What does community mean to you? Is it just a general term for the area surrounding where you live? Is it a geographical term? Or is it an interpersonal concept?
When I was a kid, I played with the neighbor kids. They would knock on my door and ask me to come out and play, or I would meet them down by the creek and we would play together in the mud for hours. My block was a community of sorts, albeit one with an ever-revolving population. It doesn't seem like the kids in suburbia even have that any more. They have play dates that are scheduled weeks in advance and they have to be chauffeured 35 minutes away to where their parentally-approved friends live.
Last Saturday, I decided to go for a walk in the park. I drove by my pastor's house on the way, and I noticed his kids playing in the yard. So I stopped in and asked if they would like to join me. My pastor, who grew up in the same small town that housed my college, was thrilled with the impromptu visit, and we all had a lovely time playing at the park together. He told me that people used to stop by all the time in Houghton, but he could count on one hand the number of impromptu visits he's had since he moved here many years ago.
My church is a community. It's one of those small churches where people spend almost as long chatting during the "greet one another" portion of the service as they do singing hymns. And we often go out for lunch together, but really, we keep our community confined to very rigid boundaries. No one from my church has ever showed up at my door unannounced, and maybe once or twice, someone has called to set-up a coffee date.
I have a micro-community at home. My in-laws, brother-in-law, husband and I usually eat meals together, and we often watch TV or play video games with Mark. But five people is really more of a family than a community. So what makes a community?
I don't have a concrete answer, but I have a few ideas. My friend Kate recently blogged about the Campus Center lounge at our shared alma mater. One of the things I loved about, and miss most about, Houghton was the constant availability of someone to talk to, laugh with, or study beside. It has something to do with not being alone in the world, knowing that others are going through the same things you are, and being able to relax and enjoy each other's presence without having to plan something. That's a part of what community is.
When I was in college, I lived in a big Victorian house with 11 other girls. We shared a meal every night, which we took turns cooking and cleaning up after. We had two common "study" lounges that were often the center of heated debates or warm sharing times. We had a job board, and shared the routine household upkeep tasks on a rotating basis. We had occasional house meetings to deal with issues that might arise. We even managed to squeeze a house book discussion group into our busy, college lives. I loved my Walldorf girls (one year their elder and the house coordinator, I was their "Mama Jule"), and I loved the experience of shared meals and lives.
So what makes a community? On the most superficial level, I'd say quite simply the ready availability of social interaction. And in our hustle-bustle lives, perhaps having friends nearby to interact with regularly is of the greatest value of all. But I think it goes deeper than that. Having shared goals and dreams, sharing a stake in the outcome of the same events, sharing love of the same things and people. Our society values independence above all else, and we all work so hard to insulate ourselves from consequences that might stem in any way from circumstances outside of ourselves. Maybe a little bit of co-dependence would be good for us.
And I'm not alone in this belief, either. Bear with me if I butcher the theory, but the way I understand Maslow's hierarchy of needs, a person can't move up the triangle towards self-actualization unless their lower, more basic needs are met. For example, you can't focus on building friendships if you're starving to death. The need for food comes before the need for belonging. However, the need for belonging comes well below self-actualization. That's community; and it's a basic, fundamental, human need. But we try to short-circuit the whole process. We put immense value on the "self-made man/woman", who "made it" without having to depend on anyone else. We cut the tip of the triangle off and pretend that it's all there is. And yet the fact remains, in our proverbs if not in our logic, that "it's lonely at the top".
So am I crazy to dream of living in community with several other families and single people, sharing our meals and yard work and childcare and leisure time? Am I crazy to dream of being interconnected and interdependent in a day and age when "co-dependency" is treated as a mental illness? (Before you jump down my throat - I'm not saying there aren't people who suffer from a genuinely debilitating strain of co-dependency. As with everything else in life, from dieting to cleanliness to independence, interconnectedness taken too far can be a problem. I'm referring rather to the stigmatization of even the word "dependent".)
I'm sure I seem crazy to most of the world, but to those of us who have had a small taste of true community, it's hard not to dream of that life.
P.S. This topic comes up frequently with me, but I think it's the first time I've written about it on this blog. For a taste of another angle I have taken on this subject, here's something I wrote back in February:
Breakfast Reading Material
My father-in-law is not retired. He's not even really of retirement age. But he is a member of the AARP. I guess you can join when you turn 50, and my father-in-law is not one to scoff at free random discounts at places like Barnes and Noble.
His AARP magazine came in the mail the other day, and I found myself reading it over breakfast. It's actually not a bad magazine, even if it does have as many "business reply mail" cards as it does actual content pages. (And now for the Simpsons-esque transition to what the rest of the episode is about that has absolutely nothing to do with the first five minutes.)
I found myself drawn to an article called "Rethinking the Commune". Any of you who has ever spent an evening in conversation with me has probably found the conversation to shift at least once to the topic of community, which is a current pet topic of mine. Honestly, I was expecting to find an article about a retirement village in Florida, but I was pleasantly surprised to find an article about exactly the problems and potential solutions I have been contemplating myself.
From the article: "People are simultaneously more mobile and more isolated. If you ask the average adult today if he or she has as much interaction with their neighbors as they did when they were growing up, nine out of ten would say no."
I was even pleasantly surprised to find a name for the community model I have been considering. It's called "cohousing", and there are already more than 80 cohousing communities in existence in the United States. For those of you who don't care enough to click on the above link, cohousing is basically an intentional community, where each family has an independent dwelling and private financial affairs, but the whole community shares certain community resources, such as a communal house for shared meals and pedestrian paths or parks. In my model, each family would also contribute in some way to the general life of the community, by preparing meals or offering childcare or gardening or helping other members write wills or being on-call for first-aid emergencies or whatever else people can come up with to best make use of their personal gifts and skills.
I was not surprised to discover that only about a third of cohousing initiatives actually make it to the construction stage. There are a lot of logistics to work out and a lot of hurdles to overcome in building something like this. However, I was pleasantly surprised to read that, "of the dozens of cohousing communities in the United States and the world that have survived to construction, not a single one has failed." While I am not convinced of the thoroughness of the scientific method applied in making this assertion, it still seems like a heartening commentary on the viability of this idea.
Community is the reason I moved down to the Philadelphia area. Jeremy's extended family celebrates birthdays and holidays together, to the tune of 20 or more people often being in attendance at any one celebration. They watch each others' kids and help each other renovate. I moved down here so I would always have someone to watch the baby when I have an appointment or pick the kids up from school when I'm running late. Why not take that a step further? On a purely financial level, why should four different families have to buy a big enough house to entertain 20-30 people when they could all just have a house big enough for their own family and share one big gathering house?
Of course, I'm nowhere near to this pipe dream of mine actually becoming a concrete plan. But I can dream, and when I come across articles like this, it makes my dreams feel a little bit less impossible.