In the place in my brain that handles moves, there is now a sign that says: END OF STORY. I have lived in over twenty apartments in three states and two continents. Every time I arrived at a new location, I tried to make friends, find new doctors, find work, or a school for our daughter, as fast as I could. As soon as the books and artwork were up, I felt at home. But I'd always lived in a city. Now, for the first time, I am a resident of a small town. It's different.
The metaphor that best describes the experience is the game of telephone. I played it a lot at birthday parties when I was a kid. Chairs are lined up and a word or sentence is whispered from one ear to another. By the time it arrives and is spoken aloud, it's completely distorted, just plain wrong. Everyone laughs.
Gossip in a small town can work in the same way. A story begins and is passed from one person to another until, days and weeks later, it no longer resembles the real story. Sometimes the pass-alongs are well-meaning; sometimes they are malicious; sometimes they become entertainment. None of the process feels deliberate; it feels accidental, almost improvised, as though our story-telling brains take over, often against our better judgment. If I repeat what I know of a store owner's disability, for example, and the word gets round the community that he was once-upon-a-time an addict, that feels more like a smear than neighborly concern. What are people saying about me, I wonder? And have I inadvertently participated in gossip? If so, I regret it, even if it was well-meaning. I even resist gossip within my family; I find it uncomfortable. I concede that gossip may serve a psychological, biological, or anthropological purpose I don't fully understand. If so, please enlighten me, dear reader.
Recently, with a two page profile in the local newspaper with a photo, and a reading at a local bookstore, I've become more visible in New Paltz and a bit skittish about this game of telephone. I've had some positive reactions and some strange reactions. Indeed, my own reactions to everyone's reactions worry me. If I start thinking about what people are thinking or saying about me, or if they've read the article about me, or read my book, or attended the reading when they said they would, or didn't attend the reading when they said they would, I won't be able to write freely. Certainly, I'll need a more supple tolerance for the exigencies of small town life and more anonymous city days to stay in balance.