In Praise of Hometowns
Staying Home in the Global Village
by Mary Pipher
Once when I was in New York City, a woman asked me where I was from. When I answered, "Nebraska," she asked rather rudely, "Have you considered moving?"
I mumbled an inane answer, but I have been thinking of a better answer ever since. My answer now would be, "No. I am home, and home is not a saleable piece of real estate."
It's that simple and that complicated. Nebraska for most people is the state they drive through on the way to someplace else. Our state is six hours of Interstate 80. Of course, that's not the way to see any place.
In general, Nebraska is too stark to be pretty, but it is beautiful. Its beauty is its scope, its great table of horizon, its skies that dominate all earthly landscapes, and its great rivers: the Loup, the Dismal, the Niobrara, and the Platte. Nebraska contains the vast and quiet Sandhills where the population is less than one person per square mile. It shelters cranes, meadowlarks, and mourning doves. With our state, the trick is knowing how to find its beauty. Once when someone said Nebraska wasn't beautiful, my husband responded, "Come back with a better pair of eyes."
But Nebraska isn't my home because of its beauty. It is beautiful because it is my home. The curve of its hills and the songs of its cicadas have etched themselves into my mind. The landscape of my childhood is the Nebraska horizon. When I am away from here for more then a few days, I yearn for the sights and smells of Nebraska. Wherever I travel, I look for the geese overhead, the empty spaces, the cottonwood and Russian Olives that remind me of home.
As Eudora Welty said, "As soon as a man stopped wandering and stood still and looked around him, he found a god in that place." That's how I feel. Any place can be home, can be beautiful, if you stop and claim it, if you take the trouble to discover what is available to love.
While identity once came from place, demographic clusters have replaced place as the great definers. People in those clusters share the same activities, opinions, and tastes whether they live in London, Milan, Hong Kong, or Lincoln. Everywhere is becoming everywhere else. Globalization, war, environmental catastrophes, and mass migration have led to an upending of cultures that affects all of us. Our world is often referred to as a global village, but it could perhaps be more accurately described as a global strip mall. It's tawdry, impersonal, and dull. Globalization means we all live in one ugly company town. Many of us are trying to find a way back to a place called home.
In the past century the Midwest where I live has undergone enormous demographic changes. All over the prairie, the lights have gone out as farmers have moved to the suburbs and little towns have dried up like tumbleweeds. Strip malls and sprawl have taken their toll on sense of place. Downtown cafes have closed, and the locals now drink coffee at the Arby's on the highway. As we travel the interstates, which Paul Gruchow called "tunnels without walls," we see the same stores, cafes, and hotels everywhere.
While a host of new inventions, gadgets, and technological tools have improved our lives, they too have eroded the fabric of family and community. For example, people with air-conditioning no longer sit on their front porches to cool down in the evenings; but without the supervision of neighbors, streets have become more dangerous. Automatic dishwashers have saved time for many women, but they have also eliminated time after dinner when family members worked together and talked.
All the technology of our times has its good uses, and any one invention probably wouldn't do that much damage; the problem is the whole pile. Cumulatively, all this equipment has changed daily family life. Quantity has replaced quality, and the integrity of our lives has been altered. Television-watching children have shorter attention spans and longer want lists, at the same time that they have poorer impulse control and fewer real skills. Not surprisingly, we have an epidemic of childhood depression.
Television and electronic media have created communities with entirely different rules and structures than the ones of the past. Families gather around the glow of the TV as the Lakota once gathered around the glow of a fire on the Great Plains. But our TV's do not keep us warm, safe, and together. Rapidly our technology is creating a new kind of human being, one who is plugged into machines instead of relationships, one who lives in a virtual reality rather than a family. And just as families have unraveled, so have communities.
Margaret Mead defined the ideal culture as one in which there was a place for every human gift. I know of no better definition. It includes both respect for the individual and belief in the ability of communities to foster growth in their members. It is hard to realize the gifts of people whom we do not know; it is impossible to develop our own gifts without a web of human relationships. It is also harder to be kind. Because we don't know the people with whom we are interacting, we can't inquire about their problems or empathize with their troubles. We don't notice that they look stressed or tired. We can't congratulate them on their children's victories. If we see social interactions as the web that holds our lives in place, that web is torn and tattered by the effects of our technology.
Your web of community doesn't have to be where you were born or grew up. It doesn't have to be a small town; it can be a suburb, a city, or a remote corner of the country. But it does have to be a real place that you have committed to over time. It has to be a place where you have friends and know the names of many people you meet. You know who is kind and honest, who lies, betrays, or fools around. Home is where people care if you have a speeding ticket or a fever. It's where people ask about your grandbaby and your day lilies and know your favorite kind of pie. It's where when you sit down to talk you don't have to discuss Tom Hanks or Benecio del Toro. You have real people in common.
Bill McKibben defined a working community as one in which it would be difficult for outsiders to fit in. That's because the information in the community would be specific, related to that time and place, and grounded in the history of it inhabitants. Songwriter Greg Brown said, "Your hometown is where you know what the deal is. You may not like it, but you understand it. You know the rules and who is breaking them."
I know a family who moved back to New York City after September 11. The wife told me, "That is where our people are. We need to be with them." A gay couple I know have inspired many of their friends to move to the outskirts of Omaha. They come there not for Big Red football or the steaks, but for the camaraderie and mutual support of their long-term buddies. I know a couple whose son and daughter-in-law lived in California. When the daughter-in-law became pregnant, they wrote the couple a "letter of invitation." They didn't want to pressure their son and his wife to return to Nebraska but they wanted them to know how welcome they would be. They wanted to remind the young family about what was good in our state. In the letter, they mentioned the safety, the ease of travel, the low cost of living, the wide-open spaces, and the good educational system. They wrote about the love they would give a grandchild and the ways the family could help each other if they shared a community. Much to the joy of the parents, the children decided to come home.
Communities are real places, chosen as objects of love, with particular landscapes, sounds, and smells, and particular people who live there. Communities are about accountability, about what we can and should do for each other. People who live together have something that is fragile and easily destroyed by a lack of civility. Behavior matters. Protocol is important. Relationships are not disposable. People are careful what they say in real communities because they will live with their words until they die of old age.
Connections have a way of making us morally accountable. At a most basic level we behave better with people and places we will see again and again. Some of the worst behaviors in America occur in airports and on interstates, places where we move among strangers.
Responsibility is directly related to scale. The smaller the group, the stronger each member's sense of duty. Morality is learned by children from real people who are with them every day. They learn that their actions affect other people, and they learn that their own lives will go better if they behave well. It is a simple thing, to be in a place where good behavior is rewarded and bad is punished. In that sense all morality, like all politics, is local. This is why faith communities are so important: they are local communities that teach and practice morality; they help us live responsibly with each other. But the further we are from home, from our people, the less likely we are to see a strong connection between our own behavior and its consequences. There is no accountability in a global village except a ledger sheet. And money is not morality.
Strong communities also treasure and maintain the special names, stories, and history that define particular places. Bill Holm wrote, "We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors no matter how many machines we invent. Only our memory and our metaphors carry us forward, not our money, our gadgets, or our opinions." Names, stories, and history are intertwined. We cannot love what we cannot name. One of the best ways to instill community is to teach names of local people, birds, plants, rivers, and sacred sites. Communities are much enriched by local history books. Older people, who are in a sense living history books, greatly benefit a community by telling stories to its children. Yellow Springs, Ohio, had an environmental mentor program in which an older person was paired with a young person. The pair walked around town and talked about the town's stories and how the place used to be.
We owe a great deal to people who came before us and to what Paul Tillich called "the structure of grace in history." Communities need ways of sharing stories. This is one of the most primal experiences of humans, to be together telling stories of the day. To be a member of a community is to have a voice and a face in that community. One must be a part of the legends, the colorful characters and the heroes who help define place.
Community occurs where there are public spaces sidewalks, bike trails, parks, outdoor markets, and churches. Ray Oldenberg writes in The Great Good Place that there are three essential places: where we live, where we work, and where we gather together for conviviality. Those communal places are needed now more than ever.
Diversity in community is as healthy as diversity in any ecosystem. Without diversity in age, ethnicity, and ideas, we don't have communities; we have lifestyle enclaves. Community does not mean "free of conflict." It's inevitable and even healthy to have great differences. Even conflict can lead to closeness. As Dennis Schmitz wrote, "Humans wrestle with each other, and sometimes that wrestling turns into embracing."
A strong community will include people of different ages, ethnic backgrounds, socioeconomic status, and interests. Community, communication, and communion all come from the same word, meaning "together" and "next to." Embedded in the word is the concept of shared place.
The more one travels and has contact with the world, the more one needs a home. The more we live in a global shopping mall, the more important it is to look at the stars and visit with our neighbors. The cure to the cultural colonialism of global shopping malls is loving our hometown. "Provincial" and "parochial" have traditionally had negative connotations, but they can also mean the sacredness of one's town. As Terry Tempest Williams has written, "It just may be that the most radical act we can commit is to stay home."
Mary Pipher, an author and psychologist in Lincoln, Nebraska, is a frequent contributor to UU World and a member of the Unitarian Church of Lincoln. This essay is excerpted from a new Beacon Press anthology, Sustainable Planet: Solutions for the Twenty-First Century; © 2002 by The Center for a New American Dream, reprinted by permission. Available from the UUA Bookstore, (800) 215-9076.