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52 Weeks Begin Now: Week Forty-One: When Everybody Knows Your Name

28 Aug

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Being Visible:  The Comox Valley has a combined population (between Courtenay, Comox, and Cumberland) of 37 thousand people.  Moving from Calgary, Alberta which has a population of over a million people, to a smaller centre, takes a bit of adjustment.  I realize that very quickly, despite my efforts to stay off of the radar, some of my circumstances of work and personal life have afforded me some visibility in the community.  I imagine that this is like any small town in Canada, but I find that being known in a small community has its challenges.  I used to find some sanctuary in the anonymity of a big city where virtually no one knew me except my friends, colleagues and family.  Now, I am approached in banks, grocery stores, and parks as inevitably I have now worked with many people, taught many children, or had interactions with people through various connections.  My colleagues have brothers and sisters who are my doctors and dentists.  My masseuse knows the people who I teach, and my friend’s chiropractor just asked me out.  In a nutshell, whether I like it or not (and I am not naturally paranoid), I am quite confident that the things that I do in the valley have hit the rumour mill.

I am often caught off-guard when someone says, “Yes, I had heard about you from my friend who was your realtor.”  The open-ended question in the air is, “Well, what did you hear?”, but I don’t ask because, quite frankly, I don’t care.  In the sharing of information, I can feel that despite the warmth and welcoming friendliness that is also very present in the valley, there is a sense of interpretation that arises in the conversations.  People are trying to figure out who I am; who I know; where I have been; what I am doing; and more importantly, how do I play into the grand scheme of things. 

Small Town:  What astounds me further about small town living, is the comfort with which people ask personal information to inform the rumour mill (that they consciously or unconsciously subscribe to) in daily conversations.  Innocuous interactions, I notice, have some element of “did you hear what so-and-so is doing?”  Things that I would never dare to ask or expect to know of people, are common conversation starting points.  Even though I try to defer, distract or redirect conversations away from myself, eventually, people seem to find out more about me than I am comfortable sharing.  Inevitably, most conversations start with this disclaimer:  “Please don’t share this with anyone else, but…” I am often unsure if I really want to know what they would like to share for fear of being perceived as the missing link should the information get leaked to the wrong people through other means. 

Big City:  I realize now, that for most of my life in a larger city, we screen our conversations pretty carefully of any information that will make us identifiable, except to those with whom we choose to have a closer relationship.  Even then, it is not something that typically comes up in conversation until further along in the relationship.   There is an unspoken etiquette (and perhaps apathy) that we learn in a bigger centre:  If someone doesn’t tell you something about themselves, you just don’t ask. On a recent trip to Chicago, I found that I could live out loud and express myself in bigger and more creative ways because I knew that what I was saying and doing (all acceptable) would not be witnessed, reported, interpreted, scrutinized and misrepresented in someone’s conversation to someone else.  Perhaps I am learning that I have a more introverted side.  What I initially thought of as extroversion in a big city, was, in fact, an ability to live out loud without anyone really paying any attention.  I could actually hide out loud.  

Anonymity is Armour:  I lead a pretty ordinary life without many vices or much to really talk about, and any skeletons that I have have long since turned to ashes and blown away.  Other than the fact that I am single, and have had some successes and challenges in my settling into the community, I feel that my life is not really all that noteworthy.  However, word of mouth is like that game of “telegraph” we played as children.  If you hear of things a third, fourth and fifth person away from the source, information is likely to change and get embellished with each rendering of it.  And I finding that no one is immune to the scrutiny, however they might try to be.  Everyone is always on the radar unless they make a concerted effort not to be, and sometimes in doing so, it backfires and they end up drawing a lot of attention to themselves for being “so private”.  

Privacy:  In the end, I value my privacy more now than I ever realized before.  I want to have the choice to let people into my life, or to keep them at a distance.  In a small town, those choices are sometimes made for us and it is unfortunate because it is not an authentic way for us to really get to know each other on our own terms.  However, I am learning to live with it.  I don’t cringe when someone waves at me from across a store and then bombards me with questions (okay, I still do).  I don’t feel the temptation to run in the other direction when someone makes eye contact with me in a knowing way, trying to remember where they saw me last or if they know something about me (maybe a little).  Trying to be invisible in a visible place is challenging me to step out of my comfort zone in ways that I have not had to do before.  I have to say hello to my neighbours everyday (maybe not every day).  I need to smile at people where I used to not have to even look anyone in the eye if I did not feel like it (I do most of the time).  I am learning that I am socially accountable here, and as a result, I need to be very confident as I live transparently from day to day.

“You never appreciate your anonymity until you don’t have it anymore.”

Jason Priestley

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