On A Small Town, In Particular

new phil christman just dropped

It’s about small towns, specifically midwestern small towns. I grew up in a Small Town, but contra Cougar-Mellencamp, I don’t know if I’ll die in one or not. Who’s to say.

Phil Christman’s bugbear here is the portrayal of midwestern small towns in literature and their position in the popular imagination. As he puts it in the subtitle, they are, with rare exception, portrayed and thought of as either places that stifle or places that nourish. All virtue or all vice.

Phil cites Spoon River Anthology as a major controbutor to this modern mythology, a book he finds interesting though he detects a streak of snobbery in Masters’ self-assurance that he has these people nailed down, that these secrets of the dead are the final truth of the place.

I have no stake or fully formed opinion on Spoon River Anthology as a whole. I just have my experience with a piece of it.

Spoon River Anthology was my high school’s One Act Play production my junior or senior year. Everyone who auditioned was cast, and we had the opportunity to read for multiple roles. I was cast as Doctor Meyers:

Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters, p 24

I remember the language taking time to have any effect on me. A childhood and adolescence spent in the hyper-literal, anti-art environs of American Evangelicalism tended to make even basic metaphor and allusion difficult to grasp for me. My own self-identity as the smart kid even worked against interpretation here: if I didn’t grasp it in the initial read, there wasn’t anything worth bothering with in the first place.

For the first several rehearsals the prose was dry and dead in my mouth. I knew the words but I didn’t understand them, didn’t know how to connect them to my own feelings and experience, and I was resistant to understanding the Other.

All to say it took an embarrassingly long time before I realized what Doctor Meyers’s poem was about, what occurred, what the aftermath was. The common human tragedy at the core of his character. An upstanding man helps a vulnerable woman who was raped, and though this was good, it leads to his downfall

When I realized what it was about, I vaguely remember making a joke about a coathanger and being lightly rebuked by my English teacher and director, Mrs. French. A gentle reminder that I should know better, that I did know better.

My performance was short and unremarkable. I don’t remember a lot of attendant praise, especially compared to my performance as Matthew in Anne of Green Gables the previous Autumn. But Doctor Meyers stuck with me, and I consider my rehearsal and performance of him to be a clear and decisive moment in my nascent political, moral, and spiritual formation.

Loath as I am to say it, through the power of art I learned to love one who I thought my enemy. It is clear to me now how little “pro-life” activists really care about people’s lives, but back then I was still on the inside. The enemy was THEM: the abortionists, the “urban minorities”, and the LIBERALS that coddled their godless ways. I, a particularly sheltered Christian teen at the time, surely already grasped the secret truths of the universe. It was the outsiders, the heathens, the city dwellers who were wrong.

And then the task set before me was to understand one who I was told to despise. As I read the words, spoke the words, they undid parts of me. Parts I considered familiar became alien. I saw not an enemy, but a man of bold love and conviction, who ruined himself to care for the least of these. I couldn’t quite compute how an abortion, what I thought of as murder at the time, could be an act of love and grace.

Though over the years I had forgotten the words, I hung on to that performance, that first spark of understanding, the pang of regret after a tasteless joke. It was one of the moments when I took a definitive step towards the kind of person I wanted to be, the kind of person I felt I should want to be.

And now, another half of my lifetime (so far) later, my thoughts return to the place that birthed those moments often, how it shaped the person I am at this very moment.

Like so many others of my graduating class, I left Milaca, Minnesota for the city. First Grand Rapids, Michigan, then Toronto, and finally Chicago, where I have managed to carve out a little life for myself, often in spite of my best efforts at self-sabotage.

My conception of my small town has vacillated wildly between the poles Christman describes: did Milaca stifle me or nourish me? The answer is both: I lived there.

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