The poetry of small towns

I have been in our small town in Idaho for the last ten days. Simple. Farmers. Salt of the earth.

People who rely on God for their crops. Pray when to plant, pray for rain, pray not too much, pray for heat, not too much, pray on when to cut the fields, pray that there is no rain until you can bale it (three days), pray for thanks and begin again.

Most farmers are broke financially. Yet spiritually they are the richest people I know. Two reasons:

1. You must remain a partner with God and trust He knows what He is doing because at best you are still guessing when to plant and cut.

2. Because someone around your farm is going to fail even if you don’t and if you succeed this year, you may be the one that fails next year. Thus: You have a reason to help your neighbor. You all know that “there by the grace of God go I.”

As I watch these people and see how they live I see the solutions. Nations forget as they become industrialized. They move into cities and no longer even see the canvas of the master painter. The full expanse of the sky. It seems as we grow rich financially, the more arrogant and spiritually bankrupt we become. We no longer see ourselves as partners with The Eternal, we begin to see life as dog eat dog and our problems become bigger as our neighbors become invisible.

What a simple answer to our problems. Yet, how difficult, possibly impossible, to actually do without a farm.

As I was in church today I listened to the choir. For a while we attended church right at Lincoln Center in NYC. I remember one Sunday, as we all began to sing, that somehow, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was visiting and all sitting all around me in the pews. No, it was just a place on earth where some of the most talented performers happened to attend church. Today, my neighbors stood to sing. The farmers, the guy who works at the car lot, a few retired heroes, their wives and children. What I heard was not what those at Lincoln Center would describe a technically flawless, but the music I heard was more perfect than I ever heard in any of the great concert halls.

I have carried that sound in my head all day and tried to understand why it effected me the way it did. There was something more to it than just lyrics, notes and singers. As I picked up John Steinbeck’s ‘Grapes of Wrath’ to read this afternoon it hit me. Almost every word in that book is poetry. Beautifully written. But, at first, you are left with the impression that he as a writer, is almost mocking who and everything these Okies are. I don’t know Steinbeck’s history well enough to know his motivation but in his writing I found the answer I was looking for. What I heard today was the original.

It was authentic. It was real.

In the big city it is easy to find things and talented people that can paint, act, write or sing songs that make your heart swell with that warm, sweet feeling of something bigger than you, me or the piece of art. But, most times, what you are finding is what I found in Steinbeck: a mere reflection or echo of the authentic art that those simple people in the small no name towns live everyday. All of the great art of America was composed to reflect the people I listened to in this small church on the edge of a town that only has maybe two stop lights.

What we are looking for to uplift, inspire, and model is found here in the small town at the base of a mountain in Idaho. Real people who rely on something bigger than themselves and in the end each other.

The world mocks these people and the way they live. The children, including in my case as a teenager race to leave these towns to head to the cities. People will say, there is “nothing to do or see there” or that these towns “don’t have any culture.” They are right if you believe that art hangs on a wall.

There aren’t any museums, concert halls or poetry corners in America’s small towns, because the music is in the peoples spirit love and charity, the art is in their weathered faces and calloused hands and the poetry is in the way they live their lives.