Melody Warnick has never been to Peoria. Never stepped foot on our sidewalks, never driven our streets or played in our parks. Nonetheless, she just might have the recipe for us all to fall in love again with where we are.
In her book, This Is Where You Belong: Finding Home Wherever You Are, Warnick explores what draws people to where they live and what makes them want to stay. It’s an important question, as the average American can expect to move 11 times or more, she writes. The author herself was on move No. 6 with her family – from Austin, TX to Blacksburg, VA – when she decided to social experiment her way to happiness.
That her book may inspire you, as a lifelong Peorian or a new transplant, to love where you live is why it was chosen for the Peoria Reads! one city/one book initiative for 2022. Two years into a global pandemic, we all need a book that helps us celebrate where we are in life.
Maybe you don’t need help loving where you live. We hope you don’t. You will still enjoy this book. Warnick weaves research and checklists and quirky stats – Utah is the most agreeable, least neurotic state, for instance – amongst real-life stories. Meet Gertie Moore, for example, who has lived her entire life in different houses on the same street in a mountain town of West Virginia so small that, according to Google, it doesn’t exist. She loves it there.
As part of Peoria Reads! 2022, we’re going to borrow heavily from Warnick’s checklists of how to grow happy roots. Book discussions are great – we hope to have several — but we’re also excited to host more hands-on events, such as community walks with the Pedestrians of Peoria. These two adventurous women (one a librarian, of course!) have walked every single street in Peoria. It only took them two years. We won’t walk that far. Promise.
There will be a community-wide scavenger hunt. A volunteer fair. A panel discussion with Peoria transplants. We’re even hosting a virtual event with the author herself on April 7. We’re brainstorming more events every day and will add them to our website at https://peoriapubliclibrary.org/peoria-reads/. Copies of Warnick’s book – physical and digital – are available through Peoria Public Library.
While Peoria Reads! 2022 doesn’t officially kick off until March 22, we couldn’t resist sharing a short Q&A with Warnick now.
JD: You spent several years in Ames, Iowa and wrote that it was the town you left “most regretfully.” What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about the Midwest?
MW:. That it’s flat, because anyone who’s ridden a bike in the Midwest knows that’s not true. Also, that somehow only the coasts have value, and that in between is the great nothing of the flyover. There are so many great things to do and see in the Midwest — and even more wonderful people to meet. I’m lucky I’ve gotten to spend some time there.
JD: You moved from Austin, TX, one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation with nearly a million residents, to Blacksburg, VA, (population 42,620) the smallest city you’ve ever lived in. Peoria has seen some transplants from large metro areas. What would you say to people experiencing that kind of culture shock – big city to little city?
MW: Your little city will never be a big city, so don’t expect it to be. When my family moved to Blacksburg from Austin, we spent a little while moping about the lack of museums and big bookstores and stellar Mexican food. Then we realized our little town beat Austin every day and twice on Sunday when it came to hiking trails and parades and college football games. It’s normal to sometimes miss big-city offerings, but try focusing your energy on enjoying the things your town is good at, and you’ll feel at home faster.
JD: We understand you’ve been to Illinois, but haven’t had the pleasure of visiting Peoria. Still, we’d love to know what comes to mind when you think of Peoria?
MW: I’ll be honest and say I think people, and maybe my past, less-enlightened self, used “Peoria” as a sort of shorthand for “in the middle of nowhere.” Maybe it feels like that to you. But I’m also guessing Peoria is probably far more complex and wonderful and interesting than outsiders think it is. And that if I were able to visit in person, I’d think, “I could live here.”
JD: You write that “small acts of neighborliness can strengthen community ties as effectively as grand gestures.” Do you have a favorite example?
MW: I share in the book how my family decided to take banana muffins to our neighbor for National Good Neighbor Day (officially Sept. 28). One neighbor across the street scared me a little, with his dreadlocks and ear gauges. I thought he’d be extremely unimpressed by the muffins. Instead, he was so grateful and bowled over that he ended up chatting with us for a good while about when our house was built. Sometimes people surprise you with how receptive they are to a little friendliness! In my new neighborhood in Blacksburg, an elderly neighbor knocked on my door one Sunday to alert me to a snapping turtle in the road. I loved that she did that so that we could monitor its slow progress together.
JD: We plan on encouraging people to do as many of your “Love Your City Checklist” items as possible, but do you have a Top Three must-do list?
MW: Make a bucket list of things you want to experience where you live, then work through them (and keep adding items). Volunteer somewhere — it will make you realize what good people live in your community. And walk more, on trails or in parks or in your neighborhood, because it helps you focus on what’s beautiful about your city.
JD: You’re still living in Blacksburg … Any plans to move or have you and your family found “where you belong?”
MW: When we moved to Blacksburg with a 10-year-old and a 5-year-old, my husband and I pledged that we’d make every effort not to move them again. Now the 10-year-old is a 20-year-old off at college and the 5-year-old is a 15-year-old freshman. So theoretically, in three more years we’ll have reached the end of our self-appointed timeline. I’m not going to say never, because eventually we might seek out job opportunities beyond Blacksburg. But honestly, I have no desire to move. I love it here. Blacksburg has become home.
Jennifer Davis is the Manager of Public Relations at Peoria Public Library.