Why is it that no one asks a New Yorker if he likes living there? Is it because living in New York implies a conscious choice, while people can hardly imagine that anyone would choose to live in the South, in a small town? My friends either see me as a Southerner who has returned, by default, to her native country, or as someone who is so obviously not Southern (even though I was born and raised here) that my living in Virginia must be some weird mistake.
Even I have had trouble seeing myself as a Southerner. I'm not really Southern in any official sense, by heritage or blood. I'm neither a Southern aristocrat nor white trash nor redneck nor "good country people." I came from a New England womb (by way of Russia) and landed, by accident of birth and my father's work, in an ugly, boring Appa-lachian mill town. I escaped, grateful beyond words, as soon as possible.
So: what the heck am I doing back here? First, I need to say that I did not return to the place of my birth. Second, I'll admit it: I was dragged back to the South almost kicking and screaming. I even considered canceling the wedding after my soon-to-be husband and I drove down to look for apartments when he was offered a university job here.
But the place has grown on me; it has grown back on me, like pulled-up ivy whose roots keep on sprouting.
I used to think all small towns were alike. I was especially sure that all Southern small towns were the same, and that the nameless, faceless small city of my birth was the only South. Anywere else had to be better. Especially somewhere big and up North.
But what I found was that even in the Big City, I acted as if I resided in a small town. I talked to people, even strangers, on the street; I learned their names and the intimate details of their lives. I patronized the same shops over and over so that the people who worked in them would remember me. I willed people to be nice, and usually they were. I treated the cold, heartless North as though it were just another small town.
Here, in this very small Southern town (population 7,000, if you count the college students), niceness is still a virtue. I get a kick out of going to the supermarket and running into friends or acquaintances; every errand becomes a party. When I spot friends as I drive down the road, we pull over to have a chat. The restaurants are so bad, we all invite each other over for dinner parties. When I do go out, I always see someone I know - perhaps the woman who used to run the copy shop where I photocopied my manuscripts (she asks if I'm still writing), or my son's social studies teacher, or the K-Mart checkout lady who likes to comment on my purchases. At concerts or plays, there is always someone to joke with during intermission. The principal knows the name of every kid in school. I am involved in local politics, and feel I can actually make a difference - although I also get accosted daily by citizens with one issue or another they think I can solve on the spot.
These comforts can probably be found in any small town. Yet there's something about living down South, especially in a state like Virginia (where the unofficial state motto is "But we've always done it this way") that seems to hone my sense of who I am. Not long after our arrival here, I asked a young man how it felt to be one of the very small number of Jews in the university where my husband teaches. He replied that, in a way, it made him feel more Jewish; he had to think about his Jewishness more often than he would were he surrounded by people like him.
I realized that I had felt much the same way as a Jew in the Tennessee factory town where I was born. I also felt that way as a writer in Lexington, Virginia. Living here informs me about myself. One of our most famous residents, the photographer Sally Mann, took a lot of heat some years ago when she claimed she was Lexington's iconoclast. Although I wouldn't go that far in describing myself, I find that the very idea of defining myself against something is liberating. I can make a difference with my opinions and ideas; they're not drowned out by the Hallelujah Chorus.
So the short answer is "yes." I do like where I live. I believe enough in the concept of free will to trust that if I weren't happy here, I would leave - and perhaps someday I will. But I also believe in the adult virtue of accommodation. It took me a while to "get my feet set," as Southerners say, but now I can view the changing universe from the vantage point of an old tree. Here I stand, well planted, surrounded by other familiar trees and young saplings. Together, we radiate enough warmth to withstand the vagaries of the weather, year in and year out.
That's why I live where I live.
Lisa Solod lives in Lexington, Virginia.