From New York City to Stettler
July 29, 2020 2:02 pm StettlerLocal.com
When I first moved to Alberta from New York City in 2014, I had a little bit of an idea about what I was getting into. After all, I’d visited my fiancé here before we’d gotten married. I knew there wasn’t a 24-hour transit system or Thai delivery at 11pm. But I also knew there weren’t going to be a hundred people sharing the building I lived in. It feels ridiculous to describe the first time I saw the washer and dryer in our house, just steps from the bedroom. Trust me, if you’d dragged a granny cart with a broken wheel several blocks to the laundromat in the rain, you’d be rejoicing, too.
When people ask me what I miss, though, I have to talk about what living in such a diverse city taught me. I miss it just being a given that there would be people of several different races, genders, abilities and religions at any gathering. I miss my LGBTQ synagogue; I miss singing karaoke with Catholic musicians after their Mass. I miss the reassurance that there would be elevators everywhere, and having friends who sign fluently while they speak. I think there are many things we could learn from more diverse places, but there’s lots to love about living in Stettler.
Not that there haven’t been weird moments of adjustment. I work with kids--I’ve taught preschool and nannied for Madison Avenue types. So when I see children unattended in public, I lose my mind for a second. I have to remind myself that rural kids know how to navigate their world, and that there aren’t taxis careening around every corner to flatten them. The kids whose hands I tightly held through Times Square at rush hour, with my cell phone number written on their arms, would be safe to run through a playground here while I relaxed on a bench. I’ve been astonished at the social skills even the smallest children develop when there’s no need for an adult to hover constantly.
In the city, we arranged play dates and coached toddlers to share and say please. We were all helicopters. It’s the lesser of two bad choices, really--I can’t adequately describe the fear of running towards a baby, still in a diaper, who’d climbed up to the top of the monkey bars while his nanny’s head was turned. Both were strangers to me, and it’s been ten years, but any parent or caretaker knows the infinite ways they could possibly get it wrong in an instant.
It’s not an understatement to say that I had a panic attack the day we found a playground by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, on Fifth Avenue, and realized how close we were to traffic. You could feel the breeze from speeding cars. Playgrounds are surrounded by locking, wrought-iron fences in NYC, but that didn’t stop me from visualizing all of the things that could have happened. It isn’t that people are worse or scarier in the big city--it’s that there are more of them, ten million of them, and so there are more terrible things to be constantly afraid of for your children. There are just more slippery staircases, more elevator doors to close on their fingers, more public bathrooms to navigate.
So we hover. We carry toddlers down the stairs rather than wait for them to walk, because there are hundreds of people behind us. We hold hands with ten-year-olds, because they’re easily distracted and can get lost in a crowd. And kids don’t travel alone until they’re teenagers, unless an older friend can chaperone. You just can’t risk the worst, not with kids. But it’s got a downside.
By the time my charges were in preschool, they were being test-prepped within an inch of their lives to get into the best kindergartens. Parents want so much for their kids that their local school is never good enough. Good kindergartens produce kids who go to good grade schools, which produce kids who go to good universities. Between supervised play, supervised homework, and school itself, kids in the city don’t get enough time to trust their own guts. To be bored, to wander around and see what there is to do.
Farm kids build forts. Farm kids build entire towns, stage rodeos with rocking horses, venture into the woods to find a space for themselves.
Where in New York City could we allow a child to wander off beyond sight of adults, just trusting them to know how to do the work of childhood? We’re stuck in a strange place there; in order to keep children safe, we have to fence them in.
I’ve finally stopped running for the nearest adult when I see a kid reading alone in the Stettler library, thank goodness. And with the ubiquity of cell phones, I know that kids know enough trusted adults in a small town to find someone to “call mom” if they’re in trouble, or do it themselves. That’s definitely the bright side to everyone knowing who you are. But it still throws me for a loop sometimes.
About a week after moving here, we were walking down the street near the post office. A truck drove by, and a man I’d never met took his hand off the wheel and waved to us.
I stopped in my tracks and grabbed my partner’s hand. “What do we do now?” I panicked. “What does he want?” If you grew up here, you’re probably laughing.
“We wave back,” he said, and I did, with my jaw on the ground. I was sure he was going to wave us over and take us away in his truck to be murdered in a cornfield where no one would ever find us again. I still flinch when strangers make direct eye contact. My first instinct is to stare into my phone to avoid a subway sermon or a lecture about lizard people. Strangers being perfectly rational and kind people is a pretty cool phenomenon, and I hope I eventually get used to it.
Alix Adair, Reporter