Until quite recently, I have been pursuing a false sense of community. We consume media that depicts happy, well-groomed people sitting around long reclaimed wood tables, drinking wine from mason jars and eating from-scratch everything and we call it community. Moments like these, if we’re privileged enough to experience them, are very Instagram-able. But it’s not community. At least not the whole picture. It’s very possible (read, most certainly) I’ve been in love with a distorted vision like this one for several years.
Last year, coincidently around a dinner table, a friend asked me why I bounced between so many places throughout my 20’s. (In a five-year span I lived in six different cities). I couldn’t answer the question right then, but throughout the days following I found myself mulling the question over and over in my head. Later that week, I journaled:
On one hand, I was motivated by the desire to explore new places and have exciting adventures. I think a lot of people, especially in their formative post-college years, can relate to that wanderlust. But beyond that, I think I was chasing a perpetual stream of notoriety. (I worked on a project early in my career that received international attention; like a drug, applause can be addictive). I didn’t have much to ground me during that time in my life and it occurs to me now that stable and consistent community was a major missing factor. Not once have relationships affected my desire to stay or leave a place. People have always come second to finding the next interesting project to tackle.
Those last two lines hit me hard when I wrote them. People always came second to projects. Relationship has never been a priority. As I reflect on those lines now, I see my position shifting, but at the same time I recognize what’s at stake when we choose to put people first. On one hand, I long to be rooted in a place living alongside people who are committed to supporting one another through all the ups and downs life offers. But on the other hand, there’s a real part of me that knows how hard this is. I know the risk this requires. People move. People change. People disappoint. I could move. I will change. I am capable of disappointing. It’s much easier and far more comfortable to keep one foot pointed towards the exit—the exit being prospects in other cities, mobility, privacy, limiting friendships to “texting relationships” skimming just above the line of meaningful depth, etc.
As of this month, I’ve been on-the-ground in Cincinnati for five years. It would be easy to presume that my feeling connected to this place has something to do with the work I do professionally and, I’m sure, considering how this work has catapulted me directly into a robust network of people, there’s truth to that. But I know there’s something more to the equation, and while I’m not certain, my hunch is that this something more seems to have a lot to do with a willingness to show up and open up even when I don’t feel like I have what it takes to do so.
Recently, I saw this play out in a powerful yet simple way. Last month, DJ and I hosted a 4-week class called Stone Soup. The concept was simple. In a contemporary culture dominated by a narrative of scarcity, Stone Soup was our way of inviting folks into a bigger and better story, one where we choose to trust that abundance will emerge when we act in community. One night a week, we gathered 10-15 folks together to share in the creation of a meal. Additionally, folks were invited to bring a “gift” each week to share with the group. Erika shared a story from her childhood, reminding us that the little things matter. Mary shared one of her poems, inviting us into a beautiful image of family. Marina dished out tupperware filled with olive oil from her home country, teaching us to savor the flavor of one of nature’s most delicious fruits. Patrick sang. Allison showed us how to fold origami peace cranes. Ben introduced many of us to our first loaf of babka. It was all beautiful and special and meaningful. By the end of four-weeks, this group of strangers were strangers no more.
Why do I share this? Because most days, I don’t feel like I have the time or energy to show up and open up in this way. But I’m starting to see the possibilities when we allow these kinds of depth-connections to emerge and I’m choosing to step into more opportunities to practice this. I’m starving for this kind of connection, but often too afraid to let my guard drop long enough to notice the banquet table set before me, full of friends inviting me to “come, eat.” Perhaps you can relate?
In my 20’s, the vision of community stuck in my head looked like the bespoken picture I painted above—nice dinner parties under strands of backyard lights with people who look just like us. I moved all around the country searching for those experiences and, frankly, found them—I’ve been to a lot of those dinner parties and, lovely as they may be, never found the rootedness I’ve always longed for. Friends, there’s a better way. One of my favorite quotes is this one from Bonhoeffer: “The person in love with their vision of community will destroy community. The person who loves the people around them will create community everywhere they go.”
Today, I believe we’re learning to love (and be loved by) the people around us, and what seems to be forming in the wake are glimmers of something true. I see real community when Lindsey calls to listen to me complain about my hard day despite her own busy and stressful day. I see real community when Joey offers to cosign on a house loan despite knowing any details about what that may cost! I see real community when Steph bravely shares her struggles despite the pain this kind of openness might reopen. I see real community when Brooklin asks us to hunt down goat’s milk to feed the 1-year old foster boy who’s just showed up at their house despite knowing the mileage we’ll incur on this wild-goose-chase! I see real community when Mandy simply says: “I value your perspective.” I could go on.
The gardening metaphor (which I’m convinced is the only metaphor we ever need!) is useful here. We can’t expect to eat if we don’t play a part in planting the seeds. And the seeds look like showing up, being consistent in our practices, waiting, waiting, waiting. Eventually the fruit comes and we enjoy the feast together.
It’s easy to get lost in the flat story of emails, bank accounts, brands, productivity and the like. But there’s a fuller story we all have access to and the characters of that story know what it feels like to be loved for who they are not what they do. I’m choosing that one today.