By David Nilsen
It’s Labor Day, a holiday awarded to American workers over a hundred years ago because the U.S. government shot several laborers during a strike and felt real bad about it. Really. They could have just joined up with a lot of other countries to observe the already existent International Workers Day, but were afraid that would sound too Communist. Because nothing says Communist like supporting workers, obviously. I’m honoring the day by sitting on my porch smoking cigarettes that are bad for me and drinking coffee that will keep me up too late, weighing the pros and cons of showering today versus just taking a long walk in the rain. Actually, I already did that, to get the cigarettes.
Months ago I wrote an article about being creators of our environment rather than mere consumers. I wrote about not being content with the deficiencies of our small town, but also not allowing that discontent to drive us away to greener pastures or make us critical and negative. There are, incidentally, days I believe every word of that.
I’ve spent most of my life in a town people leave. As a child I did the leaving, though not by choice. I followed my parents from one dead-end church in one dead-end town to another. We landed in Darke County, and by the time the church we’d moved here for had broken up with my dad during recess a year later, I think the fight had finally been taken out of him. He rested from his labors and saw that the land was good. We stayed here.
No one else ever seems to.
My sister moved away 17 years ago to chase the happiness she saw in her head. She found forms of it, and has molded these forms into a life that is not easy but is good. The specific happiness she left for is dating someone else now. Most of the closest friends of my twenties have left as well. They are now in Chicago, Minneapolis, New York City, Detroit, North Carolina, Georgia, Indiana. My parents left the country a decade ago because God, or a missions director in Tennessee, or both, was building a medical clinic in the Dominican Republic. I always wanted out of this damn place. Somehow I’m the one who stayed.
The best writing advice I’ve ever read was from Madeleine L’Engle: You write with your hands, not with your head. The second best writing advice I’ve ever read was from Ellie Kemper (yes, that Ellie Kemper; also, she graduated from Princeton and did graduate studies at Oxford. You have to be really smart to play stupid that well.): Write like your parents are already dead.
As my parents are probably reading this, I should clarify I am very glad they aren’t dead. But their eyes on this screen could very easily keep me from writing honestly, or writing in my voice. And it’s not just my parents. I could be tempted to hedge and qualify my personality, language and life story with a wide variety of potential readers in mind: co-workers, friends casual and close, people I’ve gone to church with, students I taught when I was a youth leader. I like to imagine I don’t worry about image and don’t care what people think of me, but of course I do. Some of my opinions are unpopular or even offensive. Some of my stories are vulnerable or embarrassing. Some of my tastes and interests sound pretentious. Some of them are. When I write I have to decide how much I want to give. I have to decide whether or not I want to write like my parents are already dead.
There are few things more frustrating to try to be than countercultural in a small town.
I am theologically and politically liberal. I still like vintage clothing and ironic t-shirts. My favorite music isn’t usually on the radio, my favorite movies don’t usually play at Wayne Cinema. My car’s a blue collar piece of shit. I’m not pro-military, yet my favorite item of clothing is an Air Force field jacket I’ve owned for 15 years. I order snobby beer. I use the word “notes” in connection to coffee flavors. I smoke cloves and American Spirits. I’m planning an art project that involves spray painting powder pink a large and rather valuable brass eagle from my deceased grandmother. My favorite sport is soccer. I’m a male feminist. I would gladly attend a gay pride parade in support if we had one within two hours of here. I point all this out because here is Greenville, Ohio.
Stepping out your front door in a small town and engaging your immediate world when your tastes and opinions and style don’t match the prescribed normal takes a conscious decision about how much of yourself you want to be on any given day. When I meet a new person in my town I assume three things until proven otherwise, and I adjust my speech accordingly: the person goes to church, he or she is a Republican, and at least one other person I know already knows this person. And with that in mind, and knowing from experience my personality falls against the grain for the status quo in Darke County, I have to decide in any given conversation whether or not I want to write like my parents are already dead.
It’s kind of impossible to hide here, to be anonymous. What you say and give and display of yourself will return to you with opinions, some good and bad, some implicit and some explicit, and they won’t be the opinions of a faceless public. They’ll be the opinions of someone who goes to the same coffee shops you do because your downtown only has one street. They’ll be the opinions of someone who gets lunch with your pastor or goes to church with your boss. They’ll be the opinions of someone you’ll see at the grocery store and whose kid you went to school with and with whom you’ll awkwardly avoid conversation at the library. The cost of writing like your parents are already dead, of pretending the audience to your art and life doesn’t know you from Adam and just wants to see your true colors fly, is potentially much higher in a small town.
Is it possible so many of our interesting and talented young people have left not to pursue opportunity or entertainment, but to find a place where they aren’t weird, or where being weird isn’t weird in the first place? In a recent interview here on The Samizdat, Richard Ringer talked about the exhaustion of displaying one’s full self all the time in an area where people don’t understand that particular mode of expression. You have to choose your battles, to choose the days when it’s worth it to wear the polyester pants you love but stand out; the days it’s worth it to argue with the co-worker who makes slurs against LGBT people because they assume everyone here agrees with them; the days it’s worth it to be yourself when it’s easier to be Yourself Lite™. It’s easy to look pretentious and arrogant. Hell, it’s easy to be pretentious and arrogant. Summoning the energy to be yourself in spite of these things feels worth it sometimes and too much to ask at other times.
There is a Greek aphorism that says Know Thyself (and no, I’m not going to pretend I didn’t learn that from The Matrix). I think we sometimes assume young people leave here to find themselves, when maybe the truth is they know themselves already and can’t face a future of showing themselves in a place where it will always be a fight.
It’s easier to write like your parents are already dead in a city where they never lived.