In the past few years I’ve encountered a number of people in their 20s or 30s who feel stuck in Indiana.
They’ve lived in California or New York or a place that spoke to a personal interest – maybe a live-music Mecca like Austin or Nashville, or a culinary hot spot like New Orleans or San Francisco. They may work in a high tech industry and now feel isolated from Silicon Valley, or their hobbies revolve around water or hiking, but now they live far from the mountains or the beach.
Most of these folks came home to Indiana at a moment of life transition to be near family or to start a family. They took a job here, maybe got married or had a child - got dug in, and now they lament that Indiana isn’t really a hotbed of anything. The exciting environment they once enjoyed elsewhere feels out of reach.
I’ll admit to getting a little defensive when these folks go on about how fabulous life is somewhere else. Because it’s never just an appreciation of somewhere else, but also a criticism of here – my home.
Maybe I’m defensive because I too came home to Indiana from far away in my 20s and found my home state wanting. I felt stuck. But I got married, had children, and built a life for myself. When someone in the same situation finds it unbearable, maybe deep down inside it feels like an indictment of the choice I made.
But at the same time, I’m sympathetic with their frustration.
Last month I spent a few days in Asheville, North Carolina. It’s a beautiful place in the mountains (which we don’t have here), named by the New York Times as one of the 10 best American cities for quality restaurants (Indianapolis didn’t make the list), has more micro-breweries per capita than any other city in the U.S. (my town has just one), and is a lefty-liberal town filled with beautiful architecture (while we’ve got some nice architecture, it’s pretty red around here). Since returning home I’ve told about a dozen people that I could quite happily move to Asheville.
But I have to remind myself what I say to those 20 & 30-somethings: “If everybody who wants a more diverse and dynamic community moves somewhere else, this place – your hometown, is guaranteed to be less diverse and dynamic. We’ll never have mountains or the ocean a half hour drive away, but it’s at least conceivable we could have everything else.
But how much of your life are you willing to spend waiting for it, nurturing it, promoting it, when you could just move to one of those inspiring places and have it on day one?
And I don’t mean to make this a political thing, but it’s a glaring reality that most of the artistically & socially dynamic city’s around the country are “lefty-liberal” places (my term) – places where the artsy and left-of-center folks have clustered to share their interest with like-minded people, often nurtured by a nearby university.
So if you’re feeling stuck among too many people who don’t share your world-view, you’re not alone. The residents of most compelling places are frustrated with what they’re surrounded by. A liberal friend considered moving to Athens, Georgia because it was such a cool place, never mind it’s smack dab in the heart of a very conservative state with a less than stellar civil rights history. Everyone raves about Austin, but it’s in the gun-toting/death-penalty capital of America – Texas. And Wisconsin’s former governor referred to the popular college town of Madison as, “30 square miles surrounded by reality.” Even in Asheville last month, they were lamenting their state’s recent passage of an anti-gay marriage referendum. Store fronts, sidewalk graffiti, and telephone pole placards wept with outrage.
Most dynamic communities in America amount to acreage surrounded by “reality.” In other words, they’re places that the residents make compelling by doing and supporting what others find unreasonable or unnecessary. They have the best farmers markets, the best restaurants, the best festivals, the best live music and art venues, the most livable, pedestrian-friendly communities. Yet, for some reason, creating it and supporting it at home doesn’t occur to lots of Hoosiers.
It’s here though, in bits and pieces. But if you don’t support it, what good is it? And if you don’t support it, how can it flourish?
I have a variety of friends who I seek to spend my time with because they seek out the compelling. A week ago I went to see Joseph Arthur – a nationally successful alternative rock musician, at Radio Radio in Fountain Square. That group of people go off to see great small shows like this all the time, shows that often don’t sell out because most Hoosiers don’t see going out to live music as a regular part of their lives (most instead attend big arena shows on rare occasions when their favorite band from high school or college comes through town). I went with the same group to the mid-west Brew Fest in February where we tasted beers from microbreweries from around the state.
Another group of friends are foodies who seek out independent restaurants and food producers doing interesting things. And they find it here in central Indiana. You may have to do a little driving, but it’s here.
Another friend started an outdoor climbing, hiking, and canoeing outfitters store to nurture like-minded folks. And yet another friend has established a growing group of women who see childrearing, healthcare, and female empowerment a little differently than the norm. With self-deprecating humor they insist they are not, “dirty hippies.”
All of these folks are creating their own unique world, expending energy, following their passion, drawing the world they want closer to them.
Sure, it’s a very American thing to just pull up roots and go replant yourself somewhere else. But I think there’s also something to be said for embracing where you are, blowing on the embers of what you like about it, and trying to make it grow.
So you 20 & 30-somethings who are feeling stuck in Indiana, I understand, and I don’t really blame you if you leave, but think long and hard before you start packing. It’s possible that the assumption that what you want isn’t here is the main reason you can’t find it.