Small Town City Self By Maura McDanel
There was a point in my life where I could walk past a freshly gutted deer hanging upside down from the ceiling of a garage and not flinch. Depending on your reaction to that sentence, I have separated the majority of you into two groups; those who I grew up with in Bemidji and those I met “AB,” after I left Bemidji. The majority of my life took place in Bemidji, a small town in Northern Minnesota where bonfires, trips to Target, and hockey games are the main social events. It’s the kind of place that when you go back, you run into people who know you, the names of all your siblings and parents, what you were like ten years ago, who you dated in high school, and if not, they probably know five people who could tell them everything about you in full. There’s a lot to love about Bemidji, but ever since middle school I knew I was going to leave. I didn’t dream of my wedding or husband when I got older, I dreamed of moving on.
Living in Chicago was something I never predicted for myself. City life is so different from anything I’ve ever known; the fast circulating energy, the grittiness, people everywhere, the lack of nature. I wanted to move to here to get over my fear of cities and never having lived in a city it was easy to build it into a scary lurking monster. In my head, I figured everyone in the city wanted to either kidnap me or rob me. Fortunately, as it turns out, most people don’t give a shit about where I go or what I’m doing! Everyone is just trying to get to where they’re going and doing what they need to do. And there is a lot to do. I’m in a constant state of awe because of it.
Back in my hometown there wasn’t shit to do, so my friends and I became very creative with finding entertaining activities. We would go bridge jumping naked at night, rollerblade on the lake trail, and hang up hammocks in the cemetery to take naps. And of course, sports. If you weren’t involved in an after school sports team, I don’t know what the heck you did with the majority your time. On weekends we’d find the group of boys we hung out with and “get” their cars. “Get” their cars means we’d find out whose house they were spending the night at, bring all the nasty stuff from our fridges (syrup, saran wrap, whip cream, and made sure one of us had to pee) and put all that stuff on their cars. Before you feel bad for them, we all had crappy cars and they would get us back all the time. The Galaxy Quest (my passed down legend of a Nissian Quest van) got “syrupped” real bad one time, so bad that my driver’s door was too sticky to open, as if it were glued shut. I had to exit through the passenger side for two weeks. That thing had a cassette player, sunroof, and a sky blue bean bag I replaced the middle seat with.
In the city I find myself doing “normal” stuff like going to concerts, drinking at bars, and watching movies. I love that if there is something I want to learn, there is a place in Chicago that I can take classes. I love that there are different pockets of people that are so diverse from one another. I love that there are so many different places to try new foods and that restaurants are open after 8pm. When I moved away from Bemidji I finally learned what a potsticker was. What a revelation! In the city I get to do all the damn artsy stuff I want. I get to wear my fun watermelon colored helmet and bike around, going to improv rehearsals, writing at coffee shops, and working in a metalsmith studio. I’ve tried so many new things that I never got to foster an appreciation for in Bemidji.
After four years of living in the city I still feel like I have two selves inside me; my small town self and my city self. It’s been a challenge to get into the flow of the busy energy of the city. I’ve never fully felt social anxiety until I’ve moved here. I’ve literally walked into a party and within 5 minutes left because I felt so overwhelmed. I scroll through Facebook and see the bajillion shows that people are performing in and constantly feel like I’m not doing enough, that I should always be striving for more. It’s been more of a challenge to create the deep friendships that I feel have evolved so naturally for me in the past. It takes so much more planning and effort to connect. Two miles in the city IS NOT THE SAME as 2 miles in the country. I’ve lost touch with friends I have made because they don’t live off the Blue Line. I feel like a little fish in a big cool pond with so many other cool fishies that already have other cool fishy friends. At times, it’s easy to feel replaceable here. It has taken my small town self for a loop. I’ve tried asking women out on friend dates, and it has been far more nerve racking than romantic dates because they don’t want to bone! All I’m offering them is my personality and that makes the stakes far higher! I’ve had one of my best friends who lives in NYC give me a pep talk over the phone before a friend date with a gal I thought was really cool and talented. She reminded me that I was a great catch and that anyone would be lucky to have a friend like me.
Whenever I go back to Bemidji it’s like a switch flips and I become my small town self again. Instead of responding with a look that says, “WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME?!” when a passing stranger says “hello,” I say “hi” back with a friendly half smile. I have more energy from not constantly worrying about my safety. I feel at ease with the lack of traffic and I want to create small talk with cashiers. Last time I went back, I went night canoeing with a friend from high school and forgot any other kind of night life existed. I saw stars dammit. It always feels nice to go back to that deep rooted familiarity. Being in nature reminds me of my humanity. I’m used to being the kid who played for hours in the woods carving my own walking sticks, who tried to heal trees with crushed up lake rocks, and who was constantly barefoot. In Bemidji, I resort back to things that used to excite me and make me feel connected, mostly stuff having to do with nature. I get excited when my brother shows me how much honey the bees have made, and inspecting the water levels of our lake. “Yup, the lake is up this year. It reaches the bottom of the dock!” I also wear my old cheerleading sweatshirt and my sweatpants with puff paint on them to bed just to really hit the nostalgia hard. I can almost see my sophomore year boyfriend pointing at me after he made a touchdown all over again.
Lately I’ve been wondering which self I should cater to. I try to combine both worlds by finding connection to nature in the city, but it’s a challenge when the biggest chunk of nature nearby is a park that always smells like hot pee. I could double down on city life and put my roots down here, choose expansion through learning from people. Or I could choose to feel more grounded in a smaller place with nature and make connections with a smaller network. The thing is, I want it all. My city self loves the variety and opportunity that living in a place with a lot of people brings. My city self loves watching people perform and make art. My city self loves being able to stay up late and order Thai food. My city self loves the progressive mindset. My small town self loves feeling valued and knowing an intimate small group. My small town self loves walks to clear the mind. My small town self loves the ease and space. My small town self loves showing up in a sweatshirt and calling it “good enough.” Maybe I can settle into that sweet spot when I visit Bemidji; ride a four wheeler chasing the guinea hens back to their coop in the morning, and make it to a bougie bar in Logan Square to drink signature cocktails by night fall.