Recently, my mother and I hosted a political fund-raiser on my family's farm in Marion, S.C. Ostensibly; the event was to introduce the people in my hometown to the man who will likely be their next senator.
More often than not, however, conversation turned away from politics and toward the common ideals of small-town life. "I just love the way you give credit to your home town," exclaimed a childhood neighbor. Next thing I know we are chatting away about old acquaintances and extended family members. Why do we fall so easily into recollection of our small-town lives? I quote director Frank Capra, who once described the appeal of his movies as "the rebellious cry of the individual against . massiveness - mass production, mass thought, mass education, mass politics, mass wealth, mass conformity."
The small town I grew up in hasn't changed much in my 43 years. The town consists mostly of farmland. The stores are one-room Spartan affairs. On most sunny days you will still see children swinging cedar pales full of berries. During the course of their casual conversations, the adults will even - gasp - make eye contact.
Here in Washington, we talk politics obsessively, but rarely do we actually listen to one another. One cannot catch a cab without being assaulted with the ubiquitous sound bites about the Middle East or the war on terrorism - often exchanged in low-level snarls. Then one turns and walks away. When so many people are crowded so close together, we are conditioned not to communicate, not to reveal oneself, not to show weakness. We wade through the sprawl, doing our best to project a sense of masculine dominance. We are the products of a large national empire, not a republic. This is progress. But God, the illogic of going weeks without having a genuine conversation, or running into a friend!
In America's small towns, you cannot move three blocks without running into a friend. I know the people in my hometown. They know me. When a person is sick, someone from the neighborhood will always take a day off from work to help nurse him or her back to health. When a farmer is short of a hand, he can call on a neighbor. We take care of each other. When my father was ill, his hospital room quickly became so cluttered with food, gifts and well-wishers that my family began to worry that he was not getting the rest he required. All in all, this is a good thing.
You cannot maintain tradition in the city where so many people are packed so densely together. But the landscape of my small-town youth was animated with the sweet scents of baked pies, prepared by a different family each week for the local preacher. In a small town, tradition means more than repetition. Tradition is the manner in which we express a common understanding, a sense of community.
Such are the very common joys of my small-town life. Joys that I remain very sensible about, for I know what it is to live in a community and to share common ideals. This sort of life is rooted in human interconnectedness in a way that much of American life has ceased to be.