The Distributist's Camera:
Snapshot in a small town
by Miki Tracy
"I am bound to praise the simple life, because I have lived it and found it good. When I depart from it, evil results follow. I love a small house, plain clothes, simple living….[T]o be in direct and personal contact with the sources of your material life; to want no extras, no shields; to find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter; to find a quest of wild berries more satisfying than a gift of tropic fruit; to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird's nest, or over a wild flower in Spring - these are some of the rewards of the simple life."
~John Burroughs, from Leaf and Tendril
Just beyond the fifty-seven glistening, verdant hills, in the far "nort"-eastern corner of St. Croix County, in west-central Wisconsin, around a lazy bend of sweaty, shimmering corn fields, past a fragrant swath of deep, dark alfalfa, and just a quarter-mile ahead of the granite-strewn knoll where so many of the local ancestry rest beneath a canopy of ancient creaking maples beside the old railroad track, there is a place called Kuehl's (think the keel of a ship), named for it's owners, sandwiched between the old dilapidated brick building that houses Mr. Cronk's tractor garage and the rural post office.
Most every weekend afternoon, I take a Benadryl and an aspirin to trick my sinuses and prevent my blood from curdling due to the assault of tobacco smoke I'm about to subject myself to, and I travel the three miles from my little house to Kuehl's to hold court with my friend Travis, the proprietor's son, and while the day away.
Travis is convinced that this geography and its people (which we have affectionately christened "Flannel Land") are going to crush his dreams and kill his soul if he does not flee…quickly. Like every young man with half a brain before him, he's got itchy feet, wings to fly, and lint in his pockets. I tell him that the only thing standing between him and Scotland, or Syracuse, or Spain, is his own front door--but he's not yet convinced.
Honestly, though, who needs to travel when you've got all of Tolkien and Dickens' motley brood living right here on Main Street's stoop? Who needs a ticket to the opera when there are juicy dramas fomenting right under your nose?
…Kuehl's is one of those magical places that hides its true self from all but those who are really looking for it. One of the last truly tenacious Mom&Pop shops, it sells gas and liquor and all the sundry stuffs that one might need on a fishing trip, including worms. It boasts a hot, steaming kitchen from which emits the curling lilt of country music on the radio, the delicious smells of onions and searing meat, and piles of the best fried chicken and potato logs (called "broasted" and "jojos" in the local patois) that you will ever find. Jim Kuehl, a proud, gruff, soft-hearted Mason (who reminds me so much of my own grand-dad) mock-begrudgingly owns this place with his equally soft-hearted wife, Mickie, and does himself a serious disservice by keeping his prices lower than most other businesses in the region. But in doing so he has also been of great benefit to his neighbors who will gladly drive out of their way to patronize him.
High atop the soda cooler sits a small television, which always seems to set the agenda for conversation during a lull, be it politics, the current headlines, a horse race or the weather.
And, so, here I sit with Travis and my needlework on lazy afternoons, watch the people come and go, listen to their many stories and do what one cannot, or does not, do in the Big City….I spend time with my neighbors and share in a life lived the way it should be.
Around the chipped white formica roundtable under a wall tacked with peppered sheets of all the local happenings, calling cards and smarty-pants signs ("Caution: Old Grump Crossing"), vociferous discussions play out over the ever-changing clutter of beer and soda bottles, coffee cups, and deli wrappers filled to brimming with luscious things that are supposed to kill us because they taste so good. Veterans from the last five wars, a few bent and broken, others full of memories and sympathy, drift in and out and bless anyone who's willing to listen with their own hard-won experiences. Teachers from the local school, the publisher of the Tribune, the librarian from two towns over, the local Lutheran pastor, and the state trooper who lives down the road--all appear at varied intervals to purchase gas or bread or a bottle of spirits, and stop just long enough to hear the news and tell what they know.
Did you hear that the Obermeuller girl is taking her calf to State?...Pray for Josh; he's going to be in rehab for the next six months….Mr. Jeske died the other night; would you make a hot-dish for his wake?...Natalie got kicked whilst gelding a horse....Mandy is finally getting married!
It seems that the more time passes, the more varied and layered the lives of these people appear to me. Like the patchwork of fields that roll away out beyond the glass door of this storefront, the lives lived around this valley are pieced together with relationships and interests and talents and beliefs as varied as the hues of a brilliant crystal prism. They weave in and out of one another, blending here and there, contrasting at short intervals, some shiny, others dull, each with its own character, all interesting and lovely to contemplate.
…Marcella arrives with Eleanor to sit in the corner booth, have their lunch, and talk quietly for hours about whatever it is that little old ladies talk about; Nelson the Anarchist Beekeeper rails against the perversities of big government before running out the door to his next project; Lloyd blows in like a small storm, all glower and snark, tanned and sinewy from tending the golf course under the wide, blue sky, to flirt sheepishly with Natalie; Carly has dyed her hair an ungodly shade of black, and sits quietly, dark eyes watchful under long, heavy bangs whilst she chews absently on that cupid's bow lip of hers….Sharon straggles in with a weird expression behind her brow to tell me that she has been diagnosed with ovarian cancer and it doesn't look good; might she "borrow" our dog, Daisy (that she loves so much), for company when she starts chemotherapy? Gail arrives to sit at our table because it's been a very long week at the factory and she just needs a good laugh….
What is supposed to be the hard-earned living of a single family in a small town, many miles of blacktop ribbon removed from the nearest large city, is, in fact, the proverbial kitchen table and confessional of an entire community. Out of this gathering place is borne the first word of births and deaths and accidents, weddings, separations, Darwinian mind-benders and so many fine accomplishments. From so many of these people come news of farmers in need of help, children in need of clothes, elderly in need of hot meals and anything else that might be important enough to broadcast via the Tin-Can Telegraph Wire which, as it just so happens, is pretty much anything and everything. And as I perch here, needle in hand, in this swirling, heady, smoke-filled store, raucous with laughter and music and near-constant chatter, I catalogue the memory of each bit of news, every story I hear, every prayer shot up, every Sven and Ole' joke, into the coloured cotton floss that pierces my linen canvas to remember where I was when.
Every Chesteronian who knows G.K. as their spiritual father knows well that the living of life is most often discovered in small, seemingly-inconsequential things. No need to pack a bag and go elsewhere! Entire, vast galaxies are contained in a word, a glance, a bottle of beer. I am peering through the lens of one who knows exactly why one should believe in the impossible, and why it is good to spend an occasional day lying on one's back, painting sweeping murals on one's ceiling with a broom and buckets of brightly pigmented paint. I consider afresh life in this too-small-to-be-on-the-map, dream-crushing, soul-killing town with a heart set ablaze with the realization that if I want to find faeries and castles and dragons to slay, I need go no further than the garden in my own back yard. Magic reveals itself in the turning of soil, the planting of seeds, the breaking of bread, the making of wine, picking wool off of fence posts by the roadside and flowers from the ditch, and in the hot, sweaty kisses of a play-wearied child. And falling in love--real, true, abiding love--happens all on its own, without warning, sitting at a chipped white formica table on a Saturday afternoon in the smoky, unassuming haze of all that is simple, sweet, common and holy, listening to tales told by one's neighbor and hearing in their voice the echo of GOD when you least expect it.
"The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see."
Yep. I get it….