying out here. I have head it a number of times, always in the same words, told in the same cadence, “There’s a place out west of town, you go there you can see Montana.” I have been there and it’s true you can see a long way. Is it Montana? How would I know? I will have to trust the native wisdom on that!
Other myths are slowly but surely being destroyed as I come to know the undercurrent of life here on the prairie. Distance from population centers bears no connection to the problems people experience. Drugs, gangs, domestic violence, they are all here. Disenfranchised kids and disillusioned adults are as easy to find here as on the busiest urban street corner. Poverty is just as devastating, oppression as hard to bear. Racism is alive and well , and family values are no protection against family dysfunction. Poverty and the loss of a whole way of life takes its toll as do natural disasters.
There is a fine line here between solitude and loneliness for the urban transplant. There are days when I ask myself just what I was thinking not only to make this move, but to choose to live in a town that has fewer people than the number of employees in my former job. But there is a sweetness here, a pace of life that allows for connection. A trip to Wal-mart in the “real town” next door yields a conversation with the election judge about what one should carry in the trunk for bad weather. Lunch at the Perkins there includes an inquiry about “where have you been?” from the cashier at the convenience store next to my office where I go for morning coffee. A quick run to the grocery store provides a lead on the best early morning aerobics class at the Wellness Center and encouragement to show up at 6 a.m. When I sing in church, my voice is heard, and, even in this short stay, almost everywhere I go, there is a familiar face.
I like being able to see the sky. I like the darkness of the nights, the brilliance of stars with no competing light and the eerie compelling blue moonlight that draws me to the field across the road to watch it journey across the cold, clear sky. There is obvious geography in a small place. It is not covered over by concrete and buildings and the contours and changes of the earth are there to see. Every morning’s commute includes a sunrise, and the wind is a constant companion, not blocked by buildings. I feel closer to life here. Maybe it is the zeal of the newly converted, but there is something in me that responds to this place. Despite loneliness and growing pains and the lack of community. Even with missing home and friends and the familiar ease of twenty-four hour a day anything I want, there is a draw here for me, a sense of place, a sense, dare I say it...newcomer though I am...of home.