Future Cycle: Small Town Revival (of 24 : 4): The Town Itself

So someone asked me:

Do you really love Saint Smellins that much. I understand the finding beauty part. I love to read what you write. I have tried to love this place. I mean really tried for 15+ years.

I just hate it here.

I think I really mean hate.

Which question gave me pause.

I’d planned for this week a series of posts on region- and town-specific local food options . . .  ranging from wild caught salmon, farmer’s markets, organic co-ops  . . . to the food bank and community garden.

But instead of writing during my set-aside writing hours, I found myself riding my bike around town whenever I could, taking pictures, looking at things, talking to people, asking myself the same question.

Do I love the town as a town? as a home and refuge and peaceful abode? or as a philanthropic challenge? as a chance to exercise a gritty aesthetic?

Is this about real attachment and affection? or making the best of the unavoidable? or just stubborn contrariness?

Discovering what this town is, and imagining what it could be, has become my ongoing and increasing obsession.  But why?

I think because it frustrates me – like a sentence that won’t fall into the right rhythm – why this town isn’t what it could be.  It has so many of the right ingredients: a beautiful setting on the river, gorgeous forests all around, viable farmland — just to start off the list.  (Not to mention, interesting biking year round.)

It’s close to Portland, but not too close.  Not too far from the coast.  Close enough to be connected.  Far enough to have to stand in its own light.  I’ve become convinced this town could be the site of a successful new revival of old and almost lost community treasures.

I came to this town thinking I knew what I was choosing.  I did know, though there were some surprises.  When we first moved to Oregon we rented in an enclave of gentility just south of Portland.  A very lovely little enclave: woodsy, well-behaved, well-educated, monied.  We could have stayed there – there were a few houses in our range that looked like good options.

We could have moved into the bustling suburbs closer to Fritz’ work – a better choice for bike-commuting (if we had realized it), better shopping (if that had been important to us), better schools (which we considered and which was deeply important but we thought we could compensate for any lack in that department).

There was an itch we had to live some place “real,” among people from more than just one walk of life, from more than one career path.  Real people a little less protected from the real consequences of our economic and environmental choices.

We thought that  kind of awareness of real-world problems combined with adequate schools, a library card, room to run in open fields, and safe-enough biking roads would be the best place to raise our children.  Maybe we thought we could be more helpful here than there.  We told the realtor this or tried to, with half-formed ideas and sketchy wishes –

We’re looking for some place not so homogenized, not so crowded with identical twins. 

Not in the city, but close enough to come in regularly. 

Green fields around.  A big enough lot to grow a garden. 

Not a new house, but something with some character, you know?

A small town with a functional Main Street would be nice.  Not drowned out by urban sprawl. 

Some place that hasn’t forgotten who it is. 

Some place that fits into its setting instead of ignoring it — does that make sense?

There was a price to pay, a period of adjustment as I realized just what the value of (and the reason for) so many of those identi-copy amenities I’d so scorned in the vast suburban plains of my childhood.

I worried sometimes we’d made a terrible mistake.

That our children would never be successful now.  Because they couldn’t take orchestra in school.  Didn’t have the same computers or as innovative teachers.  Weren’t housed in such well-designed facilities.  Especially when the paper mill was still running and turned the air sour-slow and sulfurous I groaned at the back-brained whim that had made me raise my babies here.

And all the while, this town was changing me.  Making me question the whole idea of what success really is.  Gave me space to consider what sustainable success would look like –  what attainable felicity might be shaped like – not just for my children and for myself, not just for families just like mine, but for a town like this, one of many in a wide world I hope to someday see turned around right into a universal valley of peace and generous sufficiency.

And almost unnoticed — like some kind of delicate-petaled, stubbornly rooted weed along the road side — all along there was growing in me an ineradicable love for the town we have been living in. Living in and among.

I love the courage of the small flower gardens and tidy front porches that are trying to win the day.  I love the idiosyncratic whims of house colors and sudden road turnings.  I love the openness and warmth of the people I talk to.  This town reminds me of my mom’s Aunt Wanda – crusty and salty-tongued, but as sweet at the center as she was swift to puncture any hint of overweening self-pretension.

I can still see that the schools need more resources and better rewards for talented teachers.  I would gladly switch our national standing for crystal meth production for the standing our town holds for high school graduates who continue on to college.  But neither of those statistics gives an honest picture of what this town is.

*  *  *

Do I really love this town?  Yes.

Does this town really have some problems?  Yes.

Do I love it despite its problems or because of them?  Yes and yes.

I cannot sum up with a MAKES it | BREAKS it balance sheet for the town entire today.

That is an exercise for the last post (24 of 24).  When I get there.


2 thoughts on “ Future Cycle: Small Town Revival (of 24 : 4): The Town Itself

  1. This blog post read like a surprisingly rousing call-to-arms. By the end, I wanted to drop my pruning shears (or maybe, rather, shove the computer keyboard aside, leave my office keys in the drawer and bolt out the door) and join a revolution– and I’m not even fully sure why! But I think there is something very important about the journey you have taken in life and the journey you are mustering yourself for right now.

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