Pushcart 2021 XLV: Janisse Ray, “The Lonely Ruralist” (non-fiction) from The Georgia Review, Fall 2019

GC Myers: “The Isolation”
When people departed Altamaha, they took the quilting bees, barn-raisings, hay-mowings, syrup-makings, and peanut-boilings of rural Georgia society in the early- to mid-twentieth century. They took the lowing and bleating of farm life, the beating of hooves on red clay. They took the fiddles and mouth harps. My neighbors, the last of the old guard, spool out their lives in these home-places, too old to square-dance or raise beams. In our ten years here Ben died, Leta Mac died, Howard died, Lynease died, Bill died, John had a stroke.
Almost every day on our farm, therefore, is a day with three people in it—myself, my husband, and our teenage daughter. I have seen days in which no car passed.

I’m hesitant to say much about this essay because I’m not sure I get it’s point. I think the point is, yes, rural life can be isolated, but it doesn’t need to be lonely if you attune yourself to what that isolation offers: a quieter place for reflection, for introspection, for connection to the natural world instead of the social world. Some things are not available, but other things are only available here.

On her way to getting there, however, she has some paragraphs that puzzled me. Some sounded like snobbery, like people who don’t read the latest hot book or care about yoga can’t be thoughtful and have ideas worth sharing. Like, everyone in the rural wilds are right-wing reactionaries. Like, gentrification is a good thing.

There’s a wonderful passage about a time when she tried to recreate the kind of attachments a person not born to rural life would have in more populated settings. We first hear about the delight she felt in sharing the birthing of a calf with her daughter, and then:

Cow society or not, Facebook or not, I needed people. To that end, therefore, at least part of my daily life became an engagement with creating community. I organized countless events, from full-moon potlucks to organic conferences to clothing exchanges to cheese-making workshops, from readings to concerts to harvest festivals.
People came—usually from Savannah, the closest city—nostalgic and hungry for a country life.
And then they went—back to their homes far from mine.

It’s this duality that runs through the first four-fifths of the essay, this sense that the country is great but it’s not enough, that confuses me. But I think that was the path she took, and those were the missteps along the way, before she arrived at her way of embracing rural life without giving up herself and without trying to recreate the city on a farm:

Rural people can self-actualize, even in the vacancy and the vacuum, and this sense of self-actualization derives from the relationships we do have in the rural, relationships with ourselves, with our beloveds, with our places, with art and ideas, with our sense of what some might experience as the divine and others might experience as the essential. After a while, anything that was not this quiet, deliberate, even transcendental consciousness felt dead to me.
Community is attachment. Much of what people suffer is caused by disattachment. In hollowed-out places, disattachment looks different than it does in populated places. Rural loneliness can look impenetrable, dark, roadless, like a thicket. It can look like a wall. So the attachment must look different, too, maybe something like a meadow or a gate. A bell, a nest, a wood.

I find myself pushing back against things I usually push back against, in particular, that the online is no substitute for the in-person. One line in particular annoyed me:  “If they live online, do they exist?” I suppose I’ll have to write my own essay about how online relationships are tailor-made for some of us who struggle to relate in person (a ten-second pause to analyze the query “How’ve you been” and formulate a response appropriate to the questioner and the circumstances makes most people uncomfortable, so I give up and go with “Fine” which makes me seem not quite real in person), but that would just make me look deficient and pathetic. So I assume goodwill and the validity of a different viewpoint and move on, until she lands it in the last paragraphs.

I doubt it ever occurred to Ray that her essay, written some time prior to fall of 2019 when COVID-19 was yet to become part of the commonplace in the US, that her essay would be read in a time when many of us were undergoing a cold-turkey withdrawal from previously active work and social lives. There is a difference, of course: her move to rural Georgia was a choice, not a public health crisis, and it was something she needed to adjust to over the long term. Most of us now feel like the degree of isolation we’re experiencing, however great or small (because it varies depending on several factors, from geography to demographics political affiliation) will end at some point and we’ll get back to “normal.” So the ways we fill in the gaps – with Zoom and online schooling and virtual parties – are seen as stopgap measures rather than permanent changes. Ray’s experience was quite different.

I wonder if normal will seem normal when we get back to it. If.

* * *

Complete article available online at The Georgia Review.

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