Living in a small town: Plugging in to the "community within the community"

Copyright National Lilac Publishing, LLC

One of the secrets to enjoyably living in a small town is knowing there’s a hidden community within the community, and then how to plug into that gracefully in a way that’s mutually beneficial to all. I’ll explain what I mean by the hidden community within the community below and how some of us who moved to small towns many years ago discovered it as newbies to town, and learned how to plug into it.

Though it’s a vast oversimplification, for illustration’s sake let me divide towns of all sizes into three types of community.

First, there’s the first layer of community: the very publicly-pushed  community. This is seen more often in larger cities. Nationally advertised festivals, blinking neon signs describing music and comedy shows, large buildings for ongoing events such as the Seattle Paramount Theater or Chicago’s Wrigley Field. Sometimes, those who actually live nearby these events rarely attend. They’re just as often a tourist attraction. Small towns have a touch of this, also, although the signs are smaller and they’re not screaming at passersby to join in.

Then there is the second layer of community: Such as the public library’s new mystery book club, the Parks and Recreation Department's drop-in basketball nights at the local high school, a small meditation group that maintains a flier for others who may want to join at the local health food store. They meet in an otherwise out-of-view space above the yarn shop. Or there's the little fabric store’s monthly quilting lessons, a fly-fishing group demonstrating fly-tying that only has a little announcement up on the bulletin board at the hardware store, or an active photography club that only relies on word-of-mouth and meets in the rental space above the pizza shop, guided trail walks for kids and parents announced in a back page nature segment of the city's newsletter.

When living in a small town, if you put your heart into it, you discover this second layer is sometimes huge, even though the little town itself may seem sleepy to passersby and somewhat void of the first “neon layer” described above. I could not believe the treasure I’d found when moving to my small town. Both for while raising kids and then as an independent adult.

The third layer is the type of community where in general, you’re first specifically invited to join rather than the gathering being open to anyone interested. A group of quilter friends who meet in each others’ homes, a handful of buddies who spend every 3rd Sunday fishing together, some pals who love major league sports and host family big screen get-togethers in one of their homes, some folks of Croatian descent gathering each month for an ethnic meal, a Shaman who likes to host drumming circles in her home.

We usually miss out on the third layer when we first move a new small town unless we came already knowing people who live there.

But the path to plugging in or expanding one’s third layer of community is usually to start out via the second layer. Not so much the first layer. Even though you feel unplugged and so want to fit in, remain patient and continue with the second layer of community. Gradually, over time, you'll emerge into the third layer -- and you'll be one of the community within the community.

Here's an example of how the second layer of community usually works better than the first layer for plugging into that third layer. Our small town hosts a huge art show that attracts people from across the region. It’s a fun event to go to for its own sake, but rarely a place to get to know locals. The locals who are involved are usually very busy already managing the event, and many others who attend or are involved aren’t even from this small town.

However, when one attends second layer activities, eventually they become more familiar with the actual locals in the groups, and from there, one or two or more will become closer friends.

When moving to and living in a small town, just remember plugging in doesn't usually happen overnight, and it also doesn’t happen in a simple, one-two-three linear straight line. Here are two examples:

I know a man who loved basketball and moved to a brand new small town. He had a great, natural sense of humor, and also didn’t know anyone in town yet that he really clicked with. He did, however, enjoy the local drop-in basketball league (a second layer activity) just for basketball's sake. He wasn't really thinking of getting to know community members in that manner. Nothing happened for a while as far as getting closer to the locals. But as time went on, he noticed that almost every time he made a good shot and scored, one man would always say something funny, such as, “Who do you think you are, me?”

Eventually they started talking about their families and wives, and the two families started hanging out together and became very close friends. From this connection of two people, each introduced the other to more possible connections the other would not have known about without that one initial connection. So from one second layer activity, eventually one good friend was made which led to other close connections and third level invitations.

Here’s yet one more thing to remember for those new to living in a small town. I went to an open book club in a small town I was new to, and of course knew no one. One person was very, very friendly and I thought a new friendship was going to develop quickly. But it turned out she just wanted to convert me to her religion -- one I had long since chosen not to follow. So I didn't pursue the friendship. Yet during the meeting, another woman mentioned a great place she and her husband traveled to, and I was curious about that location.

After the meeting, I asked if I could have her e-mail address. I was hoping to learn more about her travel location via e-letter writing. Her response was somewhat reluctant, and as she wrote her e-mail address down for me, she even said, “I don’t really know what you’d want it for.” I almost felt guilty taking it. But I was so curious about that location I e-mailed her anyway. In her response, she said she hoped she’d see me again, and eventually, we met for lunch and for other gatherings, and through her suggestions, I found even more networks of community I didn’t even know existed.

So when living in a small town, remember first appearances aren’t always what they seem. I would have thought that woman had written me off, but it turned out to be she who pursued the friendship and then she led me to more great group activities at the second and third level. So, from within one group of people where only one person became a good friend -- even she didn’t seem friendly at first -- I gained an extremely warm and loving friend, which led to other third level invites into the community.

When living in a small town or anywhere, certain third level community connections you've made -- certain people -- may now and then even seem to naturally back off a little at times, and that’s fine. You may wonder if you did something to alienate them. Just keep engaging in that second layer of community, and new opportunities will emerge, while those other backed-off friendships will often incubate and come back around again renewed and even better. This allows friendships to support dynamic growth and change rather than becoming restrictive as what some people say their extended families or co-workers do to them.

Expect the third layer of community in a small town to emerge eventually, possibly not in the way you expected, and for it to take twists and turns. And that even if joining in on second layer community seems uncomfortable at first when you’re new to a small town, that feeling fades and can help bring about the third layer sooner than if you hope it just comes knocking at your door without that second layer bridge.

When I think of living in a small town and what I most enjoy about it, both the second and third layers of community are the real connections, the real community one finds after residing in a small town for a while.


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