12. Patchwork Farms Slowly Fade

I found myself reeling for an explanation when Trump was elected as our next president. I think I had put all of my political eggs into one basket–the one labeled: “How to not elect a fascist as your next president.”

I blindly assumed that all of my well-intended Republican peers would examine the evidence and come to a similar conclusion. Let’s face it–most people felt about as romantic toward the options as you might feel when food poisoning threatens imminent explosions from the top and the bottom, and your only real choice is which end gets the toilet. That’s a nice way of saying, “Which mess would our country rather clean up?” I hoped that given the choice between the two, more Republicans would forego the food poisoning entirely by skipping the “major-party-or-die” bait.

Instead of wondering which menu item is free of contagions, you just ask your server for the check and go home to make yourself a dang quesadilla sans salmonella. That’s voting with your conscience instead of your stomach. But we seem to have a strong appetite for competition and winning, so my hopes for a third party victory didn’t really work out.

Anyway, I read this very colorful blog and found some explanation that I had conveniently brushed out of my consciousness since it didn’t fit my snobbish, sophisticated, “informed” way of seeing the world. And I live in the heart of “rural meets urban,” so you’d think I would have at least considered the implications of that dichotomy.

Many born-and-stayed-here residents would agree that urban dwellers come flocking to northern Colorado looking for a piece of the wide open, pristine, picturesque, vibrant life and then turn their noses at the people whose ancestors and lifestyle made this area what it is, and whose work helps sustain their organic, local, guilt-free lifestyle.

I am, of course, overgeneralizing for the sake of brevity, but when I googled “Loveland versus Ft. Collins,” a few years back, the sentiments regarding urban versus rural (read: conservative versus liberal) values were memorable, even though the towns are only ten miles apart.

I am not familiar with this blogger, David Wong, so look out if spicy language is a deterrent. But in this blog post, he totally nails something I have been thinking about over the last several months. I was just telling my sister as we drove around rural northern Colorado recently that my visits to the area this summer helped me see that two worlds are clashing when it comes to our state and federal governments: that of urban and rural America.

How do you get the perspective of another person if their world seems like an artificial shell to you, and your own world feels like the place where all of the elements are bent on your destruction?

And try deciding which description–artificial or destructive–fits “rural” and which fits “urban.”

If you’re urban and struggling for decent housing, a compassionate boss–or any boss, for that matter–and room on the train at night, you may think that in some rustic place, there are people sitting down to dinner together promptly at six every evening and sharing the day’s news over a homemade meal, comprised entirely of food they either grew themselves or became acquainted with since its infancy. How can they know about the real world while living in this cozy little bubble?

And the rural families who are watching the jobs disappear, watching their children get exported to city life or go to jail for cooking meth, and who are watching the cost of a meal skyrocket with the price it takes to truck food into the dying corner market, might envision a sophisticated urbanite in a clean, modern apartment with plenty of friends and food always at-the-ready because cash flows generously in the well-oiled city of dreams. How could a city dweller know what it’s like to live on the edge of destruction?

I began in a semi-rural town. We’ll call it Podunk, USA. One paved road. No traffic lights. Loud, drunken neighbors and their vicious dogs looking for someone to harass. My parents grew a garden, we ate dinner as a family every night after my father’s long commute, and our house was for sale from the moment my mother married my father and saw where he’d bought their home. I lived there until the month before my fourth birthday. It was not a desirable neighborhood.

And thirty-plus years later, not much has changed.

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At age four, I moved 15 minutes away to a town with paved roads, a traffic light, and its own fire station. Within the first couple years, we welcomed fast food with Pizza Hut and Dairy Queen now drawing crowds of at least 12 people at any given moment. We were almost on the map with Small Town, USA.

Just before I turned 12, I arrived in the City. Not a metropolis, but the closest thing to suburban life you were going to find between the state capital and the border. And I imagined that vicious dogs, their ill-mannered owners, and the stress of inconvenient living would just fade away like small towns in rearview mirrors.

After my college experience in a county commonly called “The Bubble”–perfect and ideal it was not, but it’s always easier to belittle something you think needs humbling instead of finding out the truth–I moved to the big city to work. I never lived downtown, but it was the capital city, so even though it was still figuring out mass transit after hosting a winter Olympics, it did feel noisy, impersonal, and crowded enough for me to call it urban.

From there, I lived for a time in an area infected by sprawling suburbia before returning to northern Colorado where, fortunately, my county had vaccinated against that disease, so towns still have visible borders between them.

For whatever reason, I tend to create borders between where I once was and where I am at present. As a child, I found myself embarrassed to tell my friends I’d spent the first four years of my life in a town situated between livestock feedlots. No matter which way the wind blew, you smelled poo. But then as a teen, I felt ill thinking of the time I’d spent in Small Town, USA. I wanted to come from a place that really mattered. But revisiting northern Colorado once I’d moved out of state just put my guts in a knot. I didn’t understand why.

This past summer, I had the opportunity to leave the beaten path I run between my town and my parents’ (they just moved back to Small Town, USA, which I love!) and revisited my geographic roots. I belong to a religion that reveres ancestral roots, so I am accustomed to that kind of extrapersonal journey, but I wasn’t prepared for this kind of journey.

First, I got lost. I imagine that I have a phenomenal sense of direction and that my earliest memories placed my home facing East. That part I had right. It’s just the rest of the town that was on the wrong side of my memory. I spent a while looking through streets on the south side of town–most of them still gravel–until I finally consulted Google.

Next, I got found. When I turned north onto my old street and began the slow descent from the thoughts of a 35-year-old mother of three to the thoughts of a three-year-old who had already learned to fear another race, I wept.

How could a place I despised mean so much to me? How could I look at the tired, sagging yard where I’d been bullied by neighbor children and still consider it the most secure time of my childhood?

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Broken down cars grow where I used to pick strawberries.

As I write this, I am beginning to understand what put my guts in a knot when I returned to my roots over the years. Until I had grown to about the age of 7, I don’t remember ever being cruel to someone else–not a sibling, neighbor, classmate, or animal (well, there was the cat I lowered into the window well with fishing line when I was 5 because I imagined she would enjoy the journey. She didn’t. But she forgave me and remained a dear friend for the rest of her life).

Being bullied by children who were all of another race in Podunk, USA set me up to believe that only one kind of person was threatening, and I could avoid them just by filtering people by skin color. However, I began school in Small Town, USA, and quickly learned that my classmates were at least a quarter “undesirable.” But no one else seemed concerned, so I set aside that fear and made friends with Rudy, Robert, Sarah, Rebecca, and Clint. I remained a bit fearful of Tony, Petey, and Omar, however.

In kindergarten, I loved to be the hero. When boys chased girls, I rescued the girls. When girls chased boys, I allied with the boys to help them outsmart their brighter counterparts. An odd set of circumstances led to my arrival at the kindergarten Halloween costume party as He-Man, which may have been rather fitting after all.

At age 7, I recall throwing rocks at some boys whom I liked but who were harassing me and my sister on our walk home from school. The next day, Brant had me feel the lump on his head where I had reached my mark. I felt significantly ashamed of myself. I had already apologized to Conrad (who grew up to be an arsonist [still trying to tell myself I didn’t contribute to that outcome]) over the phone. But worse than what I had done to them or whether I could “make it all better” was the knowledge that someone cruel resided within me.

In upper elementary school, as I dealt with the tumult of puberty, I began to take pride in snide “comebacks.” I had seen enough bullying to make modern psychologists cry, and I felt already so awkward being the only tall girl with boobs in my class, that I chose to prevent any bullying by being the first offender. I generally didn’t use my stature to cut down a potential enemy, but I did use my intelligence and humor. What began as funny teasing often became biting and inexcusable bullying.

By the time I reached the City, I was using both my wit and my limbs to knock down potential threats. I even kicked my dear sister during a playground game to “show her” when she eliminated me from the winner’s box. The last time I remember being cruel was in eighth grade P.E. class. While running laps, I noticed that a short squirt-of-a-fellow named Mai Han had turned back early to make it appear that he had run the full length of the field, when in fact, he was rejoining the lead group (where I haughtily ran), so that he would run only half as far as required.

I wanted him to know that I’d caught him in his game. And I literally wanted to rub his nose in it, so as I passed by, I hissed “Cheater!” in his ear as I shoved him. The force of 140 pounds running her hardest against the slight frame of an Asian kid barely trying sent him sprawling. I ignored the outcome until I saw him brushing off his scraped hands and knees and telling his friend, Mike about it. And here Mike was a boy I had once thought of as a bully two years prior, simply because he was big and ugly. In Mike’s face I saw a hurt and confusion I never want to see again.

I apologized to Mai, but I wished for someone to report me so that this monster inside me could finally be condemned. An hour later at home, I searched the phone book for the “Han” household, but now that I was in the City, there were more “Han” families than I could bear to call as an introvert. In an “in case I unexpectedly die” journal I wrote in college called “My Untimely Departure Journal,” Mai Han made the list of regrets I still wish I could resolve.

So with all this soul-searching, I have an answer that works for me, that explains for me why we can simultaneously romanticize how the “other half” lives and dismiss them all as “inferior.” Not simply because we don’t know anything about the two views. Articles and discussion abound on the subject. I think we cling to one view while condemning the other view because one view lets us play the hero (look at all the underprivileged folks I’m going to help) and the other reminds us that we’re a bully (I will force you to pay for my endeavors through taxes you don’t agree with). In reality, we don’t need heroes or bullies to care for each other and heal our nation. We need compassion.

I’ve lived in both urban and rural, and everywhere in-between. I’ve looked down on both, I’ve romanticized both, and I’ve forgotten about both. But both explain a lot of why we’re all looking for a voice, to the point that whichever major candidate had won this past election, someone was going to feel silenced. Compassion, I believe, returns voices that were dismissed, even silenced, and it changes our tone so that others might listen and eventually, understand. 

I haven’t paid a lot of attention to the news for a couple weeks, but I see “civil unrest” and the like when I do scan headlines. I wish I knew how to bring compassion into this discord, because not many people are searching their souls when they’re angry and feeling injured. And wounds that go unacknowledged, along with the fears that helped cause them, need to be addressed, and soon. It took me thirty years and a quiet afternoon at the kitchen table to finally begin to work out my own conflict. How long will it take this country?

5 thoughts on “12. Patchwork Farms Slowly Fade

  1. I’ve read and listened to David Wong (his real name is Jason Pargin, but that’s another story) many times. He has some really interesting things to say about urban versus rural and class systems in America. He has also touched on the tribalism in politics, that people usually just automatically align their beliefs with “the blue tribe” or “the red tribe” without really critically thinking about a particular issue.
    I have also had the opportunity to live in urban, rural, and in-between environments and have had my prejudices challenged by what I found there. For most of my life I believed that small towns and farms lead to small minds and intolerance. Living in Riley, Kansas cemented that belief, to me everyone there seemed like ignorant red necks and bullies. And I had the idea that travel and attending educational places and cultural events was necessary to becoming an enlightened person. Surely someone who visited monuments and shrines, who saw ballets, concerts, and musicals, who had frequent flyer miles and a passport stamped many times, THAT person was more educated, cultured, and tolerant than someone living in a podunk, white bread American town. But then when I got married and lived in the small town of Pocatello, Idaho (many residents of Pocatello chafe at hearing it called a small town, but it is more rural than urban) for many years I got to know some truly wonderful people there who were intelligent, hard working, and kind. There were elderly people in the historic Bonneville neighborhood who had spent their entire lives there and who worked tirelessly to make the neighborhood a better place for everyone. I really miss that neighborhood sometimes! It was the most racially diverse neighborhood in Pocatello and seemed to have more churches (of many denominations) than anywhere else in town! In Pocatello I learned that poor, mostly rural people could be just as interesting and intelligent and tolerant as anyone from a cultured city. I think that what is more important than where we live is what we bring to the table. Do we make the place we live in better or worse? Or like me, do we mostly sit in the corner and look (judge) rather than get involved? I hate getting involved sometimes, well, most of the time, but when I try to make my home of the moment a better place I think that I am a better and happier person for it.

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    • Riiley, Kansas was its own world for sure! I think urban versus rural life and its influence on the individual’s development is similar to the nature versus nurture discussion. What it really comes down to is what you choose to do with what you’re given. And then we all need to resist the urge to make assumptions, to condemn (or esteem) others based on their circumstances, and to make any final conclusions about what someone else has to offer. I wish I could have visited you when you lived abroad! But visiting you in the wide open country life was unforgettable too.

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      • And also, I really appreciate you giving me multiple chances to become who I’m becoming instead of condemning me since, honestly, I could be a jerk to you sometimes when we were kids. I think I just got snarly sometimes. Wait, I still do that. It must be somewhat normal, at least for me…

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      • I don’t even remember you being mean to me! In my family teasing was the main pastime so I really don’t mind that sort of thing from family. Now if someone isn’t related to me then it might bother me!

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  2. I read another take on the “urban vs. rural” discussion on this blog: http://www.rawstory.com/2016/11/the-dark-rigidity-of-fundamentalist-rural-america-a-view-from-the-inside/
    It pointed out that searching for common ground with fundamentalist white Christian voters in rural America is impossible unless these folks are willing to consider something that challenges their belief system. As a member of a religion that both changes with new information and appears completely backward to many, I can appreciate the argument from the writer’s perspective and from those whose belief system is being scrutinized.

    It is just plain hard to live in faith and reason, especially when trying to defend it to a “one-camp-only” adherent. I think that if the moment I learned how to read, if I thought that the one book I had read was all that my parents meant for me to learn, it would be foolish to reject anything else they tried to teach me as if “Hop on Pop” was truth eternal, and how dare you try to give me more! But that would be as foolish as reading a recipe next, looking at my mother in horror and declaring, “You mix the wet and dry ingredients at the same time?! But the recipe says right here to keep them separate until the end. That’s it! I no longer trust you and your traditions. From now on, I work only with what is tried and true from experts!”

    A good parent (and there are many, despite what the news would have us believe), both desires their child to trust him or her and to learn for themselves. If we look, we will find that God gave us a basis of understanding for our purpose, and through study, prayer, experimentation, trust, failure, loss, self-discovery, and relationships, we get to hash out all the details. We get to decide how much progress we make in the tiny amount of time we have on earth, and I worry that a lot of people box themselves in by fearing and putting down the camp they don’t belong to in the faith versus reason debate. Try out traditions, study science, seek purpose and meaning in your life. But don’t shut out the possibility that all explanations have merit and that their real value comes from how we let truth change us for the better. We want to grow, and if you doubt it, just consider all the excuses you remind yourself of, all the stories you tell yourself, how you look for someone to blame, when you know you “ought to” make some change and just won’t (clearly I’m pointing at myself here, but maybe someone else will read and agree). If you have to fight that hard against something, perhaps you are denying your better nature.

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