Small town, big dreams: Getting out through digging in

“. . . the suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth

Drawn like moths we drift into the city. . .

just to feel the living night.” Rush “Subdivisions” Signals 1982

Growing up in Alpena, Michigan certainly has its perks. Everywhere we turn, nature explodes into a veritable playground. There are turtles, toads and fish to catch. Woods to explore, trees to climb, waters to plunge. As kids on Thunder Bay, there are so many ways to get dirty discovering how the natural world works. How it breathes. It into us, we into it. It becomes who we are and part of our DNA.

Then we become teenagers. Attend junior high and high school. The world, if we’re keeping track, expands. Grows exponentially. Like the seasons we know so well, Alpena changes from a wonderland to a ghost town. The older generation is well familiar with the predictable refrain from the young: there’s nothing to do. Nowhere to go. Alpena becomes (egad!) boring. Some of us that have been here a while or those that have returned after a lengthy hiatus wink and sigh agreement in some way. We understand.

While there are a number of incredible things in Alpena to keep us entertained from two theaters, to local galleries, to restaurants, to the world-class NOAA facility it can feel sometimes like things are missing.

We love that our town is safe. That it is beautiful and community-centric, but there is a certain something all small towns crave in the search for change. We can’t claim to know what that might be, but we can acknowledge what the epigraph suggests as it mentions cruising for the action to feel the pulse of life beyond our county lines. We all look for experiences outside of everyday purview. We crave it. Actually need it to some degree, knowing that if we don’t attend our own dreams and desires, life can become a bit stale.

We have both spent a fair amount of time away from Alpena, experiencing other cultures, meeting a variety of people. We were fortunate to have had the opportunity to attend college, explore, bounce around a bit. What being away did for us was help us come back appreciating Alpena in a new way. Not all have the same chances or desires to venture out, and being rooted here, never leaving, nurtures its own powerful perspective.

Craving change doesn’t mean one has to pack up and head out west. We just have to stretch beyond ourselves and our surroundings. This can be done in the act of creating. Something. Anything. In doing so, we engage the world at large and begin to appreciate what others have gone through to tell their story. It can take many forms: a painting, a picnic table, a knit hat, an exotic meal, a poem, a piece of music, a story. For us, making something helps us feel connected to the larger world as we express what lies deep within. It drives us inward and out, serving two purposes: better understanding of self and connection to other people who may or may not share our geographic experience.

This is not to say that we downplay our roots. Just the opposite. We represent our experiences of growing up and living in Northeast Michigan in both literal and abstract ways. We mention the lakes and allude to the woods. We reference harsh winters and fleeting summers. We find changes in us reflected in sugar maples. We embrace our small community and try to reach beyond it at the same time. We try to give snapshots of how things used to be and how they are now, expanding upon them to connect with others on a human level. We show what it means to be uniquely us and what it means to be part of the collective in the best sense. This is the dichotomy of the creative process: maintaining self and connecting to others.

A great example of this duality came to us via our great-grandfather, Frank Doane. Granddad was the owner of the old Ford dealership in Alpena. He was a well-respected businessman, church-goer and father of four. He was also an artist. He would walk from his home on First Avenue to the shore of Bay View before the break wall was built to collect glass from the beach. He would bring it into his basement and sort it on table tops. We loved when he brought us down to his workspace to look at the collections of glass: browns, yellows, blue and greens. Then he would construct with it, making cars, sailboats, hot air balloons with waving riders. He would hang them in his windows and give them away. His creations came from glass in his own “backyard” but that could have traveled years and miles through Lake Huron before it reached him. His pieces had both local and worldly elements. Beauty and history.

We try to include similar elements when creating a poem, story or newspaper column. We start with what we know and try to branch out from there. Curiosity drives us. We know how it is with us and imagine what might be. Attempting to build a bridge between what is known and what is imagined ignites the creative process for us and, we believe, for many of you. Whether you find answers in the arts, nature or work is a matter of inclination. It’s the desire to build that is universal.

While life in a small town might get a bit claustrophobic for some, taking time to nurture and explore your creative side might just be a way to expand our views. Whatever it is we decide to create doesn’t have to be awe inspiring. It doesn’t have to win an award. It just has to be something we enjoy doing, and the involvement with it can surely change perspective.

The idiom wherever you go, there you are becomes truer with age. We are each doing our thing: one person assimilating an environment. We hope to feed the desire to create something that expresses our place in the world. It is this desire-to stretch our thinking, create and connect-that can be our constant regardless of where we are.


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