Town People and Circus People
[Long read. Sorry. Not sorry.]
Since I published this essay about Cole Porter and growing up “different,” I’ve been getting a lot of emails from people saying “I’ve never had the words to describe this feeling. Thank you.”
One email in particular has been on my mind. The subject line was “An ExMid from Peru Indiana thanks you.”
It’s from a fellow Peruvian who lives “out East” now. She still visits friends and family in Peru, but says that some members of her family seem uneasy with her at times. Sometimes they’ll say, “You’ve spent too much time in [City Far Away].
“I cannot help but feel like I don’t belong there anymore when I visit.”
Oh boy, do I know that feeling.
She goes on to say:
“I guess what I am asking you is how did you break the mold on what people in Indiana perceived you to be with who you really are to yourself? Did you find a way to do it that did not result in the ‘too good for us’ label that inevitably follows such a declaration? Indiana will always have a place in my heart and Peru a place in my soul but reading your words about both places made me feel like you understood my plight. I want to thank you for that. Indiana and particularly Peru is where I grew older but I grew up elsewhere. Cole Porter knew this struggle. Of that I am sure.”
Oh boy. Here goes.
Town people vs. Circus people
Well, you might say that your question is what I write about, so please read The Circus in Winter, especially the last story, “Circus People.”
Here’s a line that always seems to resonate with people.
When I was little, my mother told me there are basically two kinds of people in the world: town people and circus people. The kind who stay are town people, and the kind who leave are circus people.
Growing up, I didn’t have a handy word like “circus people” to describe how I felt. I was just a little bit weird and “different” and smart. I didn’t think the way town people thought, didn’t act like they acted. Generally, I felt like I made town people uncomfortable—and the message that I got was that this uneasiness was my fault, my problem to solve, my job to be “more normal” and make them more comfortable with me.
Please note: it was never a town person’s job to be more circus. It was my job to be more town.
I rarely felt “seen” or truly understood growing up. I had a few very close friends and some teachers who “got” me, but otherwise, I remember it being a very lonely time. I wish I’d grown up with the internet so that I could have found more like-minded people earlier in life.
When I was growing up, I felt like my family didn’t support me. I felt loved, certainly, but I didn’t feel accepted, and I think there’s a difference.
When I confessed this to my mother as an adult, she was shocked and appalled. It’s probably the only thing we disagree about. She said of course I was accepted! and I said that that’s just not how it felt at the time.
Both of us are right, I think. Two contradictory truths that have to coexist.
What we all need to hear—no, what we must feel to be true—from the people we love is that we are kind, we are smart, we are important.
It’s funny to me that my truth—that I felt like an outcast, that was I starved for acceptance, that I felt this low-grade rage almost all the time–was the number one thing on my mind growing up, but today, I hardly ever think about it.
As soon as I confessed to my family that I didn’t feel like they ever really got me, we started talking about this and working on this in a more deliberate way. I started sharing my writing with my family and talking openly about it. They asked questions. I answered.
Today, I never feel that uneasiness with my immediate family. Never.
So: my advice is that you have to talk about how you feel with your immediate family and friends. The people you really care about. Send them the link to the essay if you have to. Let it start the conversation.
Anytime you find yourself being shamed by your family and friends, even subtly, you have to say something. In a gentle way, call them on it.
In fact, anytime they say something that bothers you or feels like a personal dig (or even a political one), say something. Don’t yell or shame them back. Ask them why they feel the way they do and try to have a civil conversation.
But also don’t be so quick to make everybody else feel comfortable. Remember that they have some responsibility, too.
What we all want is for the people in our lives to respect what we value. They don’t have to value these things, too, although that’s certainly nice. All we want is for our families and friends to acknowledge who and what we are—as we are.
And I’ve found that the best way to promote that respect and acknowledgement is to model this behavior for others. Find out what the people in your life value and acknowledge it.
The problem, of course, is that not everyone is capable of reciprocating this behavior. And if that’s true, well, you have to come to terms with it. That’s no easy task.
You asked: Did you find a way to do it that did not result in the ‘too good for us’ label that inevitably follows such a declaration?
The answer is yes and no. My family and closest friends don’t feel that way about me, but I’m sure that others do. People in Muncie where I live now, and people in Peru, too. I’m pretty sure that my essay ticked a lot of people off. You can read what a few had to say in the comments section of the essay.
But I didn’t write it for them. I wrote it for you and for everyone who has reached out to me to say, “Thank you for articulating this.”
Red and blue states
Generally, I’ve found that “circus people” are blue and “town people” are red, but that’s a simplification, really. Still it might be helpful to listen to this episode of This American Life, which describes the divide and how people try to talk to their friends and family about it.
You can decide for yourself if the concept of red and blue applies here.
The thing I’ve learned is that you have to be exquisitely yourself in real life and online. This has meant that very few people from Peru are still in my Facebook newsfeed. Either I’ve hidden them or they’ve hidden or unfriended me. I used to worry about this, but I don’t anymore.
I love the people I went to high school with and the people who went to my church and the neighbors down the street. I love them fiercely, but I also don’t want to argue with them. I don’t want all their voices in my head. It was hard enough to become exquisitely myself when I lived there.
It’s hard to be exquisitely yourself in a small town because you are always conscious of what the people around you are thinking. Or what you think they are thinking.
W.E.B. DuBois described this sensation as double consciousness.
“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
Town people make decisions based on how they imagine others will respond to that decision.
Circus people are aware that town people might not approve of their decisions, but they make them anyway.
I think we all experience double consciousness growing up, and at some point, circus people learn how to stop looking at themselves through the eyes of others, and town people don’t.
Making my own path
A few years ago, my mom wrote me a letter for Mother’s Day, and I got her permission to share it here.
I didn’t do a lot of things right when you were growing up. I let myself get in the way of what was best for everyone, but I always loved you.
Thank you for making your own path when we didn’t know how to help you. We have learned so much from you that has helped us help others and grow individually and as parents. I wish I could have given you more, but please know I love you as much as any mother could. I am so proud of you and the beautiful woman (inside and out) that you have become.
When I grow up, I want to be just like you.
I wish I could back in time and tell 14-year-old me that someday I’m going to get a letter like that.
I wish every circus person in the whole goddamn world could get a letter like that.
Dear Fellow ExMid from Peru, I’m so glad you wrote to me, and I hope I said something here that helps.
I’ll leave you with something else from The Circus in Winter that always seems to resonate with people when I read it out loud.
It’s taken me a long time to figure out one very simple thing: The world is made up of hometowns. It’s just as hard to leave a city block in Brooklyn or a suburb of Chicago as it is to leave a small town in Indiana. And just because it was hard to leave Linden Avenue in Flatbush or the Naperville city limits or Lima doesn’t mean you can’t ever go back.
There’s never been a more important time for us to go home and just listen to each other, for town people to accept circus people, and for circus people to be exquisitely themselves.