Wanderings through life, landscapes, and occasional loopiness. So pull up a log and have a bit of a sit-down ’round the virtual campfire.

Small Town Livin’

<cue John Cougar Mellencamp>

Well, I grew up in a small town. <la la la> And I can breathe in a small town. <dair nair nair>I went to high school…in a real small town…<thump a dumpie dump> And I was glad to leave HEY! But now I’m back in a small town…kinda weird in a small town…but shit they still recognize you…in a small town…WHOA…

Yeah, whatever. I don’t know the lyrics to that song unless it’s on the radio and I’m bellowing along with John. I did, indeed, grow up in a small town. When I was a kid here, probably 3000 people lived in this ranching community plopped at the base of the collegiate peaks in Colorado. My high school graduating class was about 62 people. Dang right we knew each other. Dang right everybody knew you, too. And your business. And any kind of trouble you got into. Which kinda sucked because if you wanted to cut loose and do typical stupid-ass teen stuff, somebody’s parent always found out and called YOUR parents and you would get a talkin’ to. On the one hand, everybody knowing your business could be a good thing. If you’re in some kind of trouble or one of your relatives dies or your dad gets injured up at the mine, the community knows and they do come and help you out. On the other hand, everybody knows your business and you can’t get away with jack shit in a small town. No privacy anywhere. Rumors fly like wind-driven western wildfires in small towns, and the unspoken social controls keep you in line. Otherwise, you’re the town asshole/idiot and that, too, kinda sucks.

All right, so I grew up on a farm about five miles outside town limits, which meant I didn’t have a whole lot of time to get into too much trouble because I had tons of work to do. My parents counted on me but so did the animals. Then off to school on the bus (yes, I had to walk a quarter-mile to the highway to catch it [do I sound like a crotchety old man yet?]). BOTH WAYS! UPHILL! IN TWELVE FEET OF SNOW! BAREFOOT!

Anyway, my folks are grad-school educated and ended up living in a small town for a variety of reasons. I was four when we moved here and my sister was thus born in this small town. I’m not, therefore, one of those “come from a long line of farmers/ranchers” types. I did, however, learn those sorts of things during my years here because my parents were constantly working on figuring stuff out. Like, how to build and fix things. Animal husbandry. And the ever-important small town politics, which are a microcosm of the larger world. Everybody is part of the fabric of existence in small towns, and you learn quickly how that all works and how to negotiate it to get your needs met. Because if you piss somebody off in a small town and you don’t do your damnedest to make things right, it suddenly becomes very hard to do business in any capacity in a small town.

I grew up in that kind of milieu and learned pretty early to keep the wheels of commerce (whether economic, emotional, or social) greased. I also learned pretty early that I was different in a lot of ways from my classmates, most of whom I followed from grade school on up through high school graduation. I got along pretty well with most everybody. I didn’t declare allegiance to any particular clique, instead making friends in all of them, and I learned to keep my own cards very close to my chest because my burgeoning awareness of my lesbianism was not something that you talked about in a small town. Oh, we all knew who the “town queers” were. And as long as they kept their “proclivities” under wraps, they, too, were an accepted part of the social fabric.

All right, fast forward a bit. I pretty much left this small town for college then grad school and didn’t really look back. I did, however, attend my high school reunions. My dad always says your high school reunions are important because they show you how YOU’VE changed. And I discovered he was right. My most recent reunion was my 20-year (holy eighties, Batman!), two years ago this coming summer. Yeah, yeah. I’m gettin’ up there. Shut up. I walked barefoot uphill both ways to get there. Anyway, I brought my partner to that reunion. I contacted my classmates who were putting the soiree together ahead of time and came out all over hell and gone. Not in any big “I’M FREAKIN’ GAY! ALL RIGHT????” But rather thus: “Hey, Jamie. Is everybody okay with me bringing my partner?” And I discovered that my classmates are some of the kindest, most non-judgmental people I know. My partner and I had a total blast at that reunion. Me catching up with people, her meeting them. My first official boyfriend is the other “town queer” in our class (though I suspect there are a few more who still struggle) and we laughed our asses off because our classmates voted us “least changed.” He said: “That’s pretty damn funny, considering we both came out.” And I thought back to when we were in high school together, trying to figure out who the hell we were and going through the usual array of teen angst, break-ups, crushes, and all the stuff I thought I had to keep under wraps until college. Maybe I DID have to keep that under wraps. And maybe the last 20 years served to mellow some of my classmates, who have racked up their own traumas and travails and come to the same conclusion I have: Life is way too short to run around hating. And maybe my classmates knew about me before I was ready to go on and deal with it and that’s why nobody batted an eye when I introduced my sweetie to them as my “partner.”

So here I am, almost 22 years after I graduated from high school, getting ready to spend the next 5 months or so in another small town about 150 miles from the one I grew up in. Most people I tell this to–that I’m going to be doing an internship at a scrappy western newspaper that just happens to be in a very small town–look at me like I’ve sprouted a tail and fur. They shake their heads and mutter something about “backward thinking” and “conservativism” and “homophobia.” And yeah, those things do exist in small towns. But I’ve discovered that they exist EVERYWHERE. Small towns just make you more aware of it because you’re face-to-face with these people every day. So you learn how to negotiate that and you learn that what you put out in a small town is what you reap, pretty damn quickly. And yeah, they might know you’re one of them queers, but if you put a nice face forward and meet people halfway, you change minds. I think growing up in a small town showed me how interconnected we all are, no matter the community, no matter the continent. We are all part of systems, whether social, political, spiritual, or economic. We may think we’re operating in a vacuum and that what we do doesn’t impact anybody else, but it does. You’re resonating in your immediate surroundings, and that echo goes way beyond the boundaries of your thinking and self-containment. My life in a small town and the next 5 months of it–in which I probably need some kicks in the ass to remind me who I am and what’s important–serves also to remind me that there is something to that saying, ”Think globally. Act locally.”

So happy new year to y’all and remember, no matter how shitty things are and how screwed-up this political hoo-ha bullshit can be, it all comes down to the people you meet face-to-face and no matter how hateful or crappy they can be, that’s THEIR row to hoe. Sharing the love can be really, really hard. But damn, it keeps you from getting branded as the town asshole. And I like not being that. Town queer’s okay. But town asshole…nah. Even better: just another person whose partner happens to be a woman. Small town livin’ strips you down to the bare bones. Who are you, at your very core? THAT’S what’s important.

‘Til next time, keep it real, yo.

Small Town Livin’

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