Local Author

Monday, April 16, 2007

A return to small-town Iowa

It might have been the scenery of farmlands that drew me. Perhaps it was the images of a rural lifestyle. Perhaps it was the memories of a tight-knit community that I experienced as a child. Or it might have been the visions of a place free of crime, traffic, or stress.

Whatever planted this seed, whatever nurtured it, I arrived at a notion I couldn't shake. I wanted to move to a small town. So, a couple months ago, my husband I and made the move from beautiful Napa Valley, Calif. to a different kind of beauty that can be found in Albert City, Iowa.

It seemed fitting that I would choose to return to that one small town I love dearly called Albert City, which is the place where I was raised. Friends and family live there ... and last summer when I visited, I realized I never wanted to leave.

Still, the thought of such a radical change was scary. Abandoning my metropolitan area, with friends, cultural opportunities, and a lifestyle to which I had grown accustomed seemed like a big risk. Certainly my concerns were justifiable because, let's face it, small towns are different. Where else can a letter addressed with your first name and the name of the town and nothing else, still be delivered? And where else can you move in and you are no longer a stranger in 10 minutes, but you're a newcomer after 20 years?

No matter how embedded they are in the national psyche, no matter how much we think of them as "typically American," small towns have a culture very different from that of metropolitan areas. In some ways, moving to a small town is like moving to a foreign country.

It doesn't feel like a foreign country, of course (and luckily!). People there speak English, drive on the right-hand side of the road, and vote in Presidential elections. But compared to my old neighbors, these people really are different. Living in a small town makes them that way. If they were born and raised there, they were indoctrinated into this unique culture at an early age. And if they moved there from elsewhere, they likely adapted their personalities to fit their new surroundings. Or they chose these surroundings to fit their unique personalities. Their viewpoints, their prejudices, and their perspectives on a variety of issues can catch you by surprise. And a slip-up may be costly. Despite the best of intentions, your statements or actions (or failures to act) may send the wrong message, and you'll find yourself disliked.

I've lived in the "big city" off an on, and I'll freely admit that there are advantages. Convenience is something you get used to real fast. When you can buy groceries, get a haircut, get a cup of coffee, and fill up your gas tank all within walking distance of your front door you tend to frown on the idea of driving 20, 30, 40 miles to do the same thing. Plus, there are always those stores and businesses that are just not available anywhere but in the busiest corner of a bustling city. You don't see too many Starbucks on the corner of Main and Joe's driveway in small town Iowa.

Still there's something sort of poetic about life in rural Iowa. The pace is slower, the people tend to be a little more laid back, and there's this sort of quiet acceptance that life is OK. I'm not proposing that everything is all "Norman Rockwell" in every small town dotting the Iowa countryside, but there really is this sense of local pride and basic respect that runs as an undercurrent in most small towns.

I believe that my personality has, in large part, been shaped and honed by growing up among open pastures, miles of corn fields, and the sound of birds and rustling leaves in the morning. There's a certain level of sensibility that becomes instilled in you when you've watched wise old men play solitaire to pass the time, or when you've had coffee with a friend on the front porch in the early morning. There's a certain level of common sense that comes to you when you've worked beside a man, dropping miles of fence posts into the ground and tending to livestock. If I had to say what the biggest influence on my life has been, it'd be a toss-up between the valuable advice of my dear mother and the constant re-centering I've experienced by living in small town Iowa.

I won't say that all small town living is the pristine image I'm making it out to be. I've had my share of bad times in small places. Rumors can run wild. And there are those who are so bored or discontent with their lives that they become bitter and cynical, and tend to strike out in one way or another. But the amazing thing about these negative qualities is that small towns share them in common with large cities. That kind of thing can be seen anywhere.

I wouldn't trade my time in the city for anything, though. If nothing else, it has taught me that there is a part of me that will always be small town. Before I left, I would have said that this was a burden, something to be burned out of me if possible. But once I came back, I realized just how much I loved it here, and how I had yearned for it the whole time I was gone.

Living in a small town doesn't mean I live a small life. In fact, it may be the fullest sort of life I could live.

Jeannie Claire has been a journalist for more than 18 years and is the author of two books. She lives in Albert City, Iowa with her husband, Marc, and cat, Robert.