Finding Place in the Vibrancy
of Rural Life
Sept 11, 2017 | Words and Photo by: Elisabeth Fondell
A year and a half ago I quit my corporate job in Chicago and moved back home to my parents’ farm in rural, southwestern Minnesota. I’d been living in the city for eleven years.
When I moved, I was looking for space to think about the next thing, maybe time to develop my pottery skills. I expected some quality time with my parents. I wasn’t anticipating a revival in my spirit—or to fall in love with the horizontal expanse.
After graduating from North Park University, I took a job as a part-time sales associate in a small start-up company. I was able to work my way up to senior director of business intelligence and logistics as our company grew from four stores to forty. My career seemed to be every start-up employee’s dream: I was working insane hours alongside a small team of coworkers-turned-lifelong-friends. It was madness and consuming, and I loved it all.
Then one day it all changed. I woke up and realized that I no longer identified with the mass retail industry in its consumeristic drive. For the first time I noticed feelings of detachment that grew to a full discontent with the people, the place, the success, and the direction of my vocation. I grieved the loss of the company I had started working for—the small, close-knit group of people who had come together to work for something great.
Now I am back in Dawson, where the population size is an overwhelming contrast to that of Chicago. We are 1,500 people. The nearest town of similar size is six miles away. It’s common to drive twenty miles without passing a fellow traveler on the road.
Ironically my days in rural Minnesota have been richer in cultural experiences than they tended to be in Chicago. When I had a wealth of options at my fingertips, I took them for granted. I forgot to attend events or support causes I believed in. In urban settings, you don’t worry that if you don’t attend no one else will, so it was easy to let my good intentions slide, to just stay home. And sometimes it felt like I was just one person among all those millions—what could I do to change the world anyway?
Ironically my days in rural Minnesota have been richer in cultural experiences than they tended to be in Chicago.
But the fact that there are so many fewer people here has created in me a yearning for involvement. When a poetry workshop appears in the community education brochure, I sign up. When the local brewery taps a new, delicious beer, I drink it. When a third of my town’s population joins together for an interfaith dialogue about Islam, I go. I attend art show openings and plays about civil rights and live music events and storytelling evenings. I’m far less likely to miss out on a good sunset or the opportunity to take a walk on the gravel road.
Here, anything seems possible: pursuing grant money for an arts project, brainstorming ways to create a local food co-op, celebrating the cultural diversity of small towns, discussing possible uses for renovated old buildings. People around here make things happen.
I’m also discovering a deep connection to the land, something I never acknowledged growing up here. As spring came to the prairie, so did the wild asparagus, filling our tables and fermenting jars with salads, soups, pickles, and kimchi. I’d always wanted to explore Moroccan cuisine, and I finally had the time to do it. I’ve been filling the refrigerator with rose harissa and preserved lemons and za’atar. In a strange way, even as I explore new vistas, I feel like I’m connecting with my ancestors, with the many who lived here before us.
I’ve become close friends with my neighbor, Lauren, who is a poet and spiritual director and whose husband, Erik, is the pastor of Dawson Covenant Church. Through her friendship and insight, I’ve witnessed anew the ways spirituality and landscape intersect. The best way I can connect with God here is through the landscape. There’s something massive and extraordinary about being surrounded by sky, the flatness, the illusion of continuity in all directions. Some people find their greatest connection with the divine in the mountains or ocean. I find it in the horizontal expanse—the grandeur juxtaposed with the feeling of smallness and dependence.
On cold winter nights I can see the stars shining vibrantly. I see the pink clouds of a sunset, hear the mourning doves, feel the warmth of spring air and green grass beneath my feet—and each day I remember how lucky we are to be alive. I thank God for the people in my life, for the place and time that is now, for the ability to trust when entering the unknown, for carrying me to my next destination.
Last spring I went back to Chicago to visit and encountered many questions about my new life in Minnesota: What do my days look like? Am I bored? Can I get sushi in Dawson?
I reply by telling them how full my days are, how happy I am. I tell them I don’t miss the cars, the sirens, the horns, the concrete, the busyness, the hamster wheel of keeping up with the forces of city life.
The utter contrast between my rural life and their urban experience puzzles many of them. To many of my friends who have never lived in a rural setting my choices are incomprehensible: move to a small farm on a dirt road, shop in a tiny grocery store that closes at 4 p.m. on Sundays, live far away from restaurants, choose to live in what they imagine to be a boring, insignificant place.
Yet I know that all that scarcity—or the perception of it—is what drives cultural life here. Rather than paucity, I see abundance of life and fullness of experience. A dynamic current runs through our community life. Though much of rural life is defined by scarcity of people and places, it’s precisely that sparseness that compels people to get involved. That’s what moves us toward action and makes events more meaningful. It’s a scarcity that’s vibrant.
Rural life is plentiful and life-giving in its own way. So I continue down this path, engaging in life’s mystery. I look for opportunities. I take on some of the boldness mirrored by so many around me. I say yes. I will continue to experience the mystery of life and faith as I cast anchor in the vibrant scarcity of rural life.
Elizabeth Fondell’s blog can be read here.