We come to one person, and we basically are asking him or her to give us what once an entire village provided.
On Valentine’s Day I was listening to the TED radio hour on NPR, and one of the featured speakers was Esther Perel, a psychotherapist who specializes in the challenges of marriage in contemporary society. What she said, in my estimation, was brilliant for a number of reasons, but the connection to community in her TED talk stands out. She demonstrated how our contemporary American culture, one which is aggressively individualistic and consumeristic, has given us a deadly fantasy about marriage and about what we will find in our spouse: a lifelong best friend who will be everything for us. We will not need anyone else; we can burrow down in our homes, live only a few feet from next-door-neighbors without knowing their names, and have our spouse meet all our social and emotional needs for the balance of life.
It’s hard to believe that Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000) is now 15 years old — but this is the new normal. I wonder, though, if there is one element of this breakdown and crisis that isn’t highlighted enough. It’s no great insight from me, but it needs to be said that my generation (I’m now 35) moves around at a tremendously higher rate than our parents (the Boomers) and even more so than our grandparents (the so-called greatest generation). While my folks still live in our home town (my dad within walking distance of the hospital where he was born), I have had addresses in six states in regions as diverse as the Southeast, the Gulf South, and the Midwest.
How in the world can folks like me find community? Before I was ordained, my wife and I actually developed skills at joining churches in new places. I should add that we developed that skill independently of each other as singles, which is an even harder task! It’s infinitely easier when you have a partner on your arm because you fit an unspoken model, a prejudice I’m careful to watch for when we greet and hopefully integrate newcomers in my parish.
Those of us born in the ’70s and ’80s not only move more often, our lives can be described as episodic. While social media has tried to bridge the gaps between episodes, I think there are other ways of stringing together a coherent narrative. As an exercise, I identified two elements in my life that could chart an engagement with places and people (the struggle to be in community often entails the inability to have a narrative). One of these elements went with me: a car, a 1999 Toyota Corolla to be exact. It had dints and dings and even rust from different episodes. But it was always the same car. The other element changed but has a certain sameness to it. Every episode had a coffee shop, these places where people come and go but they end up talking and buying the same drink. That sameness was true in North Carolina, Iowa, Chicago, IL, Wisconsin, Ohio, and even in a tiny town in Louisiana.
Despite my pietistic upbringing and my penchant to get weepy at the drop of a hat, I don’t write this to be wistful. My goal is to reflect on community and relationships through these two elements, and I’d like to encourage readers who’ve also had a peripatetic life to find their two elements, things that can serve as a lens for relationships.
First the car. In the year 2000, my parents bought me a 1999 Toyota Corolla. I was 20 and a sophomore in college. They bought it from a dealer in our hometown who was also a member of our church; his daughter was two grades below me in school. That car made my first out-of-state road trip with my best friend. It was parked outside of an apartment at UNC, which I shared with two other good friends.
In 2005, I drove it for 2 days (with all my possessions) to Iowa City for grad school. It ferried friends in grad school to conferences all over the Midwest, including one friend who would become my wife. In 2009, it went with me to live in Chicago as I finished my dissertation and then to Wisconsin for seminary. It drove me and Denise Kettering-Lane on our honeymoon after we were married in 2010. And then Denise drove it to Louisiana while I followed in a moving truck. It was parked in the rectory car-port at my first parish.
It had dings and dints all over it by the time my son was born. A different car brought him home from the hospital, but when I opened the car door to get out the baby carrier, I’m certain I added one more dint to the Corolla. As I watched a tow-truck take it away in late 2014 to be donated to St. Vincent DePaul, I could see a decal I put on the back window 14 years and 200,000 miles earlier.
Now for the coffee shops. In 2002, as I was finishing undergrad, I sat in a coffee shop in Chapel Hill talking with a dear mentor who believed in me. He had read my stuff and thought it wasn’t bad. He bought my coffee and encouraged me. In 2004, I was a middle school teacher in a small town just south of Raleigh. I volunteered with the youth group at the Episcopal Church in town; I was a young single guy, and I knew most of the youth group kids from school anyway. The youth minister and his wife, also in their early twenties, had relocated to NC from the Midwest and so we were natural friends. One Friday night we found ourselves in a coffee shop that seemed more like a nightclub. But the drink in front of me — again bought by a friend — was coffee.
In 2008, I was in my favorite coffee shop in Iowa City. While there were lots of coffee shops, this one was right in the middle of what is known as the ped-mall, a downtown area right by campus where all sorts and conditions wander through. On that occasion, I was reading opposite the woman who would later become my wife.
In 2012, after other coffee shops in other places, I sat in a coffee shop in a small town in Louisiana, one with not more than 6,000 people. I was buying coffee for a young woman who I was preparing for confirmation. Everyone in that coffee shop knew me, the young priest in town. An older man shuffled up to our table. He wanted to apologize at long last. Several months before, this man, a member of my church, let himself into my home (the rectory is behind the church). It was a Sunday afternoon, and Denise and I were actually in the parish hall for a potluck lunch while he let himself in and made himself at home. He took a couple of things that afternoon which didn’t belong to him. This story involved the police and the bishop and would take far too long to tell here. After a lot of reflection, I decided to let it go. But here he was, at long last, saying that he was sorry. I accepted his apology and forgave him.
In 2015, I now spend a couple of hours each Friday in a coffee shop near the University of Dayton’s campus. And every Friday afternoon I find myself trying to read but I can’t help but people-watch. I’ve seen members of our youth group wander in and the senior warden of my parish slapped me on the back the other day. Who knows what will come.
With Esther Perel’s TED talk in mind, let me say that I love my wife, but the villages I have known bring a richness that no one person can offer.
The featured image is “Latte at Catalina Coffee” (2009) by Luis Cerezo. It is licensed under Creative Commons.