Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Anonymity, gossip and the city girl

Gossip is theology translated into experience. ~Kathleen Norris Dakota: A Spiritual Geography

I picked up the mail the other day and right on top was a big, shiny, brochure for a professional conference in the large city where I grew up. I opened the pages and saw the bright lights, the tall buildings, the familiar names and places that seemed so exciting and the center of all I once knew. I felt the pangs of memory, of familiarity. I considered attending.

I remember first arriving in the small town where I attended college and had my first of what was to be many experiences of being an outsider upon just walking into a local restaurant. You know, the kind of place where you walk in and all heads turn in your direction, eyes roam over you from head to toe as if to scan for viruses. I vividly remember remarking to a friend that I wished I could be back in St. Louis where one could be completely, unequivocally, almost absolutely anonymous in any hundred restaurants in town. I remember longing for that degree of solitude, the feeling of fading into a sea of people, of being able to do anything I wanted without constant monitoring.

Flash forward to what seems a world away from those days to yesterday at the local post office, just a few miles up the road from my house. It is a friendly place. The postmaster and I are on a first name basis as she is with probably 80% of the folks who walk through her doors. She knows whether they pay by cash, credit or debit. She knows if they want "insurance on that" or shipping confirmation. She never has to ask if there is anything perishable, hazardous or illegal in your package. She knows the answer. We exchange pleasantries, mothering stories. She knows my children.

While there I ran into two "country" neighbors (not the kind whose house you'd hit if you threw a stone), one I go to church with, along with his wife and 10 children. They recently sold the wine distributorship they owned for many years. They now run a growing Montessori school on their farm. They are a singular, unique and driving force in the community and I am glad to know them. The other I know by pure chance. He is a business partner with his wife, who herself used to work for Martha Stewart Living. They now own and run an exquisite stationery company. "God is in the details" they state in their business profile and it is clear with just one look...he is.

Turns out, we all three knew each other. Of course we did. And we all knew the postmaster. She knew us.

I wonder if these are the things I missed out on in that sea of anonymity in the big city. I wonder if it takes a special sort to search out the small places and stay here, where we have our wide openness, our aloneness and yet nearly all of our comings and goings are common knowledge. There is not much that passes by unknown in a small town. Word travels fast. Networks are tight and farreaching. Sins are dark and deep as in any other place, only here we pull for each other.

...the tales of small-town gossip are often morally instructive, illustrating the ways ordinary people survive the worst that happens to them; or, conversely, the ways in which self-pity, anger, and despair can overwhelm and destroy them. Gossip is theology translated into experience. In it we hear great stories of conversion, like the drunk who truns his or her life around, as well as stories of failure. We can see that pride really does go before a fall, and that hope is essential. We watch closely those who retire, or who lose a spouse, lest they lose interest in living. When we gossip we are also praying, not only for them but for ourselves. ~Kathleen Norris Dakota: A Spiritual Geography


Tara said...

I have lived most of my life in a varying degree of small town-ness. About ten years ago, I lived in Toronto for a couple of years, a city where you don't look people in the eyes as you walk down the street. I now live in a small city that has always amazed me with its small town-ness. It's a good place to be.

dsmurray said...

As you know, I grew up in a farming community where is someone did not know what was going on, they just came right down the driveway, stopped and chatted and "checked on you" and typically stayed for supper. While it drove me crazy at the time (my teenage years mostly), it is what I ached for when I got married. Thus the reason we are back in a rural community where people just care about you.