When I moved back to Wyoming from Chicago in August 2016, I was heartbroken.
It had been a year since the sudden death of a mentor spurred me to accept an unlivable salary to run the arts education program he had built. It had been six months since my partner of many years had decided to try his luck in California without me. I was going home to heal and to try to chart a new path forward.
But, as I drove westward across the infinite stretch of interstate in South Dakota, I was afraid to be making the move.
I knew I was fortunate to have a home to which I felt safe returning. I have always felt anchored in Wyoming. Yet there was a twinge of a feeling that I was admitting defeat, that I was moving in reverse. People often move away from small hometowns, marry, have children and then return to “put down roots.” But as a young, single woman moving back home, I felt that I was just pushing pause on my life and hoping no one would notice me licking my wounds.
I was worried about how I might be limited professionally and socially in Wyoming while I tended to my heart. Almost all of my close friends had moved away. The culture of silence and homogeneity that I’d clashed with in my youth undoubtedly had not. And I wanted to participate in a moment of great social change happening across the country. I didn’t want to sit on the bench. But that’s what I feared Wyoming would be — a place of isolation separated from both the urgent passage of time and the people advocating for equity and inclusion in the American experience.
But people and places are complicated. I was reluctantly willing to take a break from participating in larger social movements because I thought I was headed to a place where my personal relationships would keep me safe for a time. What I didn’t know as I wound through the Black Hills, nearing home and making peace with my transition, was that the next nine months would be full of opportunity, challenge and surprise.
While I had initially — and arrogantly — thought about my 2016 return home as a regression, I quickly came to the conclusion that I could roll up my sleeves and really “get to work” both on myself and on Sheridan, my hometown.
I am proud of the new friends I made and the projects I worked on during that following year. In the end I realized that Wyoming was working on me as much as I was working on it.
In August 2017 I packed my bags again — this time for a graduate program in New York City — with a promise to return. Earning a master’s degree in applied theatre from CUNY School of Professional Studies, I expanded my skills for facilitating challenging conversations and artmaking. Both lie at the heart of building community.
One of the biggest lessons I am taking away from my two years in New York is the importance of asset-based thinking, planning and facilitating.
Too often educators and community-development advocates focus solely on the needs of a group. That approach loses sight of, and fails to leverage, what that group of people brings to the table. Applied theatre practitioners, whether working in a classroom, community center, elder-care facility, or any other institution, are constantly walking the line between insider and outsider. In my experience as a facilitator I have found that people come together more willingly when they feel seen and heard for their assets rather than picked apart according to what they lack — especially as defined by an outsider.
With graduate school behind me I am making good on my promise to return. But before I do, I am pausing to consider my motivations.
There has been a lot of discussion lately in the national media about people moving from urban centers to the rural places of their origins. JD Vance, author of “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of Family and Culture in Crisis,” wrote in the New York Times in March 2017 about his decision to move from California to Ohio. In the op-ed, Vance explains he decided to move to Ohio to help improve the state’s economy. He sees it as a civic duty to help all the people who are struggling in Appalachia by doing his part to reverse “brain drain.”
Depending on your perspective on “Hillbilly Elegy” and Appalachia, you may or may not be surprised to learn that many artists and academics from Appalachia are not pleased with Vance’s sweeping generalizations about their homeland, his humble brand of self-aggrandizement or his failure to portray the region’s long, complex history and nuanced culture. There are many great responses to Vance, including those by Ivy Brashear and Elizabeth Catte.
This spring, Michele Anderson also wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, entitled “Go Home to Your ‘Dying’ Hometown,” which explains that her move from Portland to Minnesota was revelatory. Anderson borrows a term from Wendell Berry as she speaks to the possibilities of more people becoming “homecomers.” She admits that she was naive before her move and romanticized small-town life. Anderson also shares that she has become more involved politically in Minnesota than she was in Portland.
But Lyz Lenz — who lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa — is not so naive. In a piece published in Vox, Lenz addresses an important omission in both Vance and Anderson’s work: Some folks do not have the freedom to simply move home to rural places. Lenz warns against fetishizing Middle America because doing so ignores the important contradictions that are involved with living in rural places. For example, although some people of color and people who identify as LGBTQ may not be assured of acceptance in returning to small towns, there are numerous examples of small towns with progressive policies and vibrant cultures. (If you’re skeptical about that last part, I recommend reading about Berea, Kentucky, in the book “Belonging” by bell hooks.)
When I first read Lenz’s piece, I felt defensive because it portrays the motivation to move from urban centers to rural places in order to “heal the divide” in our nation as futile. I suppose that is something I had been hoping to do.
But I have come to understand that grand claims of knowing the one right way to heal what ails a small town — let alone the entire country — inherently devalue rural places and the people who live there. Lauding people for moving to small towns does the same thing. Admiration for people who make the urban-rural migration suggests it is too hard or too boring or too limiting to live in rural places for most city-dwellers to even consider. What does that imply about the people who remained — the people who never had the need or desire to leave?
I may not be able to heal a divided nation, but I can build individual relationships around common experiences and shared interests. I will start by building relationships with those who share my love of Wyoming and the West, warts and all. I do not predict this will be entirely easy. As Lenz explains, not all relationships can be built. Some relationships are harmful to one or more of the people involved. Even so, relationship building is still important.
People need other people. And right now, we the people need better relationships everywhere: in our cities, in our small towns, along our borders, in our living rooms, in our schools and in the halls of our government buildings. Wherever we can help improve the quality of our bonds, we must. Improving our bonds, by the way, includes continually helping each other be better versions of ourselves.
A few days ago, I made a long list of short answers to the question, “Why move home to work and live in Wyoming?” Among the various answers are items like, “Because I grew up there,” “Because I know who I am when I am in Wyoming,” “Because it is what I have a habit of doing,” and “Because whenever I am not in Wyoming, I am always in two places at once.” But none of these parts quite make up the whole of my reasoning.
As I make my way back in August — three years after my first return — I will recognize that what makes me valuable is not that I am a dual citizen of Wyoming and the rest of the world (as if the two were mutually exclusive). Instead, I will consider myself as an outsider-insider. That means that while I know and love Wyoming, I still have work to do to build trust.
I vow to approach Wyoming with love, to hold people accountable to their better instincts, to listen for the stories that I might have missed before and to hold onto my hat — because there’s bound to be some more surprises.