I get it, you don’t like Billings
You can stop telling me now.
Although, I am going to miss it when you list out the reasons for your dislike and then openly wonder how anyone could possibly choose to live in or in the vicinity of Billings. I’m also going to miss it when you tell me about the refineries and the sugar beet factory as if I’ve never seen them before.
I did like our chats though. I’ll fondly remember the times you used anecdotal evidence to make broad generalizations about the town and the people who live here. And I was very flattered when you told me that I don’t seem like I’m from Billings.
It’s been fun.
Montanans can be a judgmental bunch it seems. The Montanans who came from settlers, which I am one, judge you by how many generations your family has been here, while generally excluding Native Americans from their consideration. After that, we seem entitled to judge people based on which part of the state they live in - east or west - and then we judge the town people live in.
Never once have I asked someone, “so what do you think about Billings?” And yet, over the years, I have listened while people offer me their opinions about the town I grew up in.
When I was just out of graduate school, I began working for the National Wildlife Federation in Colorado. We had meetings with folks from our Washington D.C. office and then went out to dinner that evening. I sat down next to a woman who I had just met for the first time that day.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
“Billings,” I said.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” she said and laughed.
“What are you sorry about?” I asked.
Then her apology started. She had assumed I would agree with her and that we’d laugh and then I’d explain to her how I had escaped from a shitty town.
It’s a American tradition after all. We give our opinions all the time, about everything, and many times without much thought behind them.
Years later when I was talking with my friend Wally McRae about the "where you from?" conversation that inevitably happens in Montana, he told me, "Never be ashamed about where you're from. Everybody has to be from somewhere."
I could go on and on and list out the different experiences I’ve had with people telling me what they think about Billings. Occasionally in Bozeman and Missoula I've been shocked at the disdain some people express. If you don't think this sort of attitude has long-term political consequences, think again. However, that is a conversation for another day.
When I was hemming and hawing about this topic, the question in front of me was, do I write a blog called In Defense of Billings where I list out all the great people, restaurants, galleries, and events that happen here? If I had taken that route I would also feel compelled to acknowledge the significant problems in our community. I’ve written about some of them before and I think it’s important to air them out in a public manner. Should I list the them so that you know I know they exist?
But I’m not going to try to convince you that Billings is worthy of a deeper consideration because I’m actually quite tired at this point of feeling defensive about it. Maybe one day I will. To be clear, I welcome actual conversations about Billings with people who either live here, have lived here, or at least have a tiny bit of affection for the place.
If I could, I would let you borrow my memories for a day. You could walk the alleyways and streets and see what I see. You could see the past, the present and the future swirling around in my brain. You could see what Billings was, what it is now, and what it could become.
What I’m asking is pretty simple; try to respect other people and their places and work to make your community better. If we all agree that it means something to be a Montanan, that it is an identity we are proud of, I hope we can spend more time trying to lift each other up and support all of our towns and communities instead of tearing each other down and making judgements that keep us divided.
The questions I’ll pose to all of us, myself included, is how does complaining and judging the places other people live help or lift anyone up? How does it contribute to solving the issues in our communities? How does it make the world a better place? To paraphrase a brilliant passage from an essay by Wendell Berry, it costs you nothing to be a critic.
I’ve always felt that the entire state of Montana was my home. I love every part of it. Every town and community is unique and has great qualities and also huge problems.
Many of us, in all parts of the state, from east to west, from north to south, in all different communities are trying to make things better.
We are all in this together so my suggestion, which you can take or leave, is we start acting like it.