Thursday, January 30, 2014

"I Was Born in a Small Town"

If you have ever been to St. Charles, Michigan, you know how small of a town it is. Not the smallest in the world, no, but definitely small. Smaller. Small-ish. It’s a blink and you’ll miss it-type of town, but not in a bad way, just a “these are facts” kind of way. You drive through it to get to the state capital-kind of way.
It’s a town with one stoplight. Three main roads. Restaurants that look like  taxidermies, with duck and deer and moose and elk heads on the walls. Jukeboxes in the corners, pictures of the ‘99 State Championship football team hanging at a slant, showing tinged wallpaper. We got a Subway when I was in high school, which was the Highlight of Life, those chicken teriyaki subs, aside from the McDonald’s that came several years earlier.
Near the high school, there’s a road leading to the football stadium that might as well be the paved path to the pearly gates. Football is a form of worship here, with the lights and the field and the sky. Bleachers are the pews, the town coming together as a collective red, black and white “Go Bulldogs” group sitting on the silver metal, the constant sound of the “clang, clang, clang” as others walk up the steps.
There are thousands of towns across the country like this one. I grew up here.
I didn’t know my hometown was a small town. Not really. Not until college, anyway. That’s where I realized not everyone gets stuck behind turbines and farm equipment on their dirt road. Not all people hear cows mooing at night. Not everyone gets school cancelled because of opening day of deer hunting season. In turn, I didn’t realize Tiffany’s jewelry is not just for celebrities and people graduate with classes bigger than 300. It doesn’t take everyone at least 15 minutes to get anywhere that’s somewhere.
As a teenager, I wanted nothing more than to leave the Small, allured by the Big the flashy and the bright and the bustling. The city. I had my heart set on New York City. Chicago would do, I supposed, but I wanted skyscrapers and glossy magazines and editors and subways. As a freshman in college, I applied to Seventeen magazine. I didn’t get the internship.  At the time, I was frustrated, angry, upset, but in the end, it all works out the way it’s supposed to. It all does.
I realize now that where we grow up, where we’re from, how we live in those formative years becomes the perimeter in which you base your life around—you can reject it and leave, or accept it and stay. Neither is better or worse, in my opinion. It’s just a choice. Even if you want different, even if you leave and prove the saying right, the one that’s all “You can never go home again,” even if you wanted to leave the town or the city and the people and the memories, it’s still a part of you, whether your hometown is a small town or a big city.
It seems when you’re from a small town, the breadth is smaller, the depth deeper. The fabric is woven just a bit tighter in your life tapestry because it wasn’t just where you lived, it was the knowledge that came with it. You knew who lived where and who’s dating who and what’s what. There’s a bonding there because of the proximity. Big fish in small ponds. Then the question becomes: Do you want to swim here or move on to a bigger pond? A lake? An ocean? Either way, you can’t erase the waters you first swam in.
We all have our past that becomes a part of our present. The things that happen behind high school walls and on gymnasium floors, in the backs of cars and beyond the burnings of a bonfire, it affects us and how we choose to live after the fact. 
Where we grow is just as important as how we grow. The deepness of a tree’s roots depends on the soil.
When I was in elementary school, my daycare provider lived across the street from the football stadium. One day, I was allowed to walk halfway up the road towards the football field, past the bus garage and turn around when I reached the gate near the softball field. I felt brave and independent, until I looked down at the concrete and saw giant paw prints. Alternating red, black, red, black paws stretched out in a line down the road before me.
“A monster has been here,” I thought, feeling the fear turn my legs to jelly. “I have to turn back. NOW.” I ran as quickly as I could back to my daycare provider, hurriedly explaining my fears about the monster and what I saw. She assured me that no, there was no monster, the cheerleaders had recently painted those paw prints because they represent our bulldog mascot. Whatever, I thought. I don’t care. There WAS a monster.
These memories stay with me. Who I was when I lived here stays with me. Who I wasn’t stays with me, too, and how I’ve changed and grown from that girl scared of the monster on the paved path. A part of me will always be that little girl. I will always be grateful for growing up in a small Midwest town with deer heads and cow fields and farming because that is engrained in me. That’s part of my history.
And when I feel lost or can’t find myself or don’t know who I am anymore, maybe it’s good to go back. Even for a day. Maybe, just maybe, sometimes it is good to go home again. Once in a while, anyway. Just to remember who you were in order to see who you are now.
Go back to where the monsters are, and you’ll see they’re just paw prints and paint.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Sometimes You Have to Leave to Grow

It’s hard growing up. But they don’t tell you that when you’re a teenager.
No, when you’re 16, you tell them. You scream when you’re grounded, you pout when you’re sad, you try to get the last word, the last say, the last quip because you know more than your parents do and all the rest of your friends have curfews at 1 a.m., so why can’t you, too??
WE tell THEM. We tell them we can’t WAIT to be adults, can’t WAIT to stay up as long as we want, doing whatever we want, eating whatever we want and not gaining weight in the process.
Then it comes. Adulthood.
Suddenly, all we want is someone to tell us what to do. Wait, let’s backtrack a bit, OK? I’m not ready for this. We realize that maybe, just maybe, we really didn’t know everything back then, since we sure are aware of how little we know now. Because all of these decisions? Making all of these life-altering, mind-boggling, often expensive, sometimes painful decisions?
It sucks.
It sucks because we aren’t on the same page anymore. We aren’t all in the same grade, learning about the Revolutionary War and the square root of pi. Life isn’t split into freshman, sophomore, junior, senior years. Our days aren’t divided by first period English, second period Geometry, who’s in first lunch, who got to second base, bathroom whispers and hallway swagger. High school is hard, and yet the boundaries, the rules, the rigidness, can give us a perimeter to live within.

Like a nest to tuck our wings.
Last summer, a robin built a nest in the pine tree in our front yard. The mother bird worked hard to build a sturdy nest out of clay, twine, leaves and cotton. After a few weeks, the blue eggs broke open to reveal bulging eyes and fluffy feathers. Three baby birds.
Since the nest was built about five feet from the earth—right around my eye level—I would easily sneak a peek or two at the nest each day. As weeks passed, I watched the babies go from writhing naked bodies to little fluff balls with gaping mouths to almost full-grown robin birds, all gray feathers and red breasts.
Then one day, the baby robins were gone. They had flown away.
Well, all but one.
The Lone Robin
I knew it was coming. The baby birds were getting so large they barely had room. They looked like chubby marshmallows in between graham crackers, all stuffed in the nest. So I was surprised to see the nest not entirely empty that day, but occupied by one lone robin. He sat, eyes beady, looking unsure of what to do with all of that room without his brothers and sisters.
“Hey, little guy,” I said, taking a nonchalant step towards the nest. Just then, the mama bird swooped in and began angrily chirping at me.
 “Alright, alright,” I said to the bird, now staring at me from a nearby oak. “I’m walking away.” I took a step back from the pine tree and started walking towards the sidewalk.
Suddenly, I heard a rustle of tree branches and noise. I turned around and looked down on the ground. The last baby bird, alone in the nest just a second ago, had flown out of the nest… he just sort of missed the flying part. Now the bird was sitting in a low bush near the ground, about a foot next to the pine tree.
Oh no, I thought. He’s scared. He’s scared to leave the nest. And now I was scared he was going to be eaten by a barn cat.
Out of the nest, but stuck on a limb
The baby bird sat on the bush, his weight making the branch sag down. His mom was chirping quickly from her oak tree, helpless. Flying out of the nest is like squeezing toothpaste of the tube. You can’t really put it back in. It’s a done deal.
I walked back inside the house and sat near the front window, watching to see if the baby bird would complete the mission. He had already flown out of the nest successfully—flew or hopped, I’m not sure—now he just needed to go out into the world.
I sat there for about 10 minutes. So did the baby robin.
It must be so strange, I thought, to have one view up for your entire life. To be surrounded by others in the same situation as you. Then, one day, you’re on the bottom looking up and you’re all alone and you can’t go back, no matter how hard you try.
I decided to walk away from the front window. It was too hard to watch him just sit there, knowing I could do nothing to help him. He was on his own.
Later that afternoon, I looked out the front window and took a peek at the bush where the baby bird had retreated. The branch—once sagging with the bird's weight—was now empty.
I opened the front door and walked outside, stopping right in front of the pine tree with the nest. No scattered feathers, I thought. So he wasn’t eaten.
The Lone Baby Bird had used his own wings and had flown away.
It’s scary to leave the nest. It’s hard to take on the world by yourself—without the agendas and the lunch hours and going with the flow in a school of fish.
But we have to.
Whether we’re 16 or 60, life is full of leave the nest-I’m scared to death-fight or flight-speak now or forever hold your peace-moments. Moments where we have to leave the Comfort Zone and buckle up for the bumpy ride.
But leaving your comfort zone is the only way to stretch as a person. Whether you’re the bird leaving the nest, or you're leaving a guardian, a house or a hometown, a job or relationship, if you are stuck feeling empty, it means you need to go get full again.
So leave the nest. Expand your comfort zone. Stretch yourself. If you know it’s the best thing, if you know you can only grow by leaving, the answer is often hard yet so simple: