Monthly Archives: May 2010

transparent communities

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One priceless element of being in a true community is that feeling of being at home. Have you ever felt the comfort and freedom that comes with belonging to a deep, genuine group of friends? People are real. Masks are checked at the door. Weakness is okay, because weakness is a part of life, and community is a place of life.

Transparency is humbling and liberating, embarrassing and empowering. Transparency is necessary to being genuine. It also seems elusive; it can’t be manufactured, and it seems to appear when I least expect it. I have a beautiful friend who was part of a community I lived in and loved during college. She has always been an example of transparency to me, and several of her recent posts have made me realize that I took this honesty for granted. This honesty is a gift. Thank you, friend.

Heidi, Do you know why we’re friends? I remember walking into your room on our hall freshman year. I had a question about some US Government assignment. I didn’t know you at all, and never envisioned that one day we would actually be friends. I might have alluded to the difficulty of the assignment; I don’t remember. I only remember that you came out and bluntly said that it was a tough assignment and you were struggling through it. You were the first person at Wheaton who manned up and said something was difficult. The rest of us were still trying to be our high school perfectionist selves. You really surprised me, and I was immediately drawn to you.

And that was the beginning of some very great and powerful moments in my life. Times of laughter, baldly candid and vulnerable conversations, crossword puzzles, coffee dates. Living a bit of life together (when we could fit it into our ridiculously swamped schedules).

So, thank you, friend. I hope I become more like you as I keep growing up.

consuming experiences

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When I was a junior in college, I took part in a 10-day relief trip to Gulfport, Mississippi, with a dozen other Wheaton students. We spent our days shoveling dried mud and debris from houses that had been devastated by the floods following Hurricane Katrina. My team was surrounded , day in and day out, by horrific loss; yet, for a good number of us, it was one of the best weeks of our college experience. We actually felt guilty for laughing so much in the midst of such destruction. Those extremes of desolation and enjoyment of one another knit our group into a spontaneous and genuine community. These same people kidnapped me for a birthday bowling party 4 months later. We signed up for a business class just because one of our leaders taught it, and for the simple reason that we wanted to be together. It was a beautiful group of friends, borne of shared experiences and laughter and love.

In his book The Diving Commodity, Skye Jethani reprints an interview economist and author James Gilmore with several writers from Leadership Journal. Gilmore asserts that commerce has gone through three phases and is now in its fourth phase. The Agrarian Economy was followed by the Industrial Economy, which eventually gave way to the Service Economy. The newest economic era, according to Gilmore, is the Experience Economy. Think about it: what is Starbucks, exactly? I think it’s less about the product (coffee) than it is about the entire experience: jazz, comfy chairs, baristas who remember your name, conversations with friends, a place to play Scrabble and go on dates. I’m willing to shell out $4 for coffee because of the multi-sensory experiences there. (For the record: I’m a Caribou girl.)

I fully recognize that I am an active participant in this Experience Economy. I can’t tell you how many times someone from my group of friends in college would say to the rest, “Come on, guys. Let’s do something.” We all want to do, to see, to feel, to remember, to be humored and entertained and fed. We consume the experience of the coffee shop in a way that is perhaps more real than the physical consumption of the coffee itself.

My last couple of posts have had to do with community; it’s been on my mind, particularly because I’ve felt a lack of community in my life lately. And as I process the above thoughts on being a consumer of experiences, I have to wonder: does my hunger for experiences influence my desire for community? And if so, how? Is this lifestyle so completely ingrained in my behavior that I have become a consumer of community? Am I a consumer of relationships?

I still thank God for those ten wonderful days shoveling debris and gutting houses in Gulfport. As human beings, we are experiential people who are shaped by our circumstances and relationships and memories, and it felt like God spoke that language of shared experience when he gave us those unforgettable days together. But I think that the line between being experiential and being consumeristic can be very easily crossed. It’s the difference between enjoying something because it is good and demanding something because it meets your needs. I think. I can’t say I’ve thought through it all very well. I welcome your thoughts.

whatever happened to the front porch?

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As a little girl, I used to daydream the usual little-girl-daydreams: about my future husband, my wedding, my children, and my house. I could never really picture what my husband would look like; I didn’t really care about my wedding; I was pretty flexible regarding the kids (though I admit I wanted twelve after reading Cheaper By the Dozen…); but my house! My house had some very specific requirements. It needed a bay window, because that would be my reading spot. I needed my own bathroom (well, I’d let my husband use it), because I’d never had my own bathroom before. It needed multiple fireplaces, because no winter evening is complete without one, and certainly no Christmas morning. And it absolutely had to have a wraparound front porch, complete with hanging potted plants and rocking chairs like the ones at Cracker Barrel.

I have to admit I’ve altered my expectations a bit. I don’t think that, as a child, I took into account the fact that houses cost money. I don’t know if or when I’ll ever be a homeowner, or if I really want to deal with that responsibility. I’ve also realized that my tastes have changed a bit since I moved to the Midwest. (I was SHOCKED the day that I realized my favorite house on my drive to church is one that is shaped kind of like a barn.) I wouldn’t need a bay window or a private bath. But deep inside my little girl heart, I still want that front porch with its flowers and rocking chairs.

Ironically, my deeply rooted dream of front porch life might be the most difficult to grasp. Front porches are a thing of the past; they’ve been disappearing for years, and now most houses have a nice, screened in back porch and a tiny front stoop that serves no other purpose than to help frame a front door that is more decorative than functional. Most people go from work to car to garage to interior entrance, and if they venture outside it’s to their screened in back porch or fenced in backyard.

I was talking to a friend at church last night who told me that fenced in yards were barely in existence when he was growing up in the 60s. Communities formed and grew and thrived on front porches. I feel the loss of this even while I’ve never really known it. This poignant column recalls the days of the front porch community in his home town. While he believes his town is truly better now than it was when he was a boy, the absence of front porches (“this row of naked homes”) exemplifies a loss of trust and loving one’s neighbor. I think that communal trust and relationships are really what I want when I dream about that front porch of mine. So, friends, you’re invited (who knows how many years in advance) to enjoy friendship and breezes and iced tea on my front porch. I hope you’re build them, too. And I hope we’ll all learn how to be better neighbors.

my world is too small. and too big.

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“Confident. Connected. Open to Change.” I don’t know what descriptors you would choose to describe this young adult generation, but a recently published study by the Pew Research Center lauds current 18- to 29-year-olds for optimism and adaptability in an age of economic uncertainty. I don’t know how much I agree with those labels; I certainly felt more pegged by Christian Smith‘s sociological observations of this generation as wandering and noncommittal. I was, however, very intrigued by the study’s comparisons of the Millennial Generation with preceding generations — in particular, what makes us, well, us. The study outlined a number of our generation’s distinguishing trademarks, including¬†religious conviction, education, employment, political identity, and social values.

But our generation’s #1 self-professed distinguishing characteristic? Our use of technology.

In fact, no other generation came close to giving a unified response to their generation’s calling card compared with ours. Nearly 1 in 4 Millennials claimed our use of technology as our standout quality. “It’s not just their gadgets — it’s the way they’ve fused their social lives into them,” says the site’s executive summary of the report. We sleep next to our phones, use social media sites, text while driving — and are more likely to do these if we have a college education (see page 25). In addition, more Millennials than not think that our use of technology integrates people rather than isolating them.

I think such ubiquitous technological connectivity creates a complex problem for our self-identities. If the use of technology really is a distinguishing element for our generation — and the statistics in this study indicate that it is — then we won’t fit into our own worlds. Think about social media. Facebook and chat rooms and even blogs remove spatial barriers and connect us with people around the globe. My cell phone means that friends around the country are just a quick text away. And yet as connected as I am, my world becomes ridiculously small — about the size of my cell phone or my laptop.

I’ve been thinking about this lately as I’ve been recognizing a lack of community in my life. I have been a part of some unbelievably close communities in the past, which can make the absence of a strong community even more difficult. My beautiful friend Heidi wrote about this recently. And I’ve realized that, for me anyway, social media gives an illusion of community that isn’t really there. I LOVE connecting with old friends on facebook. I appreciate the photos of new babies and weddings. But if these things distract me from investing in the living, breathing human beings around me, then it’s to my detriment. You might be thinking, “Duh,” (or something much more intellectual) but here’s the problem: most of my best friends in the world are accessible only through these mediums. And that’s where social media can become an attractive, seemingly viable way of maintaining some semblance of community.

But it occurred to me today that the deep communities in my life have always been just the right size. Somehow these crazy inventions called cell phones and laptops make my world both incredibly big and incredibly small. But my past communities — 14 girls in a dorm, 10 students in Gulfport, 7 friends in an apartment commune — have never been under or oversized. And I think that God fits those people around us. I’m not sure where he’ll bring them from this time — but I know they’ll be the perfect fit.