I’ve always like overhearing other people’s conversations.
When I’m out at restaurants, I often find myself picking up on tidbits from neighboring booths. An old man griping to another about Social Security. A mother telling her child where pancake syrup comes from. Two people awkwardly making small talk on a a blind date. It’s always been so interesting.
I don’t usually ever comment or chime in. I smile quietly to myself and listen, taking it all in, maybe trying to put myself in another’s shoes. Sometimes I think about how this conversation should be written down and turned into a short story or a movie, but I never once open a notebook to do so. I think that’s what I enjoy most about it – it’s a quiet moment of appreciation and unknowing connection with other people. I’ve never met you, but I can relate to you and what you’re saying. Or if I can’t relate, I’m willing to learn.
Earlier this week, I got the chance to travel for work, so my eavesdropping habits took me 30,000 feet above my normal territory.
On the plane, two women sat behind me. One lived in Los Angeles and was home for a week to visit family. She worked in a lab, rode horses, and said her coworkers were straight out of The Big Bang Theory. The other was visiting from Houston, returning home to see a friend. Both asked questions about the other’s life. They laughed. They commented on how the shopping in NEPA sucks and how they’re always surprised at the difference in thinking they see when they come back. They both felt that NEPA was “sad”, “depressing”, “frustrating”, and “backwards”. They noted how their loved ones in respective cities have to “retrain” them to act, feel, and speak “normally.”
This was something that I didn’t like overhearing, yet it’s something I’ve heard all too many times before.
The notion that Northeastern Pennsylvania sucks is not a new one. We have our fair share of problems. Bankrupt cities, high unemployment rates, slashed funding for social programs, politicians lining their pockets, and a river of corruption running under the surface. Socially, we come from diverse backgrounds and share histories firmly rooted in coal mining, immigration, and getting through hard times. Sometimes, this gives us the sense that there’s never progress being made and that we’re always five years behind everyone else. We have a tendency toward depression and addiction is as prevalent as the churches. But we’re also hardworking and pretty friendly. We do a lot more than we give ourselves credit for and there’s a growing number of people who believe that NEPA isn’t so bad. I consider myself to be one of those people.
We all grew up hearing the same things. We’ve been told to get the hell out of here and go somewhere you can “make it”. Apparently Philadelphia and New York were our only other options for civilization. When I was a teenager, I wanted to live the dream of being a writer with a cat, a perfectly made cocktail, and a cozy apartment in Manhattan (nevermind the cost, the challenge, and the rest of the city I glossed over in my big idea). I thought “The Valley” had no room to grow into something truly remarkable and turned my eyes to New York. When you’re a teenager, you think you knew everything – you really didn’t.
When I began my college search, I looked out of state. I got in, but at the time, my great-grandparents were ill and I wanted to be at least in driving distance in case anything happened. They were such a big part of my life, so I turned my search for a school back to Pennsylvania. I found Marywood and it ended up being the best deal for my heart and my wallet. So I stayed. They passed away. Time did too. But it was okay, because I didn’t ever feel resentful of my decision. By that time, I was fortunate to have found other people who opened my eyes to the idea that you can affect change and live the life you want, no matter where you live. It was a revelation – and it’s made me a happier person ever since.
I’ve fallen in love with NEPA over and over again since making that choice. I’ve learned more about my history. I’ve explored new places. I’ve built a life here – and it’s one that I feel proud of. And I’m thankful to have met others who share this love and unyielding sense of optimism for where we live. (Also, pierogies.)
Despite what you’ve been told, there are always things happening here – good things, too. If you say there’s nothing to do here, you’re not looking. And if you see something is lacking or if there’s an opportunity for something amazing, make it yourself. It’s how NEPA BlogCon, The Vintage, Whiskey Bacon and so many other wonderful things came into being. Be part of something.
The two women I heard on the plane reminded me of something I already know: your entire life is not governed by your zip code. You can do what you love, create what you imagine, learn what you are dying to know, and try new things every day, no matter where you are. I’m lucky – and thankful – to be living here. And I hope on their next trip home, they can fall in love again with NEPA like I did.