Midwest Voices

Rural America sings a new song

Updated: 2013-11-30T23:50:16Z

By KEITH SCHWANZ

Special to The Star

My experiences have been worlds away from those of my parents. I’m convinced that the places we lived during our formative years made the difference.

I attended a high school with more students than the total number of citizens in the town where my parents lived when they graduated. My high school was in a metropolitan area. My parents went to school in rural Kansas.

I attended college in Chicago and lived big dreams. My parents endured winds that stirred the Dust Bowl and blew away dreams. So they followed the migration west and eventually moved to the city.

Forty-three percent of the U.S. population lived in a rural setting when my parents were teenagers. Fewer than 19 percent do so today.

Television has long caricatured the rural family. Reality show producers today walk a fine line between commodifying what may seem like peculiar behavior and not totally denigrating the rural persons who keep the dollars flowing.

A recent trip to my parents’ hometown challenged assumptions about those living in rural America. I’m beginning to think that some urban dwellers have erred in how they view life in small towns.

Things look different in rural areas. Unwashed by persistent glare, the night sky provides the black background in front of which a thousand stars dance.

Rural places sound different, too. Not bleached with the incessant hum of the city, the aural palette sparkles with the birds’ crisp singing accompanied by the breeze strumming the trees.

A sensory authenticity exists beyond the homogenizing effects of ambient light and white note.

The most noticeable difference I see, however, might be described as relational stability.

The religious order of St. Benedict values the stability of staying within a particular community for life. This commitment recognizes the positive consequences of nurturing long-term friendships and striving together for the common good.

Researchers have found that elderly people in rural areas report more satisfaction with their community, a greater happiness and less fear than those in urban settings.

My rural cousin sang in the same church choir for 60 years. He lived in the same house for 45 years. When he died, more than 500 people attended his funeral.

As an itinerant cosmopolite, I’ve directed church choirs in five states. I have lived in Overland Park for 12 years, my longest tenancy to date. If I died tomorrow, my neighbors would notice, eventually, but most would not attend my funeral.

These days I’m wondering about the unintended consequences of living in a transitory culture. The song of my youth that asked whether anyone stayed in one place anymore may have been prophetic for many in my generation.

Sometimes there’s just too much movement, too much blur.

I’m finding increased contentment in staying put and decreased interest in a supersized life. Maybe we city dwellers should click off televised caricatures and sink deeper relational roots for the well being of our children and grandchildren.

Keith Schwanz is a freelance writer living in Overland Park and the founder of Storian Press, a book production company. To reach him, send email to oped@kcstar.com or write to Midwest Voices, c/o Editorial Page, The Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64108.

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