Friday, June 12, 2015

Creating the World We Live In

Last night I was discussing the town I grew up in with my mother who is now 80 years old and who lives in the house my grandparents built back in 1950. This was, as many Midwest US towns were in the early part of the 20th century, a factory town. Steel and glass to be precise.

The entire neighborhood I grew up in existed only because of the mill and, by the time I was a kid, the steel industry was already taking it's leave from our town. Jobs had been outsourced and builders were placing orders overseas. Clean air and clean waterways were also now a priority and the combination of many factors led to the reduction of jobs and eventual closing of the mills.

My grandfather worked in those mills for 45 years. My brother had been working in them for a dozen. The town, once thriving with four pharmacies, three grocery stores, over a dozen and a half churches and a hundred or so small shops, slowly began to disappear too. The public was being drawn out of the cities to the suburbs and for the neighborhoods built along the rivers close in to the city, the tide had turned.

So, in talking with mom about the old days, I realized that we had totally different ideas of what the town was like.

In her day, when she was just out of school she worked walking distance from their house at a flower shop, a dress shop and a diner. She shopped every weekend after the matinee movies and spent many Saturday nights at the soda fountains in those pharmacies. The five and dime was a must see each week to catch new, inexpensive imports and clothing and the ethnic flair in the food, born of the community consisting of German, Polish, Slovak, Hungarian, Irish, Greek and Italian families that lived there, must have been a treasure for the taste buds.

In my day, what was a fractured but still close knit community was, to her, a crumbling shadow of it's former self. I grew up with one pharmacy. One grocery store and every other building along the 10 blocks or so of the main street closed and boarded up.

It was only in the last few years, in looking on line for old photos of the neighborhood and in talking more and more with my mother about the history of that place, that I came to know it in her day.  In the images of the town from the 40's and 50's I find bits and pieces of my childhood too. Some of the businesses that remained when I was a teenager were there even back then. Harder to spot in the pictures of busy streets, lively foot traffic and every door and window filled with life.

But I never knew that thriving town. It never existed in my life. And when I got to the age of making adult decisions, I did not see much in the way of reasons to stay.

I have been back the last few years to visit her and have taken several drives around the town with her. It is going through a mini-revitalization. A new library, a summer farmers stand, community projects to beautify the area. Though it comes too late for many of the lovely buildings that fell into disrepair all those years being empty.  Now there are single and sometimes double and triple gaps between all the buildings where others once stood.

It's hard to believe I lived there at all. It's no longer "home" in some ways but still every bit as much so in others.

So this is my point.

The world I have created with my miniatures and artwork, and with my life in total, is very much like life in the town I grew up in. Wherever we live, to some extent, you tailor your life to fit the location. To fit what is at your disposal. And many choose living in places where they have every possibility and convenience around them. . . though often at the expense of having to drive, commute, speed up, do more and more, schedule, compromise and somehow find the time to fit it all in and the money to pay for it.

If I showed you images of the town I grew up in, you might think, never having lived there, "No wonder you got out!"It wasn't pretty and it had, in the end, nothing to make it an "easy" place to live.

But it is what I knew. All I knew. And I think, one of the keys to being able to create THIS world I have built around me here, in this beautiful and affordable place I live now, comes from what I found in those days long ago.

You see, the very small town I live in now is also somewhat aged and, in the sense of the beauty of urban-ness, not much to look at.  Though being at the very edge of a massive ocean bay and set in among lush tree covered hills makes up for a lot and I always will prefer the beauty and abundance of nature, as well as a general lack of humans to the hum and rattle of any thriving urban environment.

But coming here and building a life that could support our art, that would allow us to not worry about money so much (we cut our expenses drastically when we left the city four years ago and it made ALL the difference in allowing us to focus on our creative work 24/7)  and giving me the freedom to stroll to the grocery store, post office and bakery, to a beautiful waterfront or to the library, city hall and fish markets. . . all withing 5 minutes walk, it's as close as I could hope to get.

And somehow, in some way that I am sure I am far from being able to articulate, the lost town I grew up in is a huge part of the work I create too. I was always inside my imagination as a child. Always creating worlds of escape and possibility. There was really nowhere else to go in those years. It just took me a few decades to realize that to live in a world built on that imagination as an adult meant leaving much of this modern but no less self-created one behind.

For my mother, today,  "creating" means talking about the old times and living in the very fond memory of what was all those years ago. And I get it now. I am the same. All I have done is create that world in my work. In the fairy realms and miniature worlds of my choosing. I bring it to life every day. I create, quite literally, the world that I live in.

And in that, I have to give credit to the town I grew up in. . . even the one from my Mother's childhood years that I never knew. To the place where perhaps the ghosts of what once was lingered just long enough to speak to me of possibilities and map-making and imagination. . . and to tell me that I, in my own way, could live there too.

I believe that we, ultimately, create the world we live in.
Every day.

We choose.


This was the main street in my Mom's day during the 1950's the wonderful brick architecture of these early 1900's buildings. The Five and Dime, the cobblestone roads and the trolley tracks. and that's the flower shop she used to work at on the left.

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