A week or so ago, downtown Provo was buzzing with the Sego Arts Festival. Over one hundred artists, musicians, and filmmakers, gathered together to share their creations (for free!) with the public. Now Provo is not such a big place, “downtown” is comprised of only a few city blocks—so something like Sego can absorb the entire city (at least the part that is not absorbed by BYU football). I was on a road trip to Colorado at the time but I saw the posters, heard the band lineups, and knew many of the contributors. The slogan of the festival this year was “Own Provo,” encouraging everyone to love and ultimately “own” where they live. I found this theme fascinating and very fitting considering that many local college students I’ve met expend a ridiculous amount of energy in their efforts to DISown Provo. No one, it seems, wants to be defined by that perception of a mainstream, white, conservative, small town, close-minded, jello-guzzling, casserole-baking, baby-toting, church-going, prayer-saying, flag-waving population. They’ll do anything to tell you where they are really from. Even more discouraging is that people who actually are from Provo and nearby cities are often timid in their ownership. When asked where they are from, they say blushing, “just Utah.”
It is interesting living in a place that is often embarrassed of itself.
I don’t imagine many people say “just New York” or “just Boston” or “just Seattle.”
Provo, why are you so ashamed? Lift up your head!
It is refreshing to meet people who are trying to fight that sentiment—people who aren’t afraid to own where they live and claim an active stake in their surroundings. There is something beautiful about that, something undeniably good about taking a place for better or for worse and embracing it as your own.
I have to admit the idea of place and ownership is fascinating to me partially because I do not understand it. I don’t know what it’s like to have your identity inextricably caught up in a specific place. I’m not sure what it feels like to be from somewhere, deeply and completely. Down to your bones. I wish I did.
But Provo, I think I am starting to figure you out. Or at least I’ve moved past the juvenile stage of resentment and am beginning to soften up. We’re cool. In fact, I think you’re pretty neat sometimes.
I am willing to look past your idiosyncrasies. I am willing to admit you are deeply flawed and endlessly exasperating—but now I think that is all part of your charm. Not many people are enamored of you when they first arrive. Unlike the great cities your presence is not overwhelming, your substance harder to divine. You work in subtleties.
The way you throw so many into a state of quiet conflict and resentment and cause them to look critically at their culture, their religion, their lives—is precious. You create a certain dichotomy; have a way of highlighting the contradictory.
I have seen your new polished subdistricts, your tidy mansions. They make me feel sick and disoriented, like I am walking through a house of mirrors.
But I’ve also seen your tiny cottages nestled kindly against the mountains, quiet and unassuming. I’ve seen your old rickety houses and gardens where old women grow flowers and grapes.
Just yesterday I had a wonderfully dichotomous experience. I spent the afternoon driving up Provo canyon with a few good friends. The leaves on the trees were stunning, the scenery majestic—it made me want to whisper. We parked the car and climbed into nature. It threw my thoughts into a frenzy: how small I am, how young. I rendered myself childlike to the beauty and immensity that surrounded me.
The experience was very affecting.
Later that night I went to my cousin’s engagement party. There was much squealing and back-thumping and diamond-flashing. Proud parents, paper plates and pizza. While still feeling sincerely happy for her, I couldn’t help but feel like this experience somehow helped to throw the earlier one into sharper relief.
Just hours earlier I stood gazing at the mountains and the trees, absorbed with the feeling that I was standing on the very fringe of my life—shocked at how little I knew and how much I wanted to learn.
Now I was crammed into an apartment room, surrounded by a frenzied crowd who all seemed to feel like at 20 years old there was nowhere else to go, the ultimate goal had been achieved.
But that is just how Provo is…a little ball of contradictions.
And I’ve only just realized, I am fine with that. I can live with it. There is beauty in opposition.
For every grocery store, a garden.
For every football game, a Sego Arts Festival.
For every blushing bride, a babe in the woods.