On Community

My dear friend Courtney and I were discussing community today, and by discussing I mean texting, and with nearly 2,000 miles between us while we did. The irony was completely lost on me until I sat down to write tonight. Maybe that’s what it looks like in 2016, but – as much as I enjoy our iMessage back-and-forths – I’d like to believe we were made for something more. 

I don’t know what community looks like for anyone else, or even me to some degree, but I’m pretty sure I have an idea how it feels. There isn’t just the freedom to be my authentic self, there’s the expectation. Because if everyone is bringing the grab bag that is their life to the table and I’m consistently projecting an image of something greater (or even different) than who I really am, community is never going to exist for me. It’s also going to damn near ruin it for the people trying to live in relationship with me. Community is a team sport. Obviously this act alone is going to make some people very uncomfortable. It made me uncomfortable for the majority of my life. It sometimes still makes me uncomfortable. The pre-packaged, mile wide and inch deep version has much greater appeal. It always will. Not everyone is going to love the authentic you, or me, or us. But some people, maybe just a few people, will, and the things we give up for the sake of authenticity are made up for in what we get back from being loved for who we actually are. 

A lot of us got taught from an early age that image was something to protect. Let people see the best you whether or not it’s the real you. As someone born, raised, and still residing in the American south, that was and is as much a part of the social fabric as anything else. Of course, it’s never put that bluntly, but it may as well be. The unintended consequence is people who, quite often, behave differently depending on who, what, when, and where. Which begs the question: which one is the true me? And if I never figure that out, will life become an increasingly tiring game of Win, Lose or Draw wherein I’m constantly having an impossible time of communicating what’s really inside me to people who should know me so much better? I think the answer to that question is yes. 

Here’s what I don’t know, and am hopefully not alone in: how do I create community when it – for whatever reason – falls apart? That’s the thing Court and I kicked around today. Neither of us had any answers. We’ve both experienced community, and then life happened and brought with it three divorces, some moves in state and out of state, and distance that made it impossible to share a meal or a beer or a kayak trip down the river like we had so easily before. The community still exists, but not in the same form as before. And what we’ve both realized is that the proximity to one another’s lives, and the experience of sharing all of ourselves with a small group of trusted friends is life-giving and, as Courtney put it, grace-filled. What that looks like now, and in the future, has yet to be seen. 

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Perspective 

There are some songs that resonate so deeply with such a wide variety of artists (think the Byrds to the Ramones), that they all want to sing it. I think that’s the case with the Bob Dylan tune “My Back Pages.” And I don’t think it’s the weirdly specific and overly cryptic, as only Dylan can be, verses that vie for the listener’s attention. Not at all. It’s that beautiful refrain: “ah, but I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now.” Hell yes, Bob Dylan. That’s the kind of lyric that’ll get stuck in your throat. 

What a beautiful and terrifying thing perspective is. It can feel like your very footing is being washed away when it starts to shift, but – at least in my experience – once you give into the mudslide, things have a way of coming together at just the right time. And not to lock in place again as some new and improved rule book for life, but so that future shifts in how you and I see the world aren’t so jarring. 

I’m fearful of the person who still sees the world as they’ve always seen it, who views themself and their neighbor through whatever lens they were born with and makes no effort to do otherwise. And I’m equally fearful of becoming that person myself. Who am I, at 36, to think I’ve somehow figured it all out? And even if that was possible, why would I want to? What purpose would the rest of life have? Telling other people to get their shit together and be like me would get old quickly. One does not get invited to too many parties like that, and for good reason. 

I was so old at twelve. It was 1992 and I was interested in politics (this can be detrimental to your access to parties as well). It was 1992, I was interested in politics, and I was a member of an evangelical Christian family. What a time to be alive. I read and listened to Rush Limbaugh. I got familiar with campaign literature. I did not like Bill Clinton at all. Conspiracy theories had weight in my life. I had this stuff figured out. It was us and it was them. What else mattered? As it turns out, quite a bit actually. 

Bill Clinton was in the last two years of his second term by the time I left for college, and I had become a big fan. The man was a hell of a president, a skilled communicator, and a gifted politician. My perspective had changed, along with my landscape. And it’s kept on evolving, and without being restricted to how I vote. Every time that shift occurs, sometimes willingly and other times less so, there’s an opportunity to see the universe a little more clearly. If I allow myself, I may just be able to understand me and my damn neighbor a little better. And after walking that proverbial mile in their shoes a funny thing happens: the experience becomes shared, the joy and pain becomes real, those shoes become mine. Then what I once believed, once used to label or define people, once mistook as the end instead of the means, all becomes a memory and a lesson. 

I’m younger than that now. 

Going Home

There were three years of my life when going home actually felt like something important. It was my first three years years of college, and going home often meant a holiday or a break. It felt special. The summer before my senior year my mom died of cancer, and going home felt impossible and like something I wanted to avoid. So I did. And then, a year after college, I got married and effectively created my own home. It wasn’t my only reason for marriage, but now, after thirteen years, three kids, and a divorce, I can see that it was part of my motivation. In the hierarchy of motivations it wasn’t the best or the worst one. But it played a part. At 23 I couldn’t see that, and even if someone had spoken that truth to me then, I can’t imagine I would have listened. 

I’m listening now, or at least trying to. To people – some I know and others I don’t – much wiser than me. Some of them have written books and others provide little encounters with truth while ringing up my groceries. If we’re lucky we get to experience more than one perspective as we pass through this life. It’s difficult to embrace the perspective of “parent without primary physical custody who lives two hours away” as a lucky one, but what other choice do I have? Thich Nhat Hanh, the brilliant Zen Buddhist, writes that “the first step in the art of transforming suffering is to come home to our suffering and recognize it.” Come home? To suffering? There aren’t a lot of people signing up for this trip.

There’s nothing worse than going home after I’ve dropped my kids off at their mom’s house. My youngest cries when I hug him goodbye, and I cry when I get in the car. And then I drive for two hours and walk into a quiet, empty house. A house where, just hours earlier, it was the center of activity, of trampoline jumping, homework finishing, guitar playing, and Lego building. And it feels like a punch in the gut. And I fucking hate it. And it’s necessary whether I want to admit it or not. Because what I’m learning is that I have to own this particularly painful perspective in order to either transform it or be transformed by it. Maybe both.