The fiction of this country ‒ literal and otherwise ‒ is filled with people, usually young, who migrate to New York or some other metropolis hoping to follow a dream, to find their way to some high station on the social ladder and, if things work out, a gilt-edged career, perhaps some fame. We know them in books, on film, in real life. Most of them are moved by the same impulses of ambition, and the imperatives of escape, to find some measure of belonging.
These thoughts came not long ago in a kind of viscous wave, as a few of us motored into a little town for lunch. It was hot, of course, and muggy, the kind of weather that settles over a place, or an entire state, with a ceaseless heaviness that squeezes the pores and makes pavement shimmer like the surface of a griddle – the kind of heat that leads to solemn thought.
Lately I’ve made a few trips out of town, and each time I landed in a place that seemed slightly ragged, untidy, languid.
Buildings that had seen better days, their windows cloudy,the sills chipped and faded. Lawns needing a trim, even a weeding.
Places that could use fresh paint, starting with the crosswalks and curb zones, and houses with buckled siding, buildings leaning slightly with bricks askew, mortar missing. Vacant lots, hollow storefronts, ragged gutters, all spoke volumes. Poverty, bad luck, neglect; help no longer possible. The message was clear: a lot of towns were having a rough time, places that had lost their smile.
I return to Lindsborg with a sense of gratitude, not one rooted in smugness, but one of appreciation. Our town these days seems vigorous, sprightly even in the heat, clean and spruced up, full of color, a place that cannot suppress its cheer ‒ a place with a surprising magnetism. The source is in its founding, by close-knit Swedes bound to their faith, their families, and with an unbridled confidence in what beauty brings to a community.
Six generations since, it hasn’t skipped a step.
WHEN I came to Lindsborg 15 years ago to edit the newspaper
I noticed in short time the surprising number of people who had moved here almost on a whim ‒ they had stopped once, or twice, en route to elsewhere ‒ or who were born here and left, dreaming of that success in far lands, and after a long absence, fulfilled or otherwise, they returned to live here for good. (Among the latest, for example, is the new principle of Soderstrom Elementary School.) And there are those who consider themselves lucky to have never left at all.
Much of the charm in a place like Lindsborg, with its profound heritage, is derived in a love of the arts. The cultivation came early through the settlers’ instruments and hymnals, and later the insistence that music be as important in the schools as, say, the three Rs. Art is ever-present here, in the many galleries, community festivals and events, in the parks and on buildings and homes, inclusive in the schools and at college; it rests in the touch and feel of the town itself, its neighborhoods, the downtown, even the stroke and hue of nearby cropland.
Add to this the human comforts of a small town, the laughter of old men at coffee, friendly banter at a grocery store, a breeze lifting the happy cries in a park. There is a kind of reassurance in the tidy, colorful buildings along Main Street, in the trees nuzzling the slow sweep of a river, in the gaunt old church outside town, in the familiar faces of the same crowds, the ebb flow of their traffic c at ball games and concerts, at commencement, at weddings and funerals.
MIDSUMMER, our annual celebration of Swedish heritage, concluded last month and in its wake some people, especially newcomers, are surprised that they have taken root so quickly. After only a few tender years, they feel the staunch old American pull of home. This is born of many things, but the old-timers say it comes mostly of a shared joy of living. The pulsating call of home has touched a million different corners of our land, once and long ago defined by the directions of rivers, the settlers’ home that was once the dry wash of the Cimarron, the sandscapes along the Arkansas, the shadowy bluffs of the Solomon, the sandstone hills along the Saline, the gentle sweep of the Smoky Valley. Today we have the call of all the places that remain part of the land around them, places that carry the vanishing echoes of our youth, the glow of memories unlocked.
What is common among the new, the old, the in-between?
They have found places that incubate and brace the human process, where intelligence, kindness, imagination and sensibility, and courage and fun, are all worth the courting. They have found a community of the heart, the closest community of all.
For a lot of people, it was here all along. They have found that measure of belonging, that rare place of charm, of people who work long to keep it, and to move it ever forward.