There are places in this world that you can go that feel more real than other places. These little pockets of the world feel absolutely like themselves. I recently visited a little pocket like this at The Country Kitchen in Bon Aqua, Tennessee.
While my roots are in Tennessee, the place I call home is in Georgia. I had only made my way back to my childhood home in order to attend the memorial service of a family member who passed away far too soon. After a long drive, I found myself sitting around The Country Kitchen table with my parents, grandparents, and cousin. While the server brought us our drinks and the conversation flowed around the table, I finally settled enough to take in my surroundings.
The Country Kitchen wasn’t cultivating an Americana aesthetic; they were Americana. Downhome. All-American. Rustic. If you’re thinking kitsch, don’t. Think authenticity. Think quality. Think no-pretenses coupled with a hearty meal served in a simple setting. Think no frills cracked linoleum seating and checkered table cloths — of the lined plastic variety, not cloth.
Above the cash register was a hand-written sign reminding folks (because folks is the word that comes to mind here) to love God and say no to drugs. Wooden signs are displayed proudly around the room- not to play at being something it’s not but to be something.
It was more than just the atmosphere. Good service partnered friendly smiles from a waitress who remembered my grandmother’s usual Friday order of catfish, coleslaw, and white beans. When my cousin said thank you for her drink, the server beamed with pleasure at being acknowledged with gratitude. The service was simple, friendly, and without fuss or frills. It was just the right note amid the atmosphere of Americana.
The tables around us were filled with couples and families enjoying a meal, and the noise level was louder than a quiet murmur but not so loud as to have to shout to one’s neighbor to hold a conversation. It came in waves and starts as meals were served, and silence would fall as each individual approached a plate heaping with the kind of country goodness The Country Kitchen is likely known for in Middle Tennessee.
What struck me wasn’t so much the decor or the food, although I was pleasantly surprised by both, but the authenticity. It’s unlikely that they were planning to cultivate that particular aesthetic, and yet that’s exactly how it might seem. But the resonance of the place, that very specific feeling, wasn’t about it being an original concept. God knows that there are country kitchens like that dotted all over the state of Tennessee — and, indeed, the South. It wasn’t impressive because of its originality but because it seemed genuine.
All too often our society puts originality on a pedestal, but we don’t need more people in the world cultivating an attitude of being unique from everyone else. At least, not in my opinion.
I would much rather meet someone who seemed completely themselves, a little pocket of peace and resonance in a world trying to be something (anything!) else. No artifice. No striving. No masks.
Can you imagine?
It would make romantic relationships far easier for all of us if we met people at a deeply authentic level of being. It would bring ease to friendships and to family relationships, too, if everyone stopped building walls and wearing masks and telling everyone what they think they want to hear. If we worked to be more ourselves without striving to stand out from the crowd, we would also find that ease in ourselves as the conflict between who we are and what we’re doing fell away.
I blame reality television for a whole host of cultural ills, but there’s some truth to it. We have talent shows and a celebrity culture that praises people for being different- even if that level of difference is because they stand out as the villain of the piece. We act as though the most important thing is to stay on top of trends, to be the influencers, rather than to honor our true selves.
I wonder sometimes what choosing originality over authenticity has cost us. As individuals. As a society. I suspect it has cost us a great deal.
We’d rather chase the next fad, the next technological upgrade, and race to the front of the line to be the first to embrace the next “it” expression or style rather than sitting down to figure out who we are when we’re still and silent and alone. We don’t take the time to take ourselves out of the context of our relationships to figure out who we are and what we want or to decide how we want to live when you take away all of the other factors that often drive us. We’re far too busy trying to keep up with everyone and everything else to ever settle into ourselves.
But there are little pockets of peace in the world in the form of the individuals who’ve done this. They aren’t trying to cultivate a particular style. They aren’t about that life. They are living as close to their own soul as any of us can manage. They are mindful and present inside each moment, and they don’t care to project any type of artifice over who they are. They show up as themselves, and we often can feel that in our interactions. There’s peace in being with people who aren’t striving so hard to be any particular way because they’ve found comfort in their own skin. It helps us relax enough to be ourselves, too, if we aren’t already.
My life is far from perfect. But it’s real. It’s my pocket of peace in a world trying too hard. It’s knowing in my soul that no outside approval is needed for me to live my life exactly the way I need to in order to honor myself.
The Country Kitchen, for most people, is probably just a good place to go on a Friday for the catfish dinner that’s affordable, simple, and delicious. Its decor probably serves as a backdrop that is unobserved more often than not. It’s not trying to be anything other than what it is, and I’m not trying to be anything else either. In the time it took for me to ponder the price of originality over authenticity, they were too busy frying up my catfish and serving up a heaping plate of vegetables to ponder their own authenticity.
That’s what living at ease in our own authenticity truly looks like.
(The Country Kitchen is located at 9628 TN-46, Bon Aqua, TN 37025.)