My Greatest Dilemma


My husband & I (& our 2 corgis) just spent the better part of the past week vacationing in Eastern West Virginia (massive thanks to my parents for keeping Rachel so we could do that!). I was about to say rural WV but then I remembered that the state is by definition rural. The largest city in WV, which is the capital city of Charleston, has about 50,000 residents. The whole state has about the same population as the greater metropolitan area where we currently reside. As people who grew up in a similarly rural area in a nearby state, for us vacationing in such a place did not produce the kind of culture shock that a lot of other folks from our current home might feel. Being the kind of person that I am (& my husband being very similar, I might add), naturally I can’t take a vacation from my own brain, so as much as I enjoyed our time in the relative wilderness- that in some ways felt like a bit of a time warp- I couldn’t turn my mind off from thinking about all the implications of living in such a rural place as Eastern WV- or really any part of the state- or any other similarly rural areas in VA, NC, & frankly the whole country.

If I could define my life by one dilemma- or one paradox- it would be the conflict between my rural roots & my more urban/suburban adulthood. I’ve written about this before but the truth of the matter is that I don’t feel truly at home in either place. At the risk of being overly self-indulgent, here are a few reasons why. I also suspect more people can relate to this than perhaps I am naturally inclined to assume- hence why writing this feels worthwhile for more than my own sanity. (To be clear, I realize these lists draw on stereotypes but in this case they’re stereotypes that exist for a reason.)

In rural areas, like my hometown, I feel out of place because:

  • I’m a big believer in science which of course translates to supporting Covid vaccinations.
  • I support gay marriage.
  • I strongly dislike abortion but do not think it should actually be illegal, certainly not in the first trimester. (I think we should be focusing on all the many things we can do to prevent so many women from getting to a place where an abortion is a viable option- but that’s a whole other blog post right there.)
  • I do NOT believe in abstinence only education or the “true love waits” movement. I have seen what it does & the results, frankly, aren’t good.
  • I believe in the existence of white privilege. And I support the removal of Confederate monuments. (Notice I said removal, not destruction.) I find the Confederate flag offensive & outdated. LET IT GO, PEOPLE!
  • My husband & I haven’t routinely worn our wedding rings for our entire decade of marriage. We also have never had a shared bank account. We do no think this reflects poorly on our marriage or that it implies distrust.
  • I enunciate my words a bit more than a lot of people do & probably come across as “overly educated” or “getting above my station” to some folks, simply because of my elocution/vocabulary.
  • I have gone fishing a grand total of once in my entire life & found it incredibly boring. I have never once been hunting, “mudding,” or cow tipping.
  • I have very mixed feelings about country music & particularly despise the kind that glorifies small town life as some kind of heavenly perfection, meanwhile completely ignoring all of its pitfalls.
  • I never use religion or the Bible to force my beliefs on anyone. I don’t believe in a god who gave me a brain & then said “Don’t bother using it.”
  • If I drove the same roads every day that I’ve been driving my whole life, if my child went to the same schools I did, I would never escape a sense of failure. I know that for many people these things bring comfort & even happiness- but for me they just don’t. But that doesn’t mean I hated my childhood or regret my past. And it doesn’t mean I look down on those who feel differently- if anything, if I’m being truly honest, I’m a little envious of them.
  • All of my favorite foods- with the exception of pizza- are not standard “American” fare. When I go out to eat, I almost always choose restaurants where the food is cooked by people with darker skin than mine. Because, let’s face it, it’s way more interesting!

Now here’s a list of reasons why I feel out of place in my current urban/suburban home:

  • I staunchly support the 2nd Amendment.
  • Though I sound far less Southern/country than many folks from my hometown do, or even than I used to sound, I still have a bit of an accent, especially on certain words, & probably sound like a “redneck” or a “hick” to certain people.
  • I know that life doesn’t cease to exist if there isn’t a Starbucks or a Panera within a 10 mile radius of oneself at any given moment. In fact, I lived the first almost 2 decades of my life having neither one within 20 minutes of my residence. I survived.
  • I hate bars & nightclubs. I also hate fine dining. If I have to dress up to go somewhere- especially if there is a more casual alternative- I probably don’t want to go because it will likely just feel pretentious & stupid to me.
  • The idea of living downtown in a place with restaurants, clubs, or offices in the same building as my residence sounds miserable. I can see why some folks like it but- damn it- I NEED MY SPACE! I need my own yard!! And I don’t want to share walls with anyone else. I had enough of that in college.
  • While I don’t support the “true love waits” movement, I also don’t support hook up culture. I think it leads to far too much heartbreak for both men & women (not to mention STIs). Furthermore I think monogamy & the nuclear family (though I have a much broader definition of what a nuclear family can be than some have) are the single most important backbone for any civilization.
  • I’m not a Democrat (or a Republican, for that matter, but people in urban areas such as this are overwhelming Democrats soooo…). I do not decorate my house or yard with virtue signaling signs. I might agree with a fair amount of the philosophies behind some of those signs but I don’t think signs change lives- actions do.
  • I believe in lower taxes & smaller government. I believe in individual freedoms & liberty & self-responsibility. I believe that government is quite often the WORST instrument for helping people in need, but that does NOT mean I don’t believe in helping others- contrary to what some might think. In short, I do not think socialism or communism is the answer to our society’s ills.
  • And last, but certainly not least, as much as “rednecks” drive me crazy sometimes, as much as they test my patience & sometimes make me want to disown them, I can never truly look down on them. Because at heart I am one, whether I like it or not. Because even though I often disagree with the conclusions they come to on certain issues, I can understand their line of reasoning. To be clear, that doesn’t mean I always AGREE with it- sometimes I adamantly disagree- but I can see where it comes from, if nothing else because I grew up in an area where I was immersed with that kind of reasoning. And I know that the issues they face are far more complex than the average “city person” realizes. (I also think this gives me a lot more license to call them out on certain problematic behaviors, such as racism.)

So, you see, no matter where I am, I always feel like a bit of an outsider. I always feel like maybe I’m the crazy one who just can’t fall in line with everyone else. Thankfully I have a handful of wonderful friends & family, from both rural & urban areas, who accept me for who I am, with all my many foibles & eccentricities. I also realize that a lot more people- both in rural & in urban areas- probably feel like this than are truly honest about it. Most people value security- i.e. fitting in- too much to break their façade. And who can really blame them? Life is hard enough without making yourself stand out from the crowd.

So where am I going with all of this? Excellent question- I’m not sure. I guess I’m just trying to say that after all these years, I still find myself wishing for something I can’t have. I want my child to grow up in a place that is geographically gorgeous & inspiring- preferably with glorious mountains- but I also want her to grow up somewhere with plenty of economic & educational opportunities. I want her to grow up in a multicultural area where she has classmates, friends, & neighbors from all races & walks of life. In short, I want some of the culture of urban areas & some of the culture of rural areas. But it seems impossible to find somewhere with both! Furthermore, I want her to have opportunities I didn’t but I also don’t want her to be a snob. I always want her to be aware of how privileged she is to live where she does but never to look down on those who have less. For example, if she ever asks a student from a rural area why they don’t have their own private flute instructor, as someone once asked me, or if she ever looks at someone like they have 3 heads because they haven’t heard of Ikea, as someone once did to me, I will have failed as a parent. I want her to know that just because we as her parents chose to live somewhere very different than where we grew up, it doesn’t mean that we rejected that culture altogether or that we are better than those who chose to stay. It just means we wanted something different- but different doesn’t necessarily mean better or worse- it just means different.

Does anyone else feel me on this or am I just shouting into the ether again?

The Problem with Small Towns


This blog post has been a long time coming, to borrow a small town phrase. Perhaps it was finally pushed into fruition since I spent a few days in my hometown earlier this week while my daughter’s school was closed & my husband was traveling for work.

For those who don’t know anything about me, allow me to preface this with a quick autobiography so you will have a better context for the rest of this post. I grew up in a small town in central Virginia, a place with 4 stoplights in the entire county (there are 5 now since we got a Wal-Mart!). A place with one primary, one elementary, one middle, & one high school for the whole county. A place that- at the time I was growing up there- required you to drive a minimum of 20 mins to get to the closest Wal-Mart. A place with more churches than restaurants. And zero bars. I moved away for college when I was 18, albeit to another small town but it was sufficiently bigger that it felt like a small city to me. Which is probably proof of how rural my early years really were! Anyway, aside from the summer after freshman year of college, I have never lived there again (after college my husband & I moved to an urban area in another state). And that summer was the longest one of my life because I spent most of the time counting down until I could go back to school & get out of there. I can truly say I have never regretted moving away & I’m quite certain I never will.

For a little more context, allow me to add that for the first few years after I left my hometown I was quite angry & bitter toward the town. Because it was all I had known for 18.5 years, it was quite a shock to find out at college that my formative years were quite different than those of many of my peers. It was easy to feel like I’d missed out on a lot in life, to feel like my town had somehow held me back or deprived me of experiences. However, as time has gone by I’ve become a lot more forgiving of my hometown. I actually feel more connected to the town & many people there than I have in a long time. Even so, I’ll never be that person who loves their hometown & thinks it’s the best place on Earth- not even close. But I’m no longer angry & bitter about it. However, I think I’ll always have very conflicted feelings about it. I think it will always be a place that conjures as much sadness for me as it does happiness, as much disappointment as it does pride.

Now to get to the meat of the message- there are so many problems with small towns in the rural South, & I daresay with small towns the world over. Of course there are plenty of problems with more urban areas too- but that isn’t the focus of today’s post. So- what are the problems plaguing my home town & thousands, nay probably millions, of others like it? Well, there’s poverty, racism (some quite overt, some much more veiled but equally sinister), religious extremism, drug use (this one has spiked exponentially over the past few years), closed-mindedness, unemployment, depression & other mental health issues, domestic abuse/violence, cronyism, isolation, & obesity- to name a few.

But the number one problem that I think plagues small towns is a refusal to see the full potential in others, an insistence on categorizing people & making assumptions about them based on said categorizations. This is especially true in adolescence but I’m very sad to say that I think it often extends far beyond high school & into all of adulthood. Now hear me out on this because I realize this may seem like a far smaller problem than the other things I listed above. The reason I say this is the number one problem is because I think it is the root cause- or a root cause anyway- of many of the other problems, including racism. When people feel categorized from such a young age- whether it be as a nerd, a jock, an athlete, a class clown, a goth, etc- this can & often does have a crippling effect on self esteem, ambition, etc. People feel stuck in roles that quite often they didn’t truly choose. All of this can lead to depression & isolation which are hardly good starting points for happiness & success in life. Not to mention there is the pressure people feel to please others or to conform to local societal norms to avoid rejection & humiliation.

To expound on my own experiences, one of the reasons college was so exhilarating for me was because it was the first time in my life I didn’t feel looked down upon for being smart. It was the first time I felt like I could be truly & authentically myself without people immediately categorizing me in a negative way. It was also the first time I felt free to fully explore my own ideas & beliefs about life without people breathing down my neck telling me how wrong or sinful I was to question things. That’s a whole other blog post right there but the point is that being away from my hometown really allowed me to come into my own, so to speak. And it also allowed me to appreciate all kinds of different people, many of which broke the stereotypes that I’d so often seen or heard at home.

I always hear the stereotype that small towns are the friendliest places in the world. I can see why people say that but I think they can be the meanest places too. For example, in a small town, it’s so easy to see someone who uses drugs & just say “Oh, they’re a useless druggie.” You’d think that small towns might have more empathy for these people because “everyone knows everyone” but what I’ve realized is that everyone does NOT know everyone at all. Sure, most people know each other as far as names, relatives, things like that. But that does NOT mean we actually know each other. We often know only the most superficial things about each other but end up assuming we know so much more. Just because someone is or was categorized as a certain thing in school or beyond in no way means we actually know anything about their true personality- their likes, their dislikes, their dreams, their ambitions, etc. And yet so much of the time we are so quick to assume we know everything about everyone just because we’ve all lived in the same area for so long. How do I know this? I know it because I have been guilty of it too. And still am at times.

As far as the drug use issue, such attitudes only serve to further isolate these people & therefore drive them further down the hole of addiction. I am in no way saying they aren’t responsible for their decisions but I do think our world would be a much better place if we spent less time looking down on addicts just to feel better about ourselves & more time understanding WHY people make such unhealthy decisions, & thus tried to address the root causes of addiction. But, again, that’s a whole other blog post right there.

What I’m trying to get at here is this. Agatha Christie said over & over in her books that even the smallest village is a microcosm for the world as a whole because no matter how small a place is the essential nature of human beings doesn’t change. All the good & all the evil that can be accomplished or undertaken in the world can & does happen in the smallest of towns, just as it does in the largest of cities. I started reading her books in high school- actually probably middle school- & even then I knew she was probably right in this assertion. But I hadn’t yet lived anywhere but a small town so I had no experience elsewhere to confirm it. Now I do. And now I know that the reason small towns have the problems I’ve discussed here is because HUMANITY has these problems. And as much as you might think that having a smaller amount of people might somehow lessen those problems, I think it’s actually quite the opposite. I think it only serves to heighten the problems, perhaps because there are fewer people to dilute them, if that makes any sense. What I’m saying is it’s so easy for outsiders to see places like my hometown as these perfect, quaint, peaceful towns but in reality there is so much darkness underneath the surface. But I think that’s because there is so much darkness in human nature as a whole. And just because there are fewer people doesn’t mean there is any less darkness.

Remember how I said I will always have conflicting emotions about my hometown, how it will always elicit as much disappointment as it does pride? Well, the truth of the matter is that the same is true for HUMANITY as a whole. It’s just that I feel so much more strongly about it when it’s associated with the place where I grew up, the place that “should” feel like home but really doesn’t.

So my unsolicited advice to all my friends & family back home or anyone else reading this from a small town (or anywhere really) is this: don’t assume you know folks just because you’ve known them your whole life. Allow people to be more complex than you might have previously pictured. I know the world is scary & confusing- perhaps all the more so since Covid struck- but categorizing people in an attempt to simplify things doesn’t help anyone, including yourself. And remember, I am writing this to myself too.

Just to be clear, I haven’t written all this to point my finger at my hometown & others like it. I have not written all this to say I’m better than anyone there because I moved away. I’ve written all this to try to make sense of a confusing world. To try to find some peace about a place that often causes me such unrest. If you don’t like it, that’s fine. The older I get the less I care what others think because that doesn’t pay my bills or help me sleep at night. If you’re truly happy living there or in another small town somewhere, I am sincerely happy for you- & even a bit jealous if I’m truly being honest. Remember, my gripe here isn’t really specific to small towns- it’s to humanity as a whole. And I know I’m part of that too.

Edit: I’d like to share one of my all time favorite songs. It’s sad & beautiful all at once & while it was clearly written with a person in mind, I feel like it perfectly sums up my relationship with my hometown & with small towns in general. “I love you, but I leave you. I dont want you, but I need you… I’ve got a gypsy soul to blame & I was born for leaving…”

https://youtu.be/oouFE51HcqM