This weekend, my husband started practicing some songs for an audition that he has coming up. One of the songs, “Small Town” by John Mellencamp, actually stopped me in my tracks. For the first time ever, I listened to the lyrics and thought about them on a deeper, more analytical level.

No offense, Mr. Mellencamp, but that song is bullshit.

Please, allow me to clarify. I grew up in a consummate “small town.” I lived just outside of the county seat (my parent’s driveway is exactly 3 miles to the single stoplight in the center of town). I would ride my bike in to town during the summers, and park it either at my aunt’s house, or bring it inside the single-screen movie theatre my parents and aunt and uncle owned. Every day, I would clean the theatre, using the huge space as my personal Broadway, singing Janis Joplin and Les Miserables at the top of my lungs, practicing my grand jetes and pirouettes on the creaky, green flannel stage (Seriously. The stage was covered with bright green flannel. Don’t ask me why), and reenacting entire movie scripts while sweeping the enormous, 300+ seat space. When I was done, I’d pour myself a Cherry Coke, and wander outside again, looking for one of my cousins to pass the time with before I had to start my second job, bussing and waiting tables at a restaurant owned by longtime family friends. Or, if I was lucky and didn’t have to work that night, I might have ridden down to the harbor, and gone for long, solitary walks along the shoreline of Lake Huron, exploring the woods and streams, the Old Depot, and the ravines that were just as large a part of my childhood as my mother’s open-faced apple pies or my Uncle John’s perennially burned barbeque chicken. I had a great, wonderful, surprisingly innocent childhood in a small town. I graduated in a class of 61 students, most of whom had been in my class since preschool at the old church along US 23. My father taught my English, Speech, and Drama classes all four years of high school. My mother and aunt worked in side-by-side offices in a clinic 500 yards from my school. At one point freshman year, I was in theatre class with my big sister, and traveled to Knowledge Bowl tournaments with my big brother. My cousin and I graduated in the same year. My aunt handed me my diploma (pushing the Superintendent of the school out of the way). I was, eternally, surrounded by people who loved me.

But it was also very lonely.

I never quite felt as though “I can be myself here in this small town, and people let me be just what I want to be.” I loved books. I preferred reading to fishing. I hated hunting, abhorred guns, and I knew, even at a young age, that I was politically left of center, believing in social programs and help for the underprivileged as well as women’s rights. I didn’t like drinking, or drugs. Even pot held no appeal to me. I knew the entire score to Les Mis, Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, Rent, and Miss Saigon by heart. I was a soprano, and loved singing the high, operatic parts. I corrected people’s grammar (I don’t anymore). I loved school. Since the age of seven, I wanted to get my PhD. I felt more comfortable talking to my teachers than to my classmates. My sister, just a few years ago, pointed out that while we were growing up I never spoke when I was around a group of people. Which is why everyone was so taken aback when I got onstage. I was electric. A natural. I was (and still am) a terrible liar, but a good actress. I used my characters as a way to forget about being me for awhile. Because I had no idea who me was. My characters might have been drug addicts, suicidal teenagers, homeless drunks, or happy-go-lucky optimists who have to deal with disappointment, but that was their confusion, not mine. In my mind, I didn’t belong anywhere. Even though I knew that there were more people who loved and cared about me in the three-mile radius in and around Harrisville Michigan than anywhere else on the planet, I still felt like an outcast. (I’m sitting here, thinking about all of the houses in town. If I was in trouble, being chased, needed to call someone, needed a drink of water, I honestly don’t think that there was a single house in the whole city where I couldn’t have knocked and gotten my needs addressed. Really. I can’t think of a single one.)

In order to find anyone else my age who believed, behaved, and acted the way I did, I had to drive 40 miles north, to the next county, where the nearest community theatre was. I was a different person there. Closer to being me. But still not entirely free. Starting in junior high, I became a regular feature at the local theatres. My father would drive up with me, every night, to rehearsals. He’d accept some small part in whatever play I was in, then sit in the audience and grade papers while I rehearsed and socialized with my new theatre friends. I cherish those memories with my father. We talked, gossiped like a quilting bee, sang along to the radio, ran lines together. I was closer to him than anyone else. But I still couldn’t tell him all of the things I feared, thought, and hoped.

I was a freak.

I never looked like the other girls. I always had very short hair, wore my brother's jeans, and preferred had a special love for purple lipstick (I still do).

I never looked like the other girls. I always had very short hair, wore my brother’s jeans, and had a special love for purple lipstick (I still do).

Around my friends and people I was comfortable with, I was funny, witty, talkative, and curious about sex. Though I was the last of my friends to lose my virginity, I was the first to admit that I masturbated, that I fantasized, that I lusted and desired. I didn’t know how to actually perform any of the acts that I saw on screen at the movie theatre, or read about in my novels, but I knew that I wanted to know more about them, which sent my girlfriends into waves of giggles. I laughed along, but inside, it hurt that I couldn’t talk about these things without being “outrageous.” I grew up dancing (I was terrible, while my big sister was the star—she deserved to be—but it was another place where I didn’t have to be Rachel for awhile), so I wasn’t ashamed of my body, or of being naked. When the girls had to start changing their clothes for gym class, I was the only one who didn’t try to duck behind a towel, or sneak into a dark corner of the locker room. And I was curious about their bodies. I wanted to see the other girls. I wanted to look at other breasts, thighs, shoulders, musculature. I wanted to tell the other girls that they didn’t need to be ashamed. They were beautiful.

I thought they were beautiful.

So beautiful.

And they all knew, just as I did, how wrong that made me in my small town.

For a while, I actually thought that my “wrongness” had to be explained physically. For the better part of a year, I truly thought I was a hermaphrodite. Both man and woman. How else could I explain wanting to touch, to hold bodies, regardless of gender? How else could I explain the thrill I got when my friend Melissa taught me how to dance to hip hop (The one form of music that was forbidden at my parent’s house. My father thought it was disrespectful to women.)—her knee and thigh pushed between my legs, her hand lightly guiding my hips to snap and cut to the pounding, intoxicating rhythm? It had to be a mistake of nature. Something internal. Invisible, but still present.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I felt comfortable with the concept of “bisexuality,” that I didn’t just shrug, “Oh, I just don’t think that love can be tied down to any one gender. If it happens, it happens.” In college, I found a group of friends who didn’t know my father, or my siblings. In college, I could be a “theatre kid” without being the only one. Also in college, I found that it wasn’t the acting I loved, but the stories. The words. The people. The communication. After just a year as a Theatre major, I switched over to Literature, where I really found my voice. Writing, studying theory, finding a home and a voice through the stories that spoke to me and through me. I found Rachel. I took lovers. Male and female. I wrote my father a handwritten letter, letting him know that I was bisexual. His nonresponse was all the response I needed. Unsurprised and unchanging. The women and men I loved, we were all okay with that. They let me be just what I want to be.

And then I fell in love.

With a man.

And then I moved in with a man.

And then I got married to a man.

And then I had two children with a man.

And moved to a small town.

On paper, I look like the opposite of transgressive. Faithfully and lovingly married. A stay at home mother. A graduate student. A frequent peruser of Pinterest and Houzz. I’m excited about a major kitchen renovation that we’ve just started in our two-storey house in an excellent school district. I’m hosting a cooking class in my home later this week, giving tips for how to set up a great pizza night for the kids. I drive a minivan. And I love it.

I look like I really belong in a small town.

Like I can breathe in a small town.

And, really, I can. Now. Because I know who I am. I’m comfortable with who I am. But it took a long time to get to this place. To get back to this small town.

Mr. Mellencamp, the problem with your song is simple: You found your home at a young age, because you never had anything to feel uncomfortable about in the first place. Straight, white, male, able bodied (even, dare I say, sexy?), talented, born in the American Midwest. People were destined to listen to you. You were able to “see it all” and “have a ball” in your small town, because who was going bar you access? It may have taken a little bit of time (and I know that you work hard. I’ve seen you in concert. Twice. It’s a good show, and I know from experience that bringing that kind of energy every single night for years on end is not easy), but your story IS the story of America, because “America” is a narrative created by people who look and act and think an awful lot like you.

But I’ve noticed, as I’ve gotten older, that a whole lot of people look like me, too. And don’t look like me. And, even in this small town, I can finally see a bunch of people who look and don’t look like me. All around. And THAT’S something to sing about.

Being a teenager who feels lonely and misunderstood is not a new narrative. I am exceptionally privileged. I can still come home. I can still return to that three-mile radius and find a lot of doors that will open, willingly and freely, when I walk up to them. I know a lot of people who had to take a much longer road. Who are still traveling that road. And who may never find their way back (or whose way back has been irrevocably blocked). Perhaps the story that we need to start spreading, Mr. Mellencamp, is not that we can all find acceptance within the confines and limitations of a small town, but rather that within these small towns are people and ideas and beliefs and dreams and desires that go beyond the typical “boring romantics” of what is accepted and expected. My small town created me, and hundreds of people who are just as strange, confused, unique, abnormal, curious, and different as I was and still am. People who are afraid and scared and ashamed of the things they keep to themselves. The song we need to start singing is one of recognition and support for our collective weirdness. The beautiful right in all of our strange little wrongs. Together, we can create what Virginia Woolf called a Society of Outsiders.

Now that’s a good song title!

So, okay, your song isn’t bullshit.

It’s just another part of the story. But not the most important part . . .

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