January 6 – The Feast of Epiphany in the church I grew up in. It marks the day the Three Wise Men visited baby Jesus, bearing gifts for the newborn, as described in the Bible. The symbolism is of something which comes to light; something hidden becomes apparent, in the way God became flesh. In common usage, usually, the word epiphany indicates a sudden revelation; an unexpected change in the way of thinking about something.
I’ve had a strong connection to this day and it’s meaning most of my life. The metaphor resonates deeply with me, even though I no longer attend church. I rarely think things out in a logical path; most ideas and thoughts come to me in an “I could have had a V-8!” kind of way. Even as a child I understood the symbolism in the church and in my life. My brain is, and always has been, more about revelation than reason. Every year around this time, something comes to light in a way I hadn’t seen before, usually right on the day. Often, in hindsight I find that I had an epiphany on Epiphany. Less often I recognize it as it’s happening.
This year it came yesterday as I was walking on a beautiful snowy, sunny northern Michigan day:
After living in the same small town most of my life, I finally realized I like it.
There are lots of times I’ve wished for more excitement, or opportunity, especially when I was younger. Many times I’ve been frustrated by a lack of anonymity, and the social obligations that come with living in a tiny community of people who have known me all my life.
But there are also times, especially in the winter, when I’m very happy to live in a rural area, and to feel a part of small town life. Summer is hectic and crazy when the tourists are here, but in the late fall, winter, and early spring, it’s just “us.” The locals. Doing our thing, keeping these little northern towns running, raising families, working and playing hard.
There aren’t many places to “go,” not compared to a city, and the pace in the winter is pretty slow. In my town there’s one movie theatre, one bookstore, one video store, one coffee shop, a few restaurants, a couple of bars. One two-lane street through downtown.
One stop light.
The library has evening programs fairly frequently, and they’re well-attended. There’s a book lovers group that meets once a month, high school basketball games almost every night between the girls’ and boys’ leagues, and lots of places to volunteer.
There’s the Kiwanis Club, the Lions, the Rotary, the Garden Club, the Grange. Every Christian denomination is represented, and if you belong to a church the congregation is small and there is a lot to be done, and activities to attend throughout the week. The kids are involved in sports, 4-H, Brownies, Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. There are support groups, charity groups, two gyms. The Masons hold a Cribbage tournament every year, you can hike, snowboard or ski at the ski hill, and every other weekend there’s a snowmobile ride-in. There are adult hockey leagues in a nearby town, for both men and women, and evening basketball and volleyball leagues, too. If you’re in your church choir, you most likely practice on Thursday night.
The rest of the time you work — hard — in one of 4 large local factories in the area, or farming, or fishing, or a combination of jobs to make ends meet. You drive a bus, or work in a body shop. You teach school, work for the county, run a daycare, or wait tables. Maybe you’re a part of the large artists’ community that meets and shares work in the old library building. Maybe you own a store or run a business that’s been in your family for generations.
You might work in the same place all of your life. You might live in the same house all of your life. Family is important. On Friday night in January, chances are when you walk in a restaurant you will know most of the people at the other tables as well as the person who cooks and brings you your dinner.
Not only do you know those people, but you know their parents, their brothers and sisters, and your kids play on the basketball team or are in Daisies together. At least once a week I run into someone with whom I started kindergarten and who was beside me 13 years later when we graduated high school 39 years ago. I see his kids and now grandkids in the paper. My parents knew his parents, and did since before we were born; they may have gone to school together, too.
Your doctor is your neighbor, and the police chief lives down the street. There are two fire trucks, one ambulance, and the EMTs and the fire department are mostly volunteers. The fire whistle blows every night at 9:30 for curfew (which no one acknowledges anymore), and no matter where you are in town you can hear the noon fire whistle and the bells on the Catholic and Congregational churches at lunchtime. At least one event you attend this winter will be a potluck, and someone will bring a jello mold, and something made with tuna fish.
The nearest “city” is 60 miles away and is only a little bit bigger. The real cities are “downstate” – Lansing, Detroit, Grand Rapids. All three to five hours away.
Like a town stuck in time. But I suspect that most towns are like this, all over the country. The excitement is in the cities, and that’s great for lots of people, but small towns are the largest part of American life still, I think. Especially in the Midwest. I feel a part of this place, and I know that it’s a part of me, and that for all my complaining about the weather, etc., when I leave it will be hard.
There are downsides, too, of course, and sometimes they’re hard to bear. For example, in my town, there aren’t many people of color. Also, if you’re Jewish or Muslim, you have to worship in another town.
Sometimes people’s perspectives and attitudes are as “small” as the town. It’s rather insular, this small town life in this sparsely populated area of Michigan, and you have to make an effort to stretch yourself and your horizons. Not everybody feels the need to do that, and that has to be okay. In a town this size, you don’t have to be friends with everybody, but you do have to find ways to get along, and that means for sure you are going to encounter someone with whom you absolutely do not see eye-to-eye, and you must accept that person’s right to be as he is, or you had better move to a bigger place.
I grew up here. Lots of people have known me since my parents brought me home. It’s hard to escape your past when someone reminds you of it everyday. Winter stretches on forever and summer flies by in a whirlwind of activity. As in all things, you have to take the good with the bad.
No matter where I go later in my life, I’ll always be from this little town. I’ll always be a Midwesterner, a northerner, a small town girl. How could I not love it? It’s part of me, this place with the water and the trees and the snow, as are these people who look and sound like me, and who recognize me as one of their own. Suddenly that seems like a good thing. I belong here, for now, at least, and that’s comforting. Knowing that this place is in me, and knowing that I’ll take it wherever I go is comforting, too. We all have to be from somewhere, and as “somewheres” go, this is a pretty good place to be.