Never have I ever lived in a city. Ever. I grew up in a small town in East Texas where the grand total of the population is just under 7,000. This isn’t a small town on the fringes of a city. This is a small town in a loose cluster of other small towns, an area secluded deep in the Piney Woods that act as a buffer against it and the outside world. Our closest city is in Louisiana, and the closest major Texas city is Dallas, which is three hours away. We’re truly isolated.
To be clear, I love that I’m from my hometown. It’s cliché, but I’ll go ahead and acknowledge it: my childhood in Carthage made me who I am. My experience of growing up in Texas was very different from that of someone who was raised in one of Texas’ metropolitan areas. As a man recently told me when talking about his own beloved town in deep West Texas, when you’re in one of Texas’ major cities, you might as well be in any metropolitan area in any other state. But when you’re living in a small town in East or West Texas – that’s when you’re truly in Texas.
I agree with him, to an extent. Nobody in Carthage ever rode their horse to school, but a lot of us did grow up on county roads and a fair share of people own livestock. Football is big – very big. You can’t walk into Wal-Mart without running into one of your grade-school teachers or someone who knows your dad. Honestly, you can’t go anywhere without seeing someone you know, at least through a mutual acquaintance. When oil and gas is low, the entire town hurts. We live all of that.
And when I left Carthage, I decided to go to a very small liberal arts school in a Virginian town just slightly larger than my own, a town where a solid percentage of the population is made up of the college students. There are less than 2,000 undergraduates on my campus. And I fit well there – the small class sizes suit me, my professors genuinely know and care about me, the rural town and close-knit community reminds me of my childhood.
But choosing that college also means that I’ve never had an opportunity to truly experience life in a city – until now. This summer I’m in Austin for an internship, and I’ve spent the past three weeks in astonishment, frankly, at just how different a city is. Yes, there’s traffic, and the cost of parking takes a significant chunk out of your wallet. But there are also so many different restaurants, and tire pressure pumps that register the PSI of your tires for you, and murals, and tons and tons of vibrant and interesting people. Oh my gosh, the people. So many here are just living and doing their own thing. Everyone is embracing life in their own way and not glancing around to see who’s watching. And I’m starting to learn from them. The word I keep coming back to is that it’s just so liberating.
I’ve realized that one of the drawbacks of constantly living in a small community is you feel like you can’t ever let your guard down – at least, that’s how I feel. I have to be careful about how I look, what I say, the way I present myself, because there’s always someone who knows me and might be waiting to analyze me. And living in Austin, where the total number of people I know is probably in the range of 10-15, I’m starting to let go of some of that pressure.
Most of you probably think of me as a quiet girl. I keep to myself. Even when I’m with other people, my instinct is to listen, not speak. I clam up in a group setting, especially when I don’t really know everyone in the room. It’s taken years of internally wrestling with myself to relax in that kind of atmosphere. And I’m still not great at it. I think for me, it’s a case of perfectionism mixed with self-consciousness and an introverted nature. I put pressure on myself; I care too much what other people think about me, wonder if they’re forming judgments about me. It takes energy and effort for me to spend time with people.
At home, with my family, I’m a different person – or rather, a real person. I’m goofy, and sometimes I’m downright delirious. I blare “Despacito” and demonstrate my new Zumba moves in the middle of the kitchen; I babble about the latest short story I’ve written and how I’m itching to write another. I try out new vocabulary words, let them roll out of my mouth and into the open, and I don’t worry about mispronouncing them because someone will challenge me and we’ll debate it back and forth before finally letting the audio pronunciation on Dictionary.com sort it out. I laugh loudly, and I sit crisscross applesauce in my chair at the dinner table. I’m sarcastic, but not biting. I tell jokes, and some of them fall flat, but I inevitably get in a few witty remarks. I’m my fullest self. It’s something about being surrounded by that combination of people who know you best, and your favorite memories, and the comfort of being protected by the 20 acres of pastureland between you and the rest of the world.
My very best friend was also my roommate for our first two years of college. She’s been to my house a couple of times, and the last time she visited, at some point maybe after I danced around the kitchen and before I started belting out the lyrics to some new song I was really into, she said, “I have never seen you act like this – you’re not like this at school!” And she’s exactly right. I’m not.
When I went back home last weekend, I’m not sure how it came up, but at one point I literally sobbed to my parents that I just couldn’t ever let loose and be my full self anywhere beyond our home, that I have such a difficult time opening up. They did what the best parents do: they assured me that hardly anyone is able to be that comfortable in unfamiliar settings.
But it’s my continued caution in familiar settings that bothers me. It bothers me that I second-guess myself about speaking up in class because I don’t want to get the answer wrong in front of people, and it bothers me that I worry so much about someone watching me that I can’t just enjoy dancing at a party. I should be better than that, bigger than that. I know that, more often than not, people really don’t care nearly as much as I convince myself that they do. So for now, I’m working on being comfortable with myself in Austin.
I go to museums by myself and don’t worry if the attendants question why I’m walking through the exhibits alone. I order hot coffee in Texas in the middle of June because I’ve never really liked it iced, and I laugh when the barista commends it as a bold move. I walk down the street with my chin up. I mix patterns. I smile at strangers. I pace the length of the neighborhood while talking on the phone, unconcerned about who might catch snatches of my conversation. I drag a barstool out onto my apartment’s tiny balcony because it’s a prime location for watching the sunset. I go to a Zumba class twice a week at a Latin dance studio full of mostly middle-aged women that I was honestly scared to death to walk into on my very first day. Now, several of the women know my name, and one of them even confided that she would miss me when I left at the end of the summer. At any point in all of this, when I feel my self-consciousness starting to bubble up, I remind myself that I’ll probably never see most of these people again, and that works. My shoulders lower.
Maybe I would feel differently if I went to school here in Austin. If I knew that some of the people I passed would potentially see me again – in the library, across the lecture hall, at a mutual friend’s apartment on the weekends. Maybe if that were the case, I would stiffen a tiny bit, duck my head a little more often. But I don’t really live here – I’m just a visitor passing through.
So am I cut out to be a city girl? Is living in a place like this the only way I’ll overcome my inhibitions? I think a month is probably too soon to tell. But maybe a summer of city life is just what I need to start letting my fullest self venture out into the open a little more often. I owe her that.