Monday, December 08, 2008

Rebuilding Community

(a rough draft of where I am)

Earlier this year, I wrote about listening to UnderCover's Balance of Power late into the night on my own this past spring. The first time I did this, over a decade ago when it first came out, my social circles were wide and varied. At one point in that early 90's week, I had around 10 friends over one day, and none of them knew each other. I knew each of them through a different social circle, and I was the only person each of them knew here (egotripping, I know, but it was pretty cool!). Fast forward 15 years, to that night this past spring, when I found myself at a place in my life where I didn't know a single person I could call up to come over and join me for the evening. My social circles, my community of friends, had dwindled down eventually to the point where I had all my proverbial eggs in one basket. And then that basket got knocked out of my hands, so to speak. It is a place I have never really known before. A stifling aloneness. To be sure, I still had and have friends (I've been very lucky in my life, and quite a few of my lifelong friendships have deep, strong roots, regardless how much time or distance may pass between us), but most of them are now either living out of state, or are living busy lives with spouses and children, and that depth of community is no longer here. And so, this year has been a time for me to deal with the pain of loss (and the poisonous bitterness that can accompany that, as I also wrote about), and try to begin rebuilding something of a community in my life again. Because if I know one thing about myself, it is that I need others in my life. despite my love of times of solitude, I need friends in my life. I need people who are there for me, who I can be there for, who can delve into deep waters late into the night every once in a while.

I was going to counseling earlier this year for the first time in my life, and it was ok (I certainly have always appreciated and encouraged the idea of personal counseling), but as the money started to run out, I realized that the conversations I was having in counseling were the kind I used to have with close friends, and the whole thing started to feel like emotional prostitution. Like a substitute for the real thing. Friendship with a time limit that I had to pay for. And though this counselor came highly recommended, she wasn't getting to the psychological core of things like I had hoped. (my new favorite blogger, Cary, recently wrote a paragraph about the latest Kaufman movie that just about knocked me flat with it's piercingly accurate description of my inner life. I wish I could have read it earlier this year to print out and show the counselor and say "see this, this is me. make it stop!").

In recent months, I have been exploring various community building possibilities. Last week I went to a book discussion group with 11 others who were complete strangers to me. and it was good. I signed up for this one because they had chosen one of my all-time favorite books, High Fidelity. I met some nice people and we talked for a couple hours, and though I don't know if I'll see them again for a while, it was a seed planted. It was a beginning.

Online, I've been connecting with a few people who I wish lived in this area, as they are kindred spirits and obviously interested in the same deep waters I seek out. some live on the other side of the country, some don't even live in this country, and none are within driving distance of myself.

Probably more importantly, I have been going to a church on a semi-regular basis, and getting to know some of the people there. David had been recommending Trinity to me for as long as I can remember, and I can see why. It is a very traditional (I like to say almost a "Catholic wannabe") church, without all the snazzy entertainment production or gimmicks of many modern churches, and also without the "turret's syndrome" expressiveness of some of the charismatic congregations I've known. And every single sermon I've heard there has had depth, relevance, and a few quotes from authors in my personal "hall of fame" (C.S. Lewis, Walter Brueggemann, N.T. Wright, etc. etc…). The pastor (and the new associate pastor) reads and integrates books of serious substance, and that's a rare find. I've met quite a few people there who I hope to develop a continuing deeper friendship with, as well as getting to better know a couple folks I knew before even going there. But of course even they are about an hours drive from my house, stretching the idea of a "local community" a little thin…

Speaking of David, he and Sarah came to Michigan in October for a wonderfully refreshing weekend at Trinity House. Sarah played an intimate concert (with her seemingly innumerable siblings as bandmates) on Friday night (and if there's a song that's rivaling Mindy Smith for airtime in my head, it's Sarah's "The River"), and David spoke there next morning. Getting a chance to talk with David and Sarah for a bit that weekend, listening to Sarah sing her life-affirming songs, and David speak clarity to the moment we find ourselves in as both of them bear witness to the Kingdom being lived out in life's messy everyday, I was reminded of how much I crave the kind of community they are a part of and help to create. I hope to write in more detail about that weekend, but for now, I'll just say that David and Sarah remind me of a passage from Madeleine L'Engle's book, "Circle of Quiet":
"It’s all right in the very beginning for you to be the only two people in the world, but after that your ability to love should become greater and greater. If you find that you love lots more people than you ever did before, then I think that you can trust this love. If you find that you need to be exclusive, that you don't like being around other people, then I think that something may be wrong.
This doesn't mean that two people who love each other don't need time alone… But there is a kind of exclusiveness in some loves, a kind of inturning, which augurs trouble to come.
Hugh was the wiser of the two of us when we were first married. I would have been perfectly content to go off to a desert isle with him. But he saw to it that our circle was kept wide until it became natural for me, too. There is nothing that makes me happier than sitting around the dinner table and talking until the candles are burned down."

I have sat at Dave & Sarah's dinner table talking until the candles burned low (long enough for us to have plenty of candlewax to play with and pour in various shapes on that dinner table itself!), I have experienced their "expanding love", their almost unparalleled hospitality, and the community they are a part of (in Nashville, my home away from home) and in some way share with everyone they meet. To me they are a witness to and living example of the reality of the kingdom to come. And they are a part of a much larger community of like-minded kingdom-reality seekers whose very existence as a community (worldwide) has inspired and challenged me more times than I can tell.

That bit by Madeleine L'Engle isn't necessarily just about lovers or married couples. I think it applies to all types of love, including friendships. And I think this is the warning sign I didn't heed in my own life, that my friendships of late were not expansive and inclusive ones. They spiraled down to just a few, and then less than a few, and ultimately that path leads to an unhealthy solitude that is more akin to solitary confinement within one's own skin. It was leading me towards an angry insanity (which is what lead me to counseling, which may prove to have been nothing more than a way to hang on through a pretty dark storm or two, which may be all it needed to be). And I've also been at fault with other relationships, other deep friendships I simply haven't put the time or effort into to keep alive, vital, and current.  Close friends become occasional friends as the "cares of this world" choke the life out of my days.

I've been reading through some old journals recently, and I am reminded of how deep some of these friendships have been, how much certain people have meant to me, and I am alarmed at how easily such relationships can fade into the background. One of these still horrifies me to think I carelessly let her slip out of my life, possibly for good, someone I loved very much and is now lost to me, despite repeated attempts to find her.  Community requires cultivation, and for the longest time I have just been coasting. And anyone who has coasted long enough knows that eventually you come to a stop, and you don't have to do a thing for that to happen. In fact, that's how it happens. And to get going again requires a whole lot more effort than is required to keep going. And I have to admit, I am tired. And discouraged. But old friendships tend to rekindle quickly, and deep roots are still there, regardless the surface neglect suffered.

There is a balance I haven't been able to find, let alone maintain. For most of my life, relationships have been my top priority. But one's own life needs to be lived as well, and lately I can't escape the feeling that I should be doing something "more important". I spent my whole life cultivating friendships, and I find myself ironically at this place where, because I haven't really cultivated my own life, I don't have some of the friendships I thought I had cultivated. And of course, another early warning I either ignored or didn't fully understand, from C.S. Lewis, that friends walk side by side on a common path. Friends don't generally face one another. That is a different kind of love. and in cultivating "friendships", I lost sight of the path I should be walking, of the object that could be a common focal point for potential friendships. In focusing on friends, I find I've lost some of them, like trying to grab water. Friends are there in total freedom or not at all. Trying to "hold on to" friendships can be the very thing that ruins them. People take different paths in life, and no matter how much you think the path you are on is the right one, you can't force another to walk with you on it. And in facing the friend to try, you lose sight of the path. Chase after the friend, and you can find yourself lost. And to tell you the truth, I'm not sure where I am right now (in life OR in this blog entry!). But reading through some old journals is helping me to remember where those deep roots are. And, like I said, I'm not "without" friends right now (one of my closest friends, though living days away, makes a concerted effort to call fairly regularly, for which I am grateful). The local landscape is just a little bit barren at the moment, as far as I can see. If I can find that path I should be on, I think I'll find that community that was probably there all along waiting for me.

Next week I'll be out of a job I probably shouldn't have been doing this long in the first place, and things seem a little bit out of focus right now. But I am praying, and I hope you will too, that I find that path that realigns my vision and reawakens my purpose. I feel like I'm walking in water with my toes barely touching the bottom, my head barely out drawing breath. I can't see where I am going right now, and I hope I find my way to more solid ground soon instead of in over my head. The water seems to be rising all around, and I know we've all been seeing a lot of people dipping below the surface. Sounds dire, but at some point we all dip below the surface for good, and maybe that's what these times are here to remind us. "The Jordan River is chilly and cold…I'll meet you brother on the other side". Times like this can cause one to worry about the cares of one's own life (legitimate and numerous), or these times can be the common ground out of which community is formed and grows (think: Dorothy Day's Catholic Workers). Reaching out to others can be rather counter-intuitive when one's very survival is in question, but community is, paradoxically, the only place where one's survival has a real and lasting chance.

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