Big Fish in a Little Pond, by Kelly Grieve [Catechize #7]

One of the most important reasons I moved to Savannah was because it had its own art scene. Culture already existed here. In my hometown, culture was strictly limited to one community theater, one sluggish gallery and one quiet and high priced art supply store. Where I’m from, a coffee shop can’t even keep itself above water. I know this because I was a barista at two different cafes that folded there and watched on as a regular at two more that couldn’t sustain as well. Its essentially a truck stop town. Big enough to be called a city, complete with rampant drug issues like meth and Adderall but also from everyday prescription medications sold between friends, exchanged for other drugs or swapped for food stamps. It’s actually a pretty little place outside of the two business lined roads that make up the bulk of its commercial district. Then confetti cannon some Sheetz, bars, clubs, churches and beer distributors and that’s pretty much it unless you want to go into the lucrative elder care industry. Its saving grace is it’s natural temperate beauty: rivers, creeks, forests, deer, springs and lakes. The nature itself is almost enough to make you want to stay but the socio-economic development is so sprawling and crawling that options are severely limited and maintaining one’s livelihood is a bleak and daunting task many put off until the last possible second or muddle through on TANF and medicaid.

It’s a modest world, predictable. You pick a playdough mold and cram yourself in. I tried but I was neither desperate enough to succumb to a life of endless poverty nor was I phony enough to put on the douche mask and exploit what and whoever I could just to leverage myself into the paper doll society that was clearly punched out of the “Big Fish In A Little Pond” activity book. Some people tried to push the envelope while I was there. Those people were scorned at best and ostracized or sabotaged at worst. I watched some stab each other in the back, smiling in the faces of those that they used. Others I witnessed forcing a civil grin upon their lips. They tried to maintain a respectful rapport whilst being openly patronized by entitled donors that were grandfathered in by their seniority, piousness or bank accounts. The holy trifecta held a monopoly on such committees, quietly elbowing out any progressive disruptions to the old agendas. Year after year for a decade I lingered back in the shadows, deliberately removed from the choices, decisions and the positions of authority. I purposefully opted out of contributing all that I could as there was always evidence of those who dare try to express genuine opinion being nudged and/or intimidated into silent subordination. I watched too many caring souls pour their hearts and effort into thankless delineations of service. Unsung heroes were discarded without explanation, targeted, smeared, cliquishly banished or clucked out by Harper Valley type hens or Peyton Place pretension. A wave of no tolerance swept in, suddenly those who laughed off the smoking joints of the antiquity with tumblers in their hands one night were shaking their fingers at the grunt workers who imbibed in a few brews the next night. Those poor blue collars building all the worlds were barked at by the self ordained. Free laborers constructing openly what would become the next itemized spreadsheet to be submitted through the document whispers of administrative closed doors milking the next teat of government for a yearly stipend, just like applying for welfare but with a pancake layer of faux prestige on to fool the underlings into thinking not everyone was a beggar. But they all were. That’s how America runs.

For so long I tried to divert my attention from the loss of diversity, the demolition of acceptance and inclusion at the place we once called a community; before we realized that the “com” stood for competition. On a tiny dot where the people you knew were all you had, if you didn’t agree with them you just had to keep your mouth shut and keep your dreams to yourself. By the time I was 35, I knew that being quiet was literally making me sick. I wanted better for my daughter’s future, my partner was talented and deserved a better chance at exploring his abilities. Sure, he already had a greater chance to entertain options coming from a more lofty income bracket growing up but that town was still a rut and he and I both knew it. We entertained the idea of moving to Pittsburgh, I had already lived there and knew my way around. My partner was not remotely interested as told me he hated bigger cities. Funny with all the anxiety I had, his was more easily triggered by traffic, greater populace, and bustling commerce. I thought it would make a nice stepping stone, not too far from family so our daughter could adjust and also neighbors alongside my partner’s high school friends. He simply did not gravitate toward the idea even with his friends and family near to compel him. I searched South. North was out of the question as the winter exacerbated my skin condition, so I investigated the coastal cities. Looking for film, art and a smaller scene. Savannah had it.

We all loved the small town size, no big ugly buildings and a community that could be embraced. It was a place where the arts could thrive without our participation. I didn’t feel responsible for holding it up or checking the power. We didn’t make or break things there. It would progress with or without us. Cultured became a choice instead of a curse. We could dip our feet in, take our time and find out slowly where we belonged. I needed to mend. I had felt overexposed to so many people in my little town and we all needed to reinvent ourselves. Family was going to be a hard thing to separate from, my daughter loved being with my mom as did I but my sister’s world was always mayhem and my mom was focused on stabilizing that much of the time. My mother was in high demand. People dropped by all the time for her company and advice, but for the most part she seemed overwhelmed by it all. Bonding time was exhausting for her. I don’t know if it’s just natural for the women in our family to feel that way but my company felt like more of an intrusion than I would have liked it to. With my younger sis always needing more, I felt like it was just time to become scarce.

Looking back often aches, the histories and sometimes conjured legacies of life: friendships, family ties that bind, lost love, idealized conditions. The last chapter can be nostalgic and lamentable, particularly if it was especially traumatic or destructive. But the show must go on regardless of the cue that was missed, the number that was botched or the line that was dropped or misread. Forward time tows even the moments without momentum, the currents yank us downstream if we don’t get ourselves caught up in the debris. My hopes drift on the gentle fluidity of faith, they sputter in the sharp unpredictable rapids; they wait in the standing water of uncertainty and they resume by floating upon the beckoning call of fate. The only thing that I venture to lose is only the power that I take away from myself. These words are the sticks that have been thrown, the mud that has been slung, the bricks that have been hurled and I have and will make use of the tools that another has squandered. They have rendered themselves forfeit by denying the resources that could have been gratefully accepted by them were they not so quick to refuse the tool for the rust it had upon it. If they truly possessed the gratitude they demand, there would have been no need to demand it. Reciprocity is universal. True gifts are not material gains, they are the stuff of substance and compassion, unity and inclusion. What others think of us without truly knowing us is a surface effort on their part, a laziness. And when the hypocrisy of their accusation for our shortcomings arrives, we need only hold up a mirror to the ones that accost us so that they may look upon themselves. If they are incapable of searching the depths of their own reflection, it isn’t on us to dispel the illusion of vanity they have envisaged. Let them wander alone through the forests of denial or gaze forever into the pools of their own rationalization. For we have a journey to embark upon. While the colonists remain, the pioneers must venture on.

So much hurt about leaving but there wasn’t enough promise for us to stay. I had a lot of friends and family I barely saw, no jobs or opportunities to write or avenues to explore my talents through and in the end what was lacking was the chance for my daughter to find that. Here, she need only walk a few blocks to display art, perform music, act or produce on stage or for film and create a world all of her own with her unique and refreshing vantage point at the center. All of this is hers for the taking within mere miles of her home. This was something I never had the chance to accept. The same goes for my partner. Despite all the pain of his side’s withering expectations being shoved upon our family, my partner thrives. He stopped smoking cigarettes after 11 years. All drama aside, he’s still an apprentice learning a lucrative trade. He has listed and sold property and may yet again. He’s not out getting trashed and spending his entire life in a virtual world like he was when I met him. He cares for us and chooses to love us because he can feel himself becoming more of what he wants, not what someone else wants. It’s a bit lonelier for the moment for me but it’s a small price to pay to know the long term strength we’ll all gain from supporting him. His spirit is nurtured here. He is not being exploited to fill in the blanks of others lives now. He knows that here it is his choice to be expansive, creative, accomplished and self-sustaining. He is cultivating himself and no matter what anyone else does, he can feel it in his bones. He’s a stubborn soul and when he sets his mind to something, he gets it. No matter what comes along next, I am writing. My voice will not be stifled by those who only seek to weaken others. That shadow of our life is dead and buried back like fool’s gold in a treasure chest sunken to the bottom of a fake lake. The sea plays on the wind here. The weeds spring up through the tireless pavement. This heart may ache but at least it is true and beats only to flourish in all its salty potency. Sometimes the harshest of conditions produce the most resilient of lives.

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