Prior to 2008, we had always lived in a metropolitan area. By “metropolitan area,” I mean somewhere with a Cheesecake Factory within driving distance.
When we got orders to a small town, I told my husband, Dustin, “I’ll go for two years, and not a day more.” Then I prepared myself for the worst.
Eight weeks after moving deep into the heart of New England, however, something strange happened. I fell in love with a place—a very small place with a relatively low median income.
“I love it and I’m never leaving,” I told Dustin.
“What happened to ‘two years and not a day more’?” he asked.
Our friends back in Cheesecake Factory Land started to wonder if something was wrong with me. “You’re really staying?” they said. “But why?”
That’s when I tell them what living in a small town has taught me.
1. “Unlimited options” really means “unending rat race”
In a big city, you can spend a whole day—maybe even a week—searching for just the right thing. Maybe you are looking for a living room chair, a pair of jeans, or countertops for the kitchen. You go to one store and find something you like, but your nagging subconscious says, “They might have something better at the other store.”
So you go to seven more places, with long periods of traffic in between, and still you aren’t sure.
That thing you’re searching for is like a carrot on a stick, always just out of reach at the “other store.” Even after you settle on a chair, jeans or countertop, you suffer from buyer’s remorse: “If I’d just searched longer, I probably could have gotten something better, cheaper.”
And the worst part is that everyone around you has the same unlimited options. So everyone keeps getting more and better things.
In a small town, if the one mall or Main Street doesn’t have it, you probably don’t need it.
2. Small towns love their downtowns
Speaking of Main Street: There’s a reason Cheesecake Factorys don’t exist in small towns. Sure, maybe the economy can’t support them, but the residents might not either. Mom and Pop stores and restaurants still exist in Small Town America, and the people who live there love them. In fact, they probably know the owner.
3. It’s about who you are, not what you do
For most of my early adult life, people were introduced to me as “CEO of such-and-such.” I knew people by what they did, not who they were. Life was fragmented between “work” and “home.” I went to the dentist, but I never would have known his family.
In a small town, it’s impossible not to know your dentist’s family. You probably knew them before you showed up for an appointment. You also probably know the dental hygienist and the receptionist.
Maybe your kids are on the same basketball team. Maybe they live down the street. Either way, the fact that they are “the receptionist” or “the dentist” is a mere footnote to you. When you go home and talk about your day, you refer to them by name, not their title.
4. In the absence of “things to do,” you get to know other people
“But what do you DO there?” friends like to ask.
I understand their concern. Until I moved to a small town, I wouldn’t have known what to do without three-leveled malls, state-of-the-art movie theaters, and world-renowned golf courses. I could spend a whole day doing errands or shuttling the kids to planned activities.
But it turns out that all of those things are just distractions.
In the absence of what popular culture considers “things to do,” Small Town America is getting to know its neighbors. In the summer, they sit on their front sidewalk and talk to one another.
While outside shoveling snow, they stand in the street and talk. When they find your dog roaming in their backyard, they bring him home. They call you when your son is out on his bike after the street lights have gone out.
5. Everyone knows everyone else
Admittedly, small-town life is not for everyone. Most people cite the inability to be anonymous as the main reason they couldn’t live in a small place. True, sometimes you just want to go to the grocery store and not see anyone you know. But when it really counts, a small town is there for you.
Last month, a family in our small town experienced a tragedy after their son died. People set up an online account to raise a modest amount of money for them. They raised six-times that from hundreds of small donations. And they did it in two days.
Which is perhaps the greatest power of a small town: your life touches and is touched by everyone, not for the possessions you have, the places you shop, or what you do, but for who you are and because you belong.