27 May 2015


Last week I submitted a piece for the Letters to the Editor page of the South Reporter, the local weekly newspaper. A combination thank-you letter to all the people who have come to my rescue in the last two weeks and love letter to Holly Springs for its recent affectionate regard, it began: 
On Monday 11 May,  a few minutes before noon, a “friend” who had hosted me in his home for nearly three years, handed me a court-issued Removal Order giving me 5 hours to vacate.  There was no advance warning, no explanation, no day in court. Because of my work schedule, I actually had only two hours to find boxes, pack my belongings, hire a truck and transport everything – somewhere. I was shocked, distraught and heartbroken.
The editor called me yesterday afternoon. He thanked me for the submission, complimented the writing and, in response to my concern about the length, assured me there was no problem with the length.

"But," he said, "I think it's better not to include that first paragraph. This is a small town and people might not like that kind of thing. Too personal. Everybody knows everybody around here and they'd rather not get involved in your personal affairs." He suggested an edit along the lines of "On Monday 11 May I was given five hours to vacate my home. Because of my work schedule...."

I didn't quibble. Although I could argue that the first paragraph provides a context for the magnitude of my gratitude, it isn't essential.  I am grateful and, for the first time, genuinely happy in Holly Springs and my sentiment can be clearly understood without the original opening lines.

Besides noting the amusing irony of editing newspaper content to spare readers involvement in "personal affairs," in a town where talking about each others' personal affairs is the primary entertainment, I started thinking about social censorship and silences here, what's OK and not OK to say in Holly Springs.

It's OK, for example, to decry the constant persecution of the Christian minority in the U.S.by the unbelieving majority from any pulpit in town -- though there is little evidence in the "real world" to support such a statement; but it is not OK to recount the details of a real-life event in the local newspaper, even if you don't use names.

This is, of course, a problematic comparison since the Church, here and around the world, is often exempt from many of the social, political and cultural restrictions that apply in secular life. I employ it, however, because  conservative Christian values are primary and pervasive determiners of culture in Holly Springs.

To a large degree, standards governing day-to-day behavior in Holly Springs -- everything from dreams to jokes to fashion, education to commerce to  interpersonal relationships -- are set by a generic Church with specific denominational tweaks in effect here and there. The standards might as well be written in the sky or tattooed on every resident's body. Believer or non-believer:  you feel it when you've broken a rule.

In place of skywriting or body-writing, the Upcoming Events section of each week's edition of the newspaper is given over to church-related events. When I last attended a city government meeting, it opened with prayer -- Christian prayer. Store clerks regularly close transactions with "Have a blessed day."

A window in the entryway to the only grocery store has become by default a community bulletin board. The typical "roommate wanted," "car for sale," and "drum circle forming" notices found on such boards in other places I've lived, are replaced here by Church anniversary, Bible study group, Praise group meeting and "Repent and Be Saved!" announcements.

The "Writers Group" notice I posted during my first summer in town mysteriously disappeared after a few days. I got the message and didn't even consider posting a "Piano Lessons" flyer when I opened a piano studio soon after.

I feel better about living here now than I have at any time since arriving. Still, as I observed social censorship (in the guise of "etiquette" especially) a perception formed that persists even now.

Secrecy and certain kinds of silence are social toxins. A contaminant in the water of community. Applauding and celebrating openly when a celebrity comes to town. No comment or critique of the generally inadequate public schools. No comment or critique of public officials whose corruption and unresponsiveness are common knowledge among the people they serve. 

The culture and psyche of a community where free speech and thought are suppressed or proscribed are necessarily malformed. Philanthropy, innovation, historic preservation and entrepreneurship are just a few of the civic impulses desirable and necessary for a thriving community; all of them are diminished and damaged when free speech and thought are prohibited.

There is a contest in progress here. "Outsiders" like myself who see ourselves as residents of Holly Springs for the foreseeable future tread lightly, carrying big sticks of possibility and change. We arrived as free thinkers and make every effort to persist without wounding others or becoming martyrs ourselves. In every "what to do about Holly Springs" conversation, someone says "The town needs an influx of new blood, new people with new ideas and strategies." The outsiders are the new blood. We are outnumbered by "insiders" and outweighed by their collective memory.

Sometimes things change. Sometimes places change.

But sometimes they don't. They just die. The algorithm of why and which places is somewhat mysterious.

We do what we can. And hope it works out.

[Here's a link to the letter in it's entirety: The full edited letter]