My parents raised my sister and me in a small town about 40 miles outside of Houston. But to say that I grew up in a small town isn’t exactly accurate. My childhood home was in the country, on 10 acres of trees and pastures without another house in sight. I loved that land. I loved the Brazos River, the constant noise of it whenever we opened one of the doors to our house. I loved the sound of the gravel road under my sneakers, the fences and trees eaten up by mustang grapevines. Though 15 minutes away from our home, Sealy was where I went to school from kindergarten through high school. It was where my family picked up our mail, where we went to the library, and where many of my friends lived. Sealy was my hometown.
My sister and I both headed to Austin after high school, excited to live in a city. Not long after, my parents moved to New Mexico. But when my dad hit 75, it seemed better for my parents to live closer to family. The traffic and increasing population of Austin made a second home in the country enticing to me, my sister, and my brother-in-law. In 2014, we pooled resources and bought a place 8 miles northwest of Lampasas, nestled between rocky Central Texas hills on the Edwards Plateau. The property—once a working dairy farm—came with a house, a garage apartment, a barn, various outbuildings, and almost 200 acres.
Before COVID-19, I spent two or three weekends a month there. After the pandemic hit, it was more like a 50-50 split—for safety, for fielding grocery runs for my parents, and for sanity, as my social calendar was a shell of its former self. The change of scenery kept stir-craziness at bay. In the span of an hour, I could reverse out of my North Austin driveway and travel the straight shot of US 183 past strip malls and big-box stores in Cedar Park, past entrances to growing housing communities butting up to Liberty Hill, and into increasing fields and decreasing populations until I reached Lampasas: population 7,982. My shoulder muscles relaxed, and I began to breathe easier once I’d pull onto the dirt road that leads to our family place—the wide pastures and the shiny glint of distant stock ponds acting as a geographic Valium.
I had driven through Lampasas many times in my life, on my way elsewhere, but I looked at it through a different lens when I imagined spending chunks of time there. Eight years ago, when we decided to look for a house, we searched properties for months. I had cast a cautious eye at multiple small towns in Central Texas. The high cost of Blanco and Hays counties kept us away from the area south of Austin, but we ventured out to small towns in other directions: Thrall, then over to Florence, San Saba, and Goldthwaite, and even as far out as Junction. Something about Lampasas made it feel promising right away, and the feeling was spurred by more than the patty melt and giant iced tea we got at Storm’s Drive-In after viewing the property.
The basics in Lampasas are well-covered—an ample H-E-B, a Walmart with a pharmacy, a local hospital. It has charms, too, including a beautiful downtown square and 19th-century courthouse; an icy, spring-fed community pool; an outdoor sculpture garden featuring, among other art installations, a giant metal catfish atop an old truck (which, honestly, I never get tired of seeing); and more than a dozen colorful murals scattered around town. There is good Tex-Mex, a Pizza Hut (a favorite of my parents), and a German restaurant with top-notch schnitzel and a plethora of gravies. Lampasas had all the essentials my parents would need, along with a generous helping of character.
Not long after my parents settled in, I subscribed to The Lampasas Dispatch Record to better know the community. Since we weren’t in Lampasas proper, the town still felt unknown in a lot of ways. Reading the paper twice a week felt like doing research, something I was used to as a writer. But reading the paper also had the effect of transporting me back to Sealy. As a kid, I had read the local paper each week—the thorough coverage of high school sports and extracurriculars, the police blotters with loose-livestock reports, the goings-on in local government or new businesses setting up shop. Lampasas started taking up residence in my heart just by the sheer similarities to The Sealy News, a nostalgia transferred.
That nostalgia took me by surprise. My love for the landscape of my childhood was uncomplicated. But my love for my small hometown was just the opposite. Part of the appeal of life in the country is isolation, and I appreciated how solitary the country felt, considering Sealy never felt solitary despite its small population, back in the 1980s, of around 3,000. I couldn’t shop the aisles of the Sealy grocery store or Walmart without seeing multiple people I knew, and likely having multiple conversations: a friend with her parents, a woman from church, my former third-grade teacher, my dog’s vet. So many folks to be audiences, or inquisitors, or simply roadblocks to accomplishing an errand with speed.
I didn’t have the perspective then to see the positive roles these people played, but I’m getting better at it now. I’m my own sort of audience when I shop at H-E-B in Lampasas. I watch two women happily chatting each other up in the bread aisle, blocking the tortillas. Two older couples standing next to piles of bananas exchange news of relatives and mutual friends. I cruise through the aisle with anonymity. I’m not yet a known quantity even after years of occasional shopping there. Despite that, the ratio of head nods and smiles from locals—the simple acknowledgement that I am a person there in close proximity to them—is always higher in Lampasas than it is in Austin. The Texas-friendly ethos is magnified by the small-town friendly ethos into something that feels like community, even as I stand at its edges.
It’s an old lament: We’ve lost our way in America because we no longer value community. When I was young, I used to shrug it off, feeling confined by my community, so surrounded by it that I couldn’t even begin to understand a world without it. There was the community of my school, especially the 100 or so kids in my grade, and within that, the community of my classrooms, of the junior high basketball team, the marching band, and the debate team. Outside of school, I was on a softball team, I took piano lessons and dance classes, and I participated in recitals. There was church on Sunday with Sunday school and vacation Bible school in the summers. It isn’t that people don’t do these things in cities. Of course they do. But typically, the things they do comprise a separate community, discrete units. In a small town, the kid whose piano lesson was before mine, who I could hear play as I stood on the porch waiting, also sat behind me in my fifth-grade class. I always felt like Sealy was a single community, one large Venn diagram of folks who might not overlap in all things, but in some areas the overlap would be eight layers deep.
Back then, Houston beckoned me. Just a 30-minute drive from our house, the city had movie theaters and shopping malls. By high school, it also held things that made me feel like an adult: bookstores and music shops, art museums with famous paintings in them. I had read widely, starting early, and I understood how narrow a slice of life I could see in Sealy. I knew the world was elsewhere. Sealy was the type of place people left so they could become who they were meant to be. But the draw of Houston was even more than that. Houston allowed anonymity. There was no running into your best friend’s aunt or your softball coach.
As a child (and well beyond that, to tell the truth), I was incredibly shy. I was a legitimate introvert. I read a lot because books were, to me, the best company. They felt restorative, while navigating teams and classrooms felt like a constant drain. It wasn’t that I wanted to be alone in my room. I liked being out in the world, walking through the Cullen Sculpture Garden or eating New York-style bagels in front of the Waterwall. I didn’t mind being surrounded by other people; I just didn’t want to talk to any of them.
Now that I’m older and have burnished off a lot of my shyness through the constant polishing of exposure, I can see that being shy in a small town was a convenient placement. The community is so inescapable, you’re forced into extroversion. In a big city school, I might have had a hard time making friends or avoided conscription into team sports or marching band. But in a small town, the friends will find you eventually. It never occurred to me to refuse activities because I saw no examples of anyone else who did. Besides, how scary could it be when all the participants were already so familiar?
Even though I still enjoy the anonymity of going to Costco in Austin, I also enjoy going to literary events and seeing a half-dozen people I didn’t expect to see. Though still an introvert, my shyness has lessened: I can teach a class of 40 students, give a reading onstage, and even do a radio interview now without too much stress. But my idea of hell is still attending a party where I only know the host, and Lampasas feels similar to that party. I may live nearby, but I am outside the community. Because community is more than location. Community means availability and extending yourself. And so, I keep waiting around, sure that one day soon I will take the leap.
I recently read a lovely book titled The Joy of Movement, by Kelly McGonigal. In it, she discusses the power of synchronous movement. When you move in rhythm with other people, like in a dance or aerobics class, your sense of personal space enlarges to encompass all the other people too. We can get this feeling from singing together in church, or line dancing at a country-western bar. Sociologists describe what happens to us as “collective effervescence,” a type of group joy. The enlarged feeling of personal space gives us a strong sense of belonging. I remember a version of this when I was in marching band in high school. Once I learned the music and choreography well enough that executing them no longer took 100% of my brainpower, I almost got the sense we were one unit—a single animal playing “Under the Sea” from The Little Mermaid—as we stepped and pivoted in perfect time.
I wonder, especially as the pandemic has added more isolation to our lives, if synchronized TikTok dance routines rack up millions of views because they scratch the deep itch we have for that feeling of belonging, of being part of a group we feel compatible with. If the loss of community in America is an old song we have heard too often, the paucity of true connection thanks to our growing time on social media is only the latest cover version. We direct message each other and scroll through Twitter rather than making a connection in a physical space, but the momentary scratch only seems to worsen the itch. We form communities online, increasingly along political lines, but that can just further fracture our real-life communities, the family members or childhood friends we’ve distanced ourselves from as our worldviews skewed off in different directions.
I suspect when my friends who were born and raised in cities think of small towns, they imagine intolerance for their own personal political views. It’s a fact, after all, that Austin is overwhelmingly blue while Lampasas is overwhelmingly red. Our polarized country feels like it has rendered us incomprehensible to each other. It has exacerbated our tendency to judge, to flatten people to what we see as their worst characteristics. I can’t shake the feeling that it’s our small towns that have a better chance of creating less siloed lives.
Growing up in Sealy—for all the limitations I felt at the time—offered a life with a wide spectrum of community members. I went to a church attended by farmers and cafeteria workers as well as bank managers. I visited friends in trailer parks as often as friends in two-story suburban homes. I could overhear conversations between their grandparents in Spanish or Czech. Sealy had a single public school system, which meant the demographics of my classes roughly matched the demographics of the town—with all the racial and class diversity that entailed. The small town that felt limiting to me then was actually exposing me to a more varied community than I might have seen if I had grown up in, say, the Houston suburb of West University Place.
Because people in small towns have so much interaction, the other side is never an unknown. You may disagree with them, even stridently, over the issues of the day, but you can’t as easily see them as the bitter enemy, not if they recently hosted a sleepover that your daughter attended or helped you jump your car when the battery died. It’s harder to write someone off as uninformed or intolerant when your interactions with them show their authenticity or compassion.
I don’t want to give too idealized of a picture. There are plenty of ways small towns can crush their citizens who fall outside the town’s norms, including discrimination by race, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Besides, if my hunch is true, why aren’t small towns already giving us more examples of decreased polarization? One reason is that homogeneity I mentioned above. If you’re feeling limited by your small town, if you feel like it’s not letting you be your full self, you can simply leave.
For a long time, the story of America has been one of a migration of people from rural areas into cities. But as cities nationwide face affordability crises and owning a home in them becomes impossible for huge sections of Americans, we could see that migration in reverse. It’s possible: Telecommuting is on the rise. People may choose to move back home to places they left, or perhaps more likely, move to new places, smaller towns completely unknown to them. There they can have a better quality of life and a lower cost of living.
The key to increased belonging may be in actively seeking new circles that will overlap. These transplants won’t necessarily have jobs that help ease them into the community, especially if they work from home. They may, like me, live past the edges of town, without neighbors to meet. They may not have children to tie them to the school system, or they may opt to have their kids attend school online. It will still take work, which might feel avoidable as technology keeps us synched up with preferred online communities that mirror our values and interests. But wouldn’t it be worth it to increase the collective joy in our lives, to feel a true sense of belonging?
It’s time for me to finally test this theory for myself. My sister and brother-in-law joined the local chapter of the Texas Farm Bureau years ago. And my brother-in-law, whose telecommuting job allows him to be in Lampasas full-time now, has made friends through selling the hay he bales. He’s been helping our neighbors repair their fences to keep everyone’s livestock in their proper places. I too need to take the leap and find ways—and there are always ways—to start to know the people in my community. To get past my trepidation of knowing no one at the party. To run the risk of being recognized in the post office, to hear the latest gossip standing outside H-E-B. To change Lampasas from the town I live near to the town where I live.