Jenny Brown (skywind8) wrote,
Jenny Brown

Thinking on Rural Culture

It has taken me a long time to find my own voice in response to the recent election.

Background reading:
"The dark rigidity of fundamentalism in rural America"
"How Emotional Connections Trigger Creativity and Learning"

I grew up in rural midwest culture - and then, unlike most of my peers, I found a way out - an escape, a new life.

Rural poverty means living in chains.  The chains aren't literal, of course (except on snow tires and wagons), but to the same extent that money enables freedom, lack of money is a trap.  But how does it trap an entire community?  And why don't people change it?

The grass is thick and green, still wet with morning dew.  The grass catches between my toes as I carefully pick my way up the hill.  Then I cross the stubs of last year's weeds mowed short, which feel like straws poking my feet.  I pick my way past thorns to the black raspberries.  The cicadas' ever-present hum fills the air.  The berries have ripened well over the past few days, and it doesn't take long to fill my empty belly, and then start filling my plastic ice cream bucket.

A few minutes later, I hear the screech of a red-wing blackbird enforcing its territory, and turn to see my little sister walking along the road to join me.  She walks slowly up the dusty tracks in the road; it has been over ten years since it was graveled, and the soft clay dust is comfortable enough on bare feet.  She passes the rusty old tractor with iron spike wheels, the plow that has sunk into last year's mud, and the old row boat we stowed under a wispy tree hoping it would keep the sun off of it.  I pause from picking, and hold each thorny cane carefully as I step back out of the berries.  A thorn catches on my thigh, and I take care to lift it off without breaking either the thorn or my skin.  Slowly, steadily, I work my way back out.

She catches up just as I emerge.  "Anything ripe today?"  I hand her my bucket with a few handfuls of berries in it.  "I ate some already; you can have these.  I was going to surprise you..." Her eyes light up, and she gives me a big grin.  "Are you sure?  'Cause I'll happiily take them but I'm willing to share too!"  Now we're both grinning.  "Okay, maybe I'll keep a couple.  And then we can pick some more together."  We eat, and she begins the meticulous climb through the thorns from the other side of the bush.

A while later, our bucket is nearly full.  Then, I hear the far-away crunch of rocks under vehicle tires; someone's coming!  We freeze, and listen.  Aha, got it - that's our uncle - and he's driving the car that has room for passengers, not the truck; it sounds different on corners - and he's about a half mile away right now.  Cousins!  If we're lucky, the kids are along, not just the adults to work the fields.  I look down from the hill we're on, and see the dust rising above the road in the distance.  "Hey sis, are you done picking?"  "Not quite, I see some really big berries back here I want to get."  "Okay, then, I'm going back to the house to see if our cousins came.  See you there!"

With a few swift movements, I'm out of the berry patch and racing barefoot down the hill, ignoring the straw-like stubs hurting my feet, racing along the dusty tiretracks, into the grass, and all the way back to the house.  I make it to the driveway a moment ahead of the car, and climb up on the bank of the pond so I'm out of the road.  As the car turns in, I can see my cousins making silly faces at me through the window, and I grin back.  They are barely parked when the kids climb out, nearly tumbling over each other in their eagerness to be free.  I run over (a little slower, as the driveway has sharp rocks), and conversations explode into bubbly laughter.  The grownups have barely said howdy and already I've had three conversations with two different cousins.  Eventually the adults will sit around the kitchen table and trade stories and complaints, but us kids will be too busy building forts or pretending to wage war in the woods to notice.  Sometimes we pity them, having only complaining to bond over, instead of play.

Love.  Togetherness.  Belonging.  Play and peace and venting and complaining; bitching as a way to bond.  These are how wounded hearts and wounded dreams find a way to live on past sorrow, loss, and poverty.  The rules of life have a different flavor when you're trying to find happiness without the ability to ensure your basic safety or anything about your future.  When your very body is vulnerable to the elements and you don't have the protective armor of emergency funds or a pantry full of food.  And so, the rules.

Dreams are for the young.  Between age 16 and age 25, you have potential, and you can learn and get a good job and make a good life.  If you miss that window, you'll never get a second chance.

Dreams are for the young.  Once yours have passed you by, there's no point in dreaming new dreams.  It's a false hope; it's Lucy's football, and as consistently disappointing.  The only winning move is not to play.  Don't dream - it will only end in heartbreak.

You don't have time for heartbreak.  Anything that makes you less capable of paying attention to the current moment will threaten your short-term and long-term security.  It takes full-time attention to figure out where your next meal is coming from.  Or the money to pay for gas, or utilities, or catch the odd jobs that will pay the bills.  You don't have time to grieve, unless it's over drinks when there are no jobs to find anyway.  Or when you'll only find them by talking to the other drinkers.

You don't have time for self investment.  Learning is a luxury.  You can't afford the books, videos, classes, practice materials to learn a craft.  If you're really lucky, you'll apprentice to someone who already knows their trade and has scrap material you can practice with.  A learning opportunity must lead clearly and directly to paying work, and preferably be paid while you are learning; otherwise you don't have the time or money to take the risk on it.

You have no employable skills except the basic ability to read, write, and do arithmetic, and at least one of those is a little shaky.  School was... let's not talk about that.

Incremental improvements in life are false progress; you're believing a lie.  Something will always happen to knock you back down so you can't escape.  If the chains aren't all removed at the same time, they will simply come back.  Hard work is how you scramble just to stay in one place and not fall further behind.  You'll never actually get ahead.  Playing the lottery is fine though; nobody will blame you for a far-fetched silly dream, and if by some chance you did win something, you could finally buy your way out of all the chains at once.  And probably somebody else's chains too.  You will share, of course, won't you.  That's not a question.

Doing things the way they've always been done is the only way to stay safe and at equilibrium.  Losing equilibrium always means falling behind and doing worse; there is literally no way for things to actually get better.  So the best you can hope for is to not fall out of the boat.

If you think you're getting ahead, we'll be quick to remind you that Lucy's going to yank the football away soon.  We just want you to know before she breaks your heart again.  That way you'll be better prepared, and you won't dream as much, so it won't hurt as much when you inevitably fall.  Oh, and pride can make you fall even sooner, so don't get carried away celebrating either.

When you're really down on your luck and things are bad and you are breaking, your friends and family will always be there for you.  This is both a blessing and a curse.  But it usually guarantees a listening ear for the rage days.  You are not alone.

Everybody goes through this pain.  We've been through it a thousand times.  The ground is really hard under Lucy's football.  We know how much it hurts.  Our hearts break with yours.  We're sorry it didn't work out this time either, but what did you expect.  It's always like this.  This pattern has lived for generations, forever even, and we haven't been able to break through it either.  But you're young and still have your life ahead of you.  Maybe you'll find the escape route that we missed, somewhere back in our younger years when it could have worked out.

And in all of this... love.  Deep, vulnerable, passionate love for life, for family, and for togetherness, presence.  When I moved to the city, one of the cultural changes I struggled to adjust to was how much more calm and reserved people were about their feelings.  In rural culture, feelings were a sign of passion, of deep caring, of humanness and need and related to really important survival aspects of life.  Feelings were the glue that bonded family and friends, and that tied business deals, and that ensured neighborly cooperation when it was planting season or harvest season.  Feelings fed the hungry children with leftovers from festivals, and feelings did the work of carrying groceries to the neighbor when his car was broken or the road had flooded and blocked him in.  There was never enough money, but there was time, and feet that could walk and hands that could help, and feelings put those feet in motion.  Helping others ensured that others would look gently upon you in your time of need.  And it was just the right thing to do.  And we've got to take pride in ourselves for something, right?  And so we care about each other.

But in this push for community, the individual is strained.  Those things that make him different, that make him a bit hard to get along with, or a bit unpredictable - they make it harder to blend.  They make it harder to know what to expect, to follow the scripts of helping behaviors and what to say and how to respond.  Our shared experiences are what let us bond, so, when your experiences are completely unfamiliar to me, all I can contribute is a "huh.  ok." and I have nothing to add.  I do not see my value in the exchange.  I cannot help you or protect you.  I do not know who to be.

And in that discomfort, I might shut you down.  I might strike out at you.  I might brush off your ideas or disbelieve.  I cannot stay in that discomfort.  You are Lucy holding the football, and I know better than to take the bait.  At least, I think I do.  Maybe.  It sounds tempting.  Maybe the escape route only worked for you though.  Yeah, it probably won't work for me.  It probably didn't work for you either.  You're just misled.  I shouldn't believe it.  It's not like I have anything to invest anyway.  I can't take a chance like that.  I'd die.  I'd end up homeless on the street with no food and somebody beating me up besides.  At least out here, alone, I am safe.  Or if not safe, at least I can predict the dangers.  I know who makes an angry drunk.  I know when to shut my mouth and shut my door.  I can't take the risk of leaving.  It'll never work.  I couldn't afford to go, anyway.  This is the only life there is for me.

We live in a culture of stories, and the stories don't have to be true, only reassuring.  Stabilizing.  We live in a world of emotions, and they don't have to be rational, only familiar.  Shared.  Expressed.  The feelings we share make us safe together.

This isn't the culture I live in anymore.  I moved to the city.  I started working corporate jobs, and took on that culture as if it were my own.  In practice, I nearly disowned my rural heritage - who wouldn't remove those chains if given the opportunity?  And yet... those of us who knew it from the inside stand the best chance of being able to bridge the cultural gap in the urban/rural split in voting.  Or at least, be able to describe what might be going on.

Here are the key points I'm currently remembering:

* Emotions are welcomed and they matter heavily.  To understand this, get into your body and your feelings and remember what it was like to be an over-enthusiastic child all of the time about everything, good or bad.  This is not to say that their emotions are childish (they're not) but that your own perspective has become too narrow and reserved, and childhood is a reminder of another way to be.
* Stories matter.  We need shared emotional perspective in order to bond over it.  (This is why tv shows can be powerful motivators of social change.)  As a variant on this, reputation is a form of story.
* Pacing matters.  Too much too fast leaves people in unfamiliar territory with no way to relate.  Slow and steady and repeated is easier to find time for with low risk.  Plant a seed, and come back and water it regularly with a little more context, a little more story, the next chapter in the act.
* Resources matter.  Scarcity enforces a mindset that cannot tolerate risk, not even emotional or intellectual risk.  Under-resourced people are fragile and preoccupied.  Rural poverty traps entire towns or counties all at once, with little to no local source of funds.
* Community contributors - givers - earn high respect and trust and gratitude.  Preachers fall into this category.
* Authorities - people we trust to give good advice - are trusted without verifying because verifying is resource-intensive and impossible in advance.

Those who wish to understand how to message to this culture need to recalibrate their verbal and emotional experience of communication to fit these norms... and be prepared to get to know people individually and personally, because outsiders are rarely granted respect and trust.

Tags: leadership, needs/feelings, politics, rural
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