I have lived in Meadville my entire life. I was born here. I went to school here. I started both a career and family here. Nearly 32 years.
But it wasn’t until about 6 months ago I decided I wanted to stay here – and be happy.
I can vividly recall an evening in my senior year of high school, out to dinner with my family, when the Counting Crows song Hanging Around came over the radio – “I’ve been bummin’ around this old town for way, way, way, way, too long…”
“This is my song,” I said. “I can’t wait to get out of here.”
I’d spent my teenage years lamenting the lack of entertainment in this small town. My friends would gather at someone’s house and complain about how we wished there was something to do. We were tired of the same things with the same people over and over. Our college years were on the horizon, and visions of big cities and bright lights were drawing us out like moths to the flame.
I never left.
A combination of trauma and undiagnosed mental illness had left me with coping mechanisms that wouldn’t allow me to leave. Trauma, as it’s happening, elevates the victim to a state of hyperarousal (feeling stressed, scared, sad, angry, powerless – all at a level that’s just too much to handle).
Left untreated, the victim will proceed to make subconscious efforts to avoid any situation that could cause that hyperarousal again, such as stepping out of your comfort zone to live in a new place and meet new people. Staying in a familiar situation, no matter how unpleasant, provides a much-needed feeling of stability.
And so, with my survival instincts speaking louder than wanderlust, I chose to stay. I went to Allegheny College, where I had taken classes during high school and knew the campus by heart. I took a teaching job in the same elementary school that I had attended as a student. I started a family in the town where 90% of all the people I know live. The monotony and constraints that I had once resented became my life raft. I stayed because it was safe.
That decision allowed me to live a stable, comfortable life. I met and married my husband, started a family, felt secure in my job, and had some friends. Everywhere I went I would see someone I knew, often someone who knew my parents and had watched me grow up. Occasionally I ventured out and participated in what was made available to me, attending community events like Second Saturday every now and then when I was looking for something to do. But I was never a part of them.
Imagine walking through a garden one day, enjoying the blooms without having planted a single seed; critical of the dry soil but offering no water. It’s nice while you’re there in the garden, but that’s as far as it goes. You leave with no intention of checking back to see how it’s grown. There’s no concern for it once you leave because you’re not invested in the outcome.
As I’ve done the work to heal and grow personally over the past few years, my relationship with my hometown has transformed. No longer reliant on the safety of known corners, I am meeting new people and exploring new spaces that have been here all along. What I’ve found is far beyond what I expected.
I have found people whom are invested – in each other and in the space we all share. They ask others what is needed, and search for ways to help get it. They selflessly offer a helping hand. They will fight injustices for people they don’t even know. They add immeasurable beauty to our surroundings. They don’t sit around and complain about what they wish were different. They sit together and discuss ways to create the home they want and believe we all deserve.
THAT. That is the breath and the heartbeat of community, and community is what makes a place worth staying.
Most of these people were strangers to me, but some I’d known for a while; I just hadn’t SEEN them before. I was too busy worrying about myself and how I was perceived. When I opened up and started looking out instead of in, I could fully appreciate them for the first time and our relationships became richer and more meaningful. The same happened with my connection to this town – I can appreciate it in a whole new way.
When I listen to my friends have conversations, I learn so much. I am made aware of hidden gems – trails to walk, restaurants to try, and events I hadn’t seen advertised. I hear about the challenges my neighbors are facing, realizing that those challenges are also my own. The struggles weighing them down are holding all of us back. I become familiar with the groups that have been working to address those issues and lessen the burden on their neighbors. I begin to see their vision and how I can be a part of it.
Maybe I can meet up with some people to pick up trash. I can volunteer to plan, set-up, or clean-up an event. I can create something beautiful in a public space that will make someone smile. I can be there for a neighbor and just listen, making them feel less alone. Maybe I could share my own story with my community and create an opportunity for deeper connection.
I can tell you now that I wouldn’t change any of the decisions I made that kept me here in Meadville. But if I were I to make them again, it would be for entirely different reasons.
I’m not here because I’m scared to leave. I’m not here to be comfortable. I choose now to stay in Meadville because I’m part of the community. These people and places are important to me, even the ones I’m not yet acquainted with. I recognize my ability to have an impact on my surroundings, working toward the freer and more joyful life we all deserve. I’ve begun to plant seeds in this garden and will return every day to tend to it, because the outcome is important to me. I’m invested, and that’s why I stay.
*** This piece was read aloud at the May gathering of Poetic Evenings, which also happened to be the first event of the 2019 Second Saturday Night Live series ***
The links below are all local groups committed to improving our community. This is not an exhaustive list – it’s only the beginning.