Friday, August 10, 2007

Living in Community: "You don't want to be measured and found wantin'"

There is a chance, only a chance mind you, that one of the best feelings in the world is to be wrong. Now, I'm not so foolish as to say that being wrong every time feels good, but there are certain subjects that it's just nice to find out that you are wrong about.

It isn't good to be wrong about having enough room to beat the train. VERY WRONG to try and second guess a freight train. It is not a good idea to just believe that the iron isn't hot any longer. My mom always said, cold or hot treat it like it will burn you, I do. There are other ways to get burnt, their scars are not quite as visible.

I lament quite often that it seems that the idea of community is dead. I'm not talking about a neighborhood. That is a concept of community that will never die. We will always have that kind of community. I'm talking about living in community. Let's take a couple of, “for instances,” I live in a rather natty building near the corner of a numbered street and a street named after a state. Oh, what the heck, I live near the corner of 16th and Pennsylvania in what I like to call Central City. We aren't downtown, but in this building we sure as heck aren't uptown either. In fact, I joke that I'm waiting for the editor of Better Shacks and Hovels to call and put my place on their cover. In my building there are 24 apartments. Generally speaking there are about 22 or so filled at a time and the rest are always in a state of perpetual clean up for the next tenant. I would not call my apartment building a community. It's a neighborhood, but we do not live in community. Well, not everyone does.

Take for example the man who lived across the hall from me. An aging black man who made it clear on the first day that I lived in this building, “I don't take well to people.” I explained that someday we would be happy neighbors, glad that the other was near by, as it turned out we did become good neighbors, lived with a sense of community and now that he has moved, I miss him.. There are others in the building who haven't been exactly the model for friendliness. Another example, there is a man in my building, very attractive, when you see him one of two reactions are going to take place, I don't care what gender you are, you are either going to knock yourself out to speak to him because he is attractive, or you are going to be intimidated by his good looks and you are going to do the embarrassed school girl routine and kick the dust with the toe of your shoe while looking down bashfully. I have spoken to him several times. He is not friendly and has no intention of becoming so. I went so far as to explain to him that living in community is a good thing, should there be a fire he doesn't want to be the one that no one wants to alert. No one was asking him to cook dinner and invite us in for it, we simply would like to say hello at the mailboxes and be acknowledged. He does it, but begrudgingly. There was a fire scare in the building and when I pounded on the door to wake him at 2 in the morning, I was working my way down the hall to alert the others in the building that there was unexplainable smoke and to be prepared to leave. Mr. Beautiful thanked me later for waking him and asking him to dial 911 to make sure that it had been reported as I continued my rounds of waking those still uninformed.

This is when I wish that I could say that there was a turn of events, there wasn't; he still grunts when he sees me in the parking lot and says hello only when spoken to at the mailbox.

The first of this week I went to the grocery store here in the neighborhood, the one that has been dubbed by the First Earl of Herron Morton Place, (that's me,) as the Kreepy Kroger. There are sights there on a regular basis that amaze and astound. There are times that I wonder where these people come from. I've seen two women in their Sunday best literally elbow one another out of the way with vicious aplomb to get to a pile of mustard greens, scrapping like they had each come upon the Holy Grail first. I learned later, while each was strolling through the grocery store having filled several plastic bags with the foliage that they went to church together. YIKES!! And they were , Sister this and Sister that.

I've been to a more upscale grocery in town and had an unnerving situation happen. Two men, shopping together like a happy couple playing house were there, we had just been in church together not an hour earlier. I had shaken hands with them at the passing of the peace, we are all regulars. When I spoke to them in the grocery they acted offended and wanted to know why I was speaking to them. Are these examples of community? There have been many other examples of these kinds of experiences that I could share, in fact I could probably regale you for pages. It makes me wonder at times if the line from Shrek applies to me, “I'm just an ogre.” I know that I'm not. Something scares people away though.

I mentioned that I love to be wrong, and here's where I am most happy. I went to the doctor's office the other day and because my clinician is often running late I took a book with me. I was zipping through the book enjoying the format as much as anything. I giggled each time I closed the book for a moment because on the opening page is a quote that says, “If I set you on fire, will you keep me warm?” Now in this particular waiting room I have seen a little bit of everything. I'm not going to hide it exactly, the practice specializes in mental health. I understand why we are there. For some reason or another and at varying degrees we need a little help, some a lot of help, but it makes me feel good that there are those who have chosen professions to do just that.

A young man, maybe 24 or so, not more, came in and sat down against the wall at the end of the room, only a few seats from me, he leafed through a magazine and then saw me laugh about the book. He said, “So, that book must be good.”

“It is,” I told him.

“What makes it so good?'

“I love the opening line, it says, 'If I set you on fire, will you keep me warm?' Besides that, the concept of the book is very clever, the kind of thing that I would like to write.”

“That is a good line,” he said, repeating it to himself.

He was called off by his clinician and he turned to me before leaving the room and said, “it was short, but I enjoyed talking to you.” I told him that I enjoyed it too, and I did. Two strangers actually talking to one another? What was that all about?

When I got in to see my clinician she told me that it was her first week back after having been at church camp for two weeks. She shared with me that her 11 year old son came to her choking back tears on Tuesday and he told her that he missed singing that song. “What song?” she asked. “You know the one, 'Shall we break bread together on our knees.'” While telling me this she began to fight back tears. I told her that I thought that her son was missing a very important thing. While he was at camp he learned the importance of community, he learned that while breaking bread in the celebration of the Eucharist he became a part of the body of Christ and while in the Anglican tradition that she and her family are a part of they believe that they actually became a part of the body and blood of Christ. But what's more, while doing that he learned that being a part of the body of Christ also meant being a part of a community of faith. A community! Her tears began to dry as she said to me, “That's exactly what he learned and he learned on his first day back in the real world that that community isn't just everywhere.”

But it is everywhere, yet, I regret to inform you that there are so many people for whatever reason believe that they hold onto the notion that they are the center of the universe and we are their satellites. We orbit them, we are here for them. The sense of community, of being a neighbor of offering ourselves as helpers, supporters, encouragers, coworkers, has been beaten within an inch of its life because of the folks who believe that their problem is more important than everyone else's, their health is worse than anyone's, their loving relationships make yours look like training wheels on a trike. That because of these things we are here to serve them.

I was watching “The Lady Killers” the other night, the new version with Tom Hanks. When I put the disk into the player I was thinking about how I want to live in a real community, what would it mean to be a part of a real community? Then I heard the lovely, deeply southern Negro lady lead say, “You don't want to be measured and found wantin', you don't want that written on your wall.” I fear that is where our world is headed, I fear that we will turn our faces away from our neighbors, that we will refuse to live as a community and we will have to answer to her question. I would enjoy being wrong, I would enjoy thinking that we won't find this written on our wall.

I thought as I drove to work the next morning, I'd like to see New Harmony, Indiana. It was designed to be a Utopian community, then I thought about the Shakers and how they were looking for the same thing, then the light came on, well it turned green and as I drove through it I was reminded, both of these communities didn't make it. So maybe it's best not to look for a Utopian community. Just a regular one for me please, a nice little community.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don, There are communities out there. Often times it is not made up of our neighbors though. Jim & I have a few neighbors we are on waving terms and/or speaking terms with. Even if we don't chat with each other much, we still look out for each other. When a lot near our home was on fire, a neighbor down the street came over to make sure we were aware of it so that we could get out if needed. 'Community' seems to still be in place in the event of adversity. Look at what happens during a hurricane or a tornado. I have observed other communties where I work. A library is a great place to observe these communitites. There are the mothers who meet only during storytime. They exchange concerns, amusing stories and tidbits of helpful information. There are the books clubs who discuss, and the various clubs who meet. In these, people have met and formed, all unintentionally, communities. And let us not forget our online communities! I have recently discovered another community that I am very slowly becoming a part of. I started going to a gym. It's for ladies only and most of them are at least 10 years older than I. But they are friendly and once in a while get together to go to lunch. I have been invited to join them but my work schedulde tends to prevent it. Why we no longer have our neighborhood communtiites I am not entirely sure. But we do have communitites. I think there is an inherent need for belong to a community.


10:48 PM  
Blogger Don Bryant said...

Rita, you are absolutely right, there are still communities, I see them, I'm part of them. I think what I'm really missing is what you and I grew up with in small town living. I miss being able to speak to anyone or wave at everyone. Here in the city there seems to be a fear of simply being friendly. Recently, I did have a neat experience that took me back to being able to speak to the next person in line at Buck's Grocery. I had put my items on the belt at the Kreepy Kroger, a tub of sherbet, a bottle of ginger ale, a loaf of rye bread and yes, some pickle loaf, (I was feeling adventuresome,) and a jar of mayo. The young man behind me looked over my selection and he said, "You really don't need much more to live, do you?" I said, "just love and you can't get that in the grocery." He wife shoved him with the grocery cart and said, "What have I told you about talking to people?" You know, I don't want to know what she had told him. I was glad that he did anyway.

I agree that major events draw us closer, disasters, life changes, be it grief, new life or whatever else fits here, draw us together. I don't know that I want to want for those things. I've often said that I can be as patient as death, but to simply be able to speak and carry on a light conversation shouldn't require a major motion picture worthy extravaganza.

Yes, there are communities, and they are everywhere, around me right now, where I am, at this time, they seem a little more like hostile territory. Yet, I stay because if people like me move away, who is going to set the example? This hood needs someone to wave, someone to speak in the grocery, someone to smile and hold the door for someone carrying laundry. I think it's where I live and I want the community to be with real people.

I made it clear as mud, didn't I?
Love ya cuz.

7:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, I quite understand. Sometimes I miss good ol B'ville. While big city life has it's ammentities, there is something about a small town and the day to day comaradarie that you can't get here. Or perhaps it was simply the time we lived in. Is it still the same today? I wonder....
Keep the faith cousin. It keeps you going and probably quite a few others as well.

7:26 PM  
Blogger Don Bryant said...

While the neighborhood in the old home place still has a lot to say for it, there are things missing, Buck's grocery where you could pay inflated prices for bread, but you got the hot air that could inflate. Nudge Nudge Grin Grin Wink Wink. There is no bank to stand in front of and be accused of being relatives.

Dad, Grandpa and I (I was probably 10) were standing in front of the bank when Merle Richardson came out and told me that I would never be able to deny my heritage. I had no idea what he was talking about.

That's what's missing.

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