In some ways, Yellow Springs, Ohio is all I ever wanted in a place to live.
When I was a kid I dreamt of living in small towns, where everyone knew everyone, friends ran into each other and hung out in small groups in front of stores, friends who never had to call to make plans, only to meet on the street, or yell out the window, because they all lived so close, where said stores were reminiscent of decades, quarter-century, half-century past, where families congregated outdoors, neighbors gossiped over a grill, where kids played in the obligatory adjacent lake or wood or whatever.
When you’re a kid you always want something different, something exotic. I spent much of my youth reading children’s novels from the 40s, 50s, 60s, that took place in California, the South, northern Canada—but I lived in the 80s and early 90s in the most densely populated and unneighborly areas of Rhode Island. Such small-town existences were quite different from the life and environment I knew, and feeling isolated from and alien to my own time and place, I idealized them. The zenith of this fantasy was in 1993, and it was also the beginning of the end, probably because it was the beginning of my adolescence (I turned 12 that year), when I had to put aside such childish thoughts and be miserable in the concrete reality in which I existed. That year, I watched (and then read) Fried Green Tomatoes and was nearly crippled with saudade*. (My connection to and crush on Idgie Threadgoode didn’t help.)
I didn’t make the connection between that desire—which took up most of my childhood—and living in Yellow Springs off-and-on these last four years. It’s probably because of the off-and-on thing: I was still never establishing a real foundation anywhere. It’s probably because I was in school full-time, and spent most of my time on campus. I didn’t become a “regular” in town until halfway through my third year as a student. And then this summer, spent in the town, after graduation, which saw me on my old stomping grounds of campus for about a half a dozen, mostly brief visits.
I think I had imagined a bit of my small-town-dream when I was just beginning to hang out in town—as an outsider. Once I started becoming part, I forgot—I never thought, “I’ve realized the dream.”
Was that because some dreams can never come true, never feel true? That my desire existed only as an outsider, a dream of belonging that was too idealized to happen, so that the closest I get, isn’t even close?
Perhaps. But it’s also because I discovered I was picky about the small-town life of my dream, which I only could have discovered through getting closer. (You don’t know what you have until you lose it, and you don’t know what you want until you nearly, but not quite, have it.)
I wanted an old-fashioned town. Yellow Springs is very contemporary. I did not want a college town. I wanted a town with more than just post-Victorian history. I wanted a humble town. I did not want a pretentious, self-righteous town. I did not want “The Twilight Zone.” Not in my small-town-dream, anyway.
Four miles down the road, past farmland and cornfields, is historic Clifton, Ohio with the historic Clifton Mill. It is nineteenth-century loveliness, with old buildings (many boarded up and waiting for someone—me—to restore them), a touristy area for the mill, single crossroads with a Union School, “antique” shop, all-American food, ancient storefronts and soda signs, the whole lot.
It’s the town of my dreams—or at least, it may have been, at one time. Indeed, it has almost nothing going on: It is tiny, there are so few businesses, and no one’s hanging outside, or in the gift shop. Could be timing.
And again I am an outsider. I even tried, so hard, to dress more conservatively, but I clearly don’t belong. The guy at the antique shop greeted me with, “Is this your first time here?” Could be he knows everyone. Could be I am just clearly an interloper. Whatever.
I walk around more self-conscious than I ever was in Yellow Springs, even when I first got there.
The things about Yellow Springs that make it a town that could never be the town of my dreams are precisely those which make it a town that I can feel comfortable in and part of more than most places. The politics and lifestyles of its inhabitants are as close to my own as any mass’ will ever most likely be, particularly for a small, isolated Midwestern town. But those politics and lifestyles are not a part of my small-town-dream—they are too modern, too complicated, too unromantic and unidealized and real.
This is all part of my normal-fantasy, I’m sure. That lifelong, compulsive, off-and-on pull that says, “You want to be like everyone else (whatever that means), don’t you? You want to just go with the flow, don’t you? You want to stop fighting, stop going against the grain, stop making your own path, don’t you?”
Because that’s all very exhausting, this against-the-current, own-path thing, and often doesn’t feel terribly rewarding. To give in, to let go, may just be akin to a Freudian death-drive, but it is emotionally very tempting. Yellow Springs may be the only place I haven’t felt the constant need to justify my lifestyle (or else hide it), my existence, and any thought I decide to place somewhere outside of my head, but I know it’s too small to never leave, and that eventually, one day, I will have to venture forth into a world that regards me as alien. That awareness is all I need to never really be able to rest.
But if I could just belong in a place like this. How romantic and ideal and dream-like it could be! I wouldn’t even have to totally belong—look at Idgie Threadgoode.
I’m losing it, though. I’m losing my knack for idealizing, for a distinct and specific saudade. It’s being replaced with an unimaginative pragmatism and a tiny, implaceable, implacable nagging.
A result, maybe, of growing older, of knowing too much to think that anything’s possible, to truly want something you can clearly imagine, even if you know it’s not really possible. And I am not old enough to have it replaced with something new and equally exciting and hopeful, only with disappointment and a vague sadness.
* Saudade: Portuguese word for an emotion akin to nostalgia but tinged with hope, also sometimes translated as a longing for something that does not and perhaps cannot exist.
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