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Being a Big Fish in a Small Pond

Updated: Nov 6, 2019

As a high school student, I attended a boarding school though as a day student. This was a rough time in my life, as it is for lots of people, and I’ve spent time as an adult trying to figure out exactly why--why it left me feeling so isolated.

I’ve decided one reason is that trying to make friends with people who were out of their home context often had me at a loss. There was vital information about people that I had no access to. As a fourteen year old who’d always lived where I lived, but now meeting people who were from Chicago’s Streeterville or Chicago’s South Side or Sacramento or Tokyo (a sampling from my freshman History class) I realize in retrospect how I came up empty when trying to imagine, and thereby relate to, these many lives. What did I know about West Virginia or being Iranian refugee who ended up as a nine-year-old in small town Alabama? What could I say to that Jordanian prince or this daughter of a diplomat now dispatched to Mexico?

This sense of dislocation from people I might have hoped to become close with: it pervaded until it was more than I could hope to overcome. It was just easier to stick to myself and study my head off (though to achieve but middling grades. That place was teeming with intelligence.)

This came home to me most clearly when, in the alumni news for my class in the quarterly magazine from a few years ago, one classmate told of a wedding she’d attended in Lenox, Massachusetts. After describing the elegant affair, she said with detectable amusement that, following the reception, some of the wedding party went to a bar where “locals hang out and sing karaoke.” “Hey!” I might even have hollered at the page. “That’s Rumpy’s, my local bar where I sing karaoke.” (Sadly, Rumpy’s has closed down now, though not for lack of my spending many Thursday nights there.)

It was being classified as a “local” that stung--and particularly by this girl, now woman, who might have once been considered of the “jet set," thus harking me back to my day-student days, that ever-so-slightly-looked-down-upon group.

But after that initial sting, it had me wondering why. Why did that sting? I mean, everyone’s from somewhere, right? Everyone is local to somewhere. It’s funny, then, that to be closely associated with where you’re from has a long history of being disparaged. Even the rhetoric around it is tinged with disdain. To be “parochial” is to be small-minded. To be a “provincial” is to lack ambition or curiosity. To be a local is an accusation that can sting (apparently). To be a big fish in a small pond is to be in want of courage and fortitude.

That might be changing, though. It seems there’s a trend, now nearly a decade in the making, of people forgoing upward mobility for what’s being called homecoming. Wendell Berry gave voice to, apparently, it in a commencement speech from 2009, though speaks of it elsewhere and often; and now memoirs have begun to pop up (Christopher Ingraham’s If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home By Now), and articles have made their way into major publications (Sarah Smarsh’s “Something Special Is Happening in Rural America,” New York Times Magazine, Sept. 17, 2019). People have discovered that to have the sort of effect they want to have--in the realm of politics or environment, in the progress of gender equity and racial justice, or what-have-you--it might be an advantage to be a big fish in a small pond.

This is what Michele Anderson discovered. In her opinion piece in the Times,Go Home to Your ‘Dying’ Hometown,” she writes, “I did, and it isn’t what I expected. I am more involved in social and racial justice, economic development and feminism than I ever was in a big city.” As for me, I’m never as nervous as when in town meeting I suddenly feel I have something I want to say. Give me a voting booth in a city of eight million people over a suddenly felt objection to a zoning law being discussed by 300 of my neighbors gathered in the school auditorium (or the firehouse). To approach the microphone? Now that takes fortitude.

More and more I think the cure what ails us is to be found among us--and not in some abstract way, an on-line “social media” way, but in an actual, material, in-the-flesh way. More and more I think the cure for all that ails us, from addiction and despair to climate change and ecological devastation to obesity and food unfulfillment, is to be found immediately among us (immediate meaning without mediation or medium or media), but face to face, hand to hand, heart to heart. So, more and more I love the status of being a local, because it's in this that it seems easiest to access this “cure,” amidst strongly interdependent webs of sociability.

This is one reason I love serving small churches, and this small church in particular. Here, we can have enormous impact though with small gestures and light work. Here, with the assets of this congregation, joining up can amount to a level of activism it'd be difficult to manage in a larger context. If you're already a part of things here, I hope you feel this to be the case. If you're not, I hope you consider this a call from God to give it a try. We'd love to welcome you.

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