Growing up in Houston, living in Midland, Lafayette, and then Austin, you could say I'd lived in a fair amount of different places. However, they were all similar in the sense that I lived somewhat in a cocoon. Even when I worked with one group of people, played sports with another group, went to church with yet another group, I was always in a group of people with similar interests and fairly similar backgrounds (racial, socio-economic, education, etc.). Nothing wrong with that.
When I moved to the Boonies, and began living 10 miles from the nearest town (with a population of only 3,500), I soon noticed the difference. Especially when I began teaching high school, it hit hard. The people I went to church with were the same ones that I saw at the grocery store, and they were the same ones I taught, and the same ones I ran into when I wanted to be inconspicuous at the movie store. There was no anonymity; no safe zone. I felt a bit claustrophobic at times, and honestly still do occasionally. I don't think I could actually live IN town; at least I have my physical safe zone of acreage.
It fostered introspection, to determine why I felt defensive, why I felt almost violated running into people when I just wanted to be invisible. I realized that small towns create accountability, even unto yourself. I may dress up for a museum social event and look half-decent, but those very same people are likely to see and/or smell me sweaty in old work clothes the next day at the hardware store. Can't fake that. I may teach Sunday School on Sunday morning, but those same people will be drinking beer with me at the next quinceanera. I may be a lawyer now, but my clients know me personally, and remember me when I was barefoot and pregnant years ago.
Living near a small town has actually become quite liberating for me. I can be who I am, if only because I must be. I can be disjointed, unpredictable, outgoing, quiet, a mom, a student, a daughter, a friend, a "I don't know her, but I know who she is" person. I can make decisions based on what I believe to be best for me, and not worry about fitting in, because I now understand that I will be found out if I try to hide. I enjoy my uniqueness, rather than compare myself to others to make sure I fit in with whatever standard they currently embrace.
John Donne had it right and wrong when he wrote "No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main." I say we are all islands of individuality, but we are all protected by the archipelago of community. Ripples of waves wash ashore from other islands, and bring me gifts, but I am still separate. I am responsible for myself and the impact I have on others, but it is much, much more a gift than a curse. I need to keep my trash from washing ashore my neighbors' islands, but I need to be within easy reach.
Further, my small town gave me the opportunity to learn to appreciate and truly love people who are different from me. When crimes happen, I know and love both the victim and the perpetrator. I want accountability, but not revenge through hatred. I feel empathy for the truly poor, yet respect those that work hard more than those that have been given much.
Thank you, my dear small town, for opening my eyes and heart and soul.