We went to a party the other night at a friend’s ranch between Shiner and Gonzales, in the Texas prairie, south and east of Austin. We had met our hosts at polka dances in our area, which is filled with descendants of Czech settlers. There were a few other dancers in the crowd, but most folks were from the area – neighbors and people active in Shiner’s strong community theater.
We talked and ate and looked at the stars. And when we were driving back home I realized that the back porch conversations that night had been markedly different from the ones we would have when we lived the hip, millennial Mecca of Austin.
Austin was about the new – the latest restaurant, movie or music. It was about work and real estate. The values most prized in town were diversity and choice, and talk was about change. Too often, conversations were more performances, as self-expression replaced the give and take of a mutual exchange.
Our prairie party had a different tone. For example: One guest told about taking friends from Houston on a tour of churches. We live in the center of Texas’ “painted churches,” older parishes with lively, hand-painted interiors. Most of the churches are left unlocked for visitors and in one there was a bowl of packaged snacks. Anybody could take some food, and there was a cash box there to leave payment.
The box, our friend said, was filled with dollar bills. He saw a church member and asked if they ever had any problems leaving an open box stuffed with cash in an unlocked church. Never, the member said. The storyteller looked both amazed and proud.
We mostly talked about two things: values of honesty, service and hard work and we talked about connection with the community. A pirate with Capt. Jack Sparrow dreadlocks (it was the Saturday before Halloween) told us how a church in Shiner (pop. 2,107) managed to put on a twice-a-year picnic that regularly sold 5,000 dinners. “We don’t know how,” the pirate said, “but when we need something done, people just show up to do it.”
If freedom and choice are the imperatives of modern life then everything on the outside — traditions, authorities, religions, other’s thoughts — is a threat. . . . Maybe that kind of ultimate sense of freedom just isn’t possible on the prairie. We can’t express our way into a two-inch rain.
We looked at the picture of a Halloween party from the 1950s, held in the same cabin. (Saturday’s party was part of the ranch’s tradition.) We learned about a Czech heritage group that has regular meetings nearby and several guests told us the stories of how their grandparents or great grandparents left parts of what became the Czech Republic for Central Texas.
We left the party, over a pasture, a dirt road and then east toward home. As we drove, my first thought was that there was a simple difference between the city and Shiner: People here are interested in values and community while those in Austin are preoccupied by things and ephemeral events.
But that was too easy. And it was a cliché – the good, virtuous country folk versus the striving, acquisitive city dwellers. No, the difference had more to do with living from the outside in rather than from the inside out.
When our Shiner party guests talked about the unlocked church, the work of the cooks preparing 5,000 dinners and the generations that had lived in the area, they were describing a life outside themselves. What interested them was the “world beyond your head,” to steal from philosopher and bike mechanic Matthew Crawford’s book.
Life in Austin (and most of the country) today, however, is lived from the inside. There’s a reason for that: If freedom and choice are the imperatives of modern life then everything on the outside — traditions, authorities, religions, other’s thoughts — is a threat, a potential restriction. The only way to maintain one’s independence is to become free of every tie and take on the job of being the sole arbiter of, well, everything.
“(F)reedom amounts to radical self-responsibility,” Crawford writes, and we achieve that “by relocating the standards for truth from outside ourselves to within ourselves. Reality is not self-revealing; we can know it only by constructing mental representations of it.”
Reality isn’t the world outside our heads — the church, the picnic, the land. The world is what we think it is. And self-expression is the way we create our reality and maintain both our identities and our freedom.
Maybe that kind of ultimate sense of freedom just isn’t possible on the prairie. We can’t express our way into a two-inch rain. The sheer distance from here to there is a reminder of a world beyond our beliefs. We don’t have an endless choice of others to be with. We need the people around us and they need us.
It’s a different way of seeing the world and making sense of our lives. But more than that, living beyond our own heads makes parties a lot more interesting.
Bill Bishop is a contributing editor and founding co-editor of the Daily Yonder. He’s the author of The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart.