About 20 years ago, my husband and I bought a lake house near the small community in Louisiana where I grew up. During our working years, it was our retreat, our refuge from the stress of our fast paced lives. We loved drinking our morning coffee on the deck, watching the miracle of the morning sunrise over the lake: squirrels chattering and swinging from tree to tree, Blue jays, cardinals, finches, and sparrows competing for the bird feeder, a whooping crane perched on one twig-leg, snatching fish from the lake with a stab of his beak, and if we were lucky, one of the two resident golden eagles skimming the lake in search of breakfast. We watched as fisherman sped past in their bass boats headed home with their early morning catch. And lazy afternoons gliding over the mirror-waters of the lake in our “barge boat” (pontoon boat if you’re further north), our two Boston Terriers perched on a bench, tongues lapping the breeze.
What we hadn’t expected, however, was…..
If not for the satellite antennas, jet skis and BMWs, a visitor might think he had stepped through a time warp into the ’60s. The pace of life is pretty much the way I remember it as a child. No need to rush, even when driving. (Maybe that explains my collection of speeding tickets…) Going to the grocery store is a visiting opportunity – allow at least an extra half hour. There is a time-honored sequence visitors must follow upon leaving; fixing-to-get-ready-to-go, getting-ready-to-go, fixing-to-go, and y’all-come-to see-us. Allow at least 20 minutes.
Community is seamlessly woven into the fabric of daily life. There is always time to visit. Friends, relatives and neighbors drop by unannounced, bringing fresh tomatoes, sweet corn, blueberries (lots of) squash from their gardens, blueberry muffins, home-made bread warm from the oven, a crocheted do-dad, (“I’ve been needing me one of them” is an appropriate response). No need for neighborhood watch or security cameras here. If you aren’t seen leaving home, (and you always are) for a day or two, someone will come around to make sure you’re OK. This is, of course, also a fine excuse to see what you’re up to. Once when we pulled to the side of the road to make a phone call, someone stopped, rolled down the window and yelled, “Y’all OK?” Case in point.
Community is hardwired into the culture.
Although I was unaware of it, that was my mindset when I left for California after graduating high school. I was desperate to get away, to shed the confines and responsibilities of community. I was weary of the nosyness and yes, the accountability of community. In a word it was just plain inconvenient.
But the values of hospitality, trust and honesty were so deeply ingrained in me that they were unconscious. It was just the way I operated. So I was bewildered when my smiles at people on the streets of San Francisco were met with glares as they brushed past. (“What’s she up to…”) Confused when the cookies I took to welcome a neighbor were met with a door slammed in my face (after all who knew what was in those cookies!! ) Offended when my request to borrow a cup of sugar from a neighbor was grudgingly granted with the admonition to be sure to pay it back (people can’t be trusted…) Embarrassed at the sly chuckles as I ran after the stranger who dropped his wallet. (What a hick..)
It took awhile, but eventually I got it: Trust, honesty and hospitality are naive and totally uncool. And no way to get ahead. Every man for himself. Self reliance. That’s cool. That’s how you get ahead.
So I learned to look through people I rushed past on the street. I was astonished, but not distressed, when a co-worker was murdered and cut into chunks by her father. (Was there a memorial service for her? I don’t think so..) I watched dispassionately as a handcuffed neighbor was escorted from his house followed by EMTs carrying a body on a stretcher.
Eventually there was no more “we”; only “them” and “us.” And “they” were assumed adversaries until proven otherwise. People I met daily at the bus stop were familiar strangers. I became adept at “working the system.” I learned how find tax loopholes, to badger merchants to get the best “deal,” to rewire cables to “beat” (not cheat..) utility companies, to push to the front of the line. In short, I learned it was not about us, but about me; all about me. After all, where had that hokey countryfied attitude got me but broke, belittled and marginalized. “Smart” people put themselves first and if that caused problems for someone else, well, that’s life. And this attitude was not limited to California; it was my experience of metropolitan life in general.
This “me first” philosophy seemed to work well for a while. I did, in fact, “get ahead.” My standard of living greatly improved. I had the latest appliances; services and conveniences my mother could never have imagined. I never ironed. My clothing came from “the right” stores, I drove an expensive car, my dog came from championship lines. But the more “stuff” I got, the longer my list of “must haves” grew. Not what I expected. Neither was I expecting that this way of doing business would leave me increasingly lonely and isolated. I was sure I would attract an adoring crowd once I was “successful.” But of course, the people around me we all just like me….expecting me to be part of their adoring crowd. This kind of success had brought anything but happiness. And eventually, the pains of chasing mirages disappearing over the horizon became greater than the challenge of living out my own truth. I knew better, had always known better.
Because of time and distance, trips to the lake were infrequent during these years, but we managed two or three a year. And on each visit, as I reflected more deeply about this community, I saw truths I hadn’t seen growing up, truths only visible through the lens of age and experience. I saw how a sense of place grounds the soul. How immutable our symbiosis with the earth and its creatures. How the soul of the community is continuously formed and re-shaped by the spirits of each of its members. And I get it, all communities have their problems. But paradoxically, it is when the community thrives, that its members are nourished. Not, as I had been led to believe, the other way round.
I might have learned these lessons elsewhere. But it is here that I feel most grounded. It is here that I learned that true success comes only to the soul at peace.