THE INCONVENIENT COMMUNITY

 


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.

  Nirvana.

What we hadn’t expected, however, was…..

The Community.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You Know You’re in the South When….

 

 You order iced tea and your server responds, “Sweet or unsweet?

A stranger strikes up a conversation with you at the produce counter and you don’t look for the manager.

It’s hard to find parking in the church parking lot on Sunday.

The ONLY dressing is cornbread dressing.

 

The  “ballgame” means football.

 

 

Mama is a force to be reckoned with.

 

Men look forward all year to a weekend on a freezing lake in an outrageous contraption hoping to bag a duck or two.

If you visit, you have to eat.

 

And family is forever.

 

 

 

 

When everything goes wrong

An only child and the oldest granddaughter I was overindulged and sheltered by adoring  parents and relatives.  And  when things went wrong for me, I just picked up my toys and went home.

That didn’t work so well as an adult.

And things aren’t going so well these days.  Political turmoil, war and poverty,  mega fires,  devastating floods, social upheaval, financial instability.   And I must admit, my first reaction isn’t to charge headlong into the battle, but to hide, the adult version of  “picking  up my toys and going  home.”

I hear a lot these days about people  fleeing the country in desperation.  I understand  and share their  frustration.  We have a huge drug problem, our infrastructure is failing, our schools are falling behind, the middle class is struggling, our immigration policies don’t work, our racial divide is widening.  Not to mention mass shootings and  natural disasters.   I hear all that.

But  I have to wonder how many of those  thinking of leaving the country  have lived in or  visited other countries for extended periods of time.  One look at the nightly news shows us that these are not problems specific to us;  they  exist the world over.  No country  is exempt from problems and even if there were such a Nirvana, there is no way to hide there.  Our community is global.

 

Besides, we have so much to fight for, so much we take for granted.   Our public education, flawed, but still a route out of poverty for  (I’m a case in point).   Freedom of speech.  No one is imprisoned  for criticizing the government or attending religious services. Our cities have clean water and our children are vaccinated against deadly diseases.  Our breathtakingly beautiful national parks are open to everyone.  For starters.

But it’s not free.  To quote Edmund Burke,

                     “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is  for good men to do nothing. “

 And it all counts.  Every thing we don’t say, every seed not planted, word not written,  neighbors’ pain ignored, adds to the turmoil, desperation and fear around us.  It might be uncomfortable, even dangerous to face our problems.  But we can’t afford to  pick up our toys and go home.

D

Southern Cookin’

Southerners love to cook.  Especially we love those community gatherings where everyone brings their favorite dish and we all sample “just a bite” of everyone’s.  My earliest memories of this were “Dinner on the Ground,” and it literally was on the ground.  Thinking about it now, I’m amazed we kept the kids from stumbling into the spread – and maybe we didn’t..

I have such  wonderful memories of that food – and no matter how many times I try recreating their recipes, they just don’t come out the same.  Uncle Henry’s fried chicken,  Miss Nina’s coconut cake,
Miss Ethel’s peach cobbler, Aunt Minnie’s chicken and dumplings,  Miss Edna’s buttermilk biscuits, and of course, Aunt Annie’s fabled deviled eggs.

Eventually we graduated to folding tables and chairs and finally to a real Fellowship Hall equipped with all the modern conveniences.  Much more comfortable but in nostalgic moods, I wonder if we were better off in those days.  We were blissfully unaware of the dangers of sugar, gluten, lactose, saturated fat, cholesterol, and vegetarians were, well, just weird.  There was no guilt associated with a hamburger and a coke for lunch.

We had no idea the trouble we were in.

My rational self remembers  how it was   to lose relatives to diet-related disease, especially  heart disease and  diabetes.  These could be  devastating for a family, since health insurance  was essentially non-existent in those days; health care  was pay-as-you-go.

Southerners will always   love our  community food get-togethers, although today we make at least a token effort to prepare healthful food .  However, if  the occasional slice of coconut cake happened  to sneak in, well.. just a bite couldn’t hurt.

 

DO YOU REMEMBER WHEN SMOKING WAS COOL?

 

I would definitely not light up after dinner  in my  favorite restaurant these days, but there was a time when..

Smoking was a rite of passage, a symbol of sophistication.  Movie stars smoked: James Dean, Elvis, Kathryn Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Marilyn Monroe,  Bob Hope, Elizabeth Taylor, Doris Day, to name a few.  Smoke rose along the edge of the TV screen from  Edward R. Murrow’s ashtray as he delivered the evening news.   Presidents Eisenhower and Johnson smoked.  Doctors, including  the Surgeon General, smoked.   Even Fred Flintstone smoked!  Cigarettes dominated the advertising market and heavily supported prime time TV, sponsoring  such popular family  programs as    “I Love Lucy,”  “I’ve Got a Secret,” and “The Adams Family.   All, among many others, brought to us by the cigarette industry.  In this vintage Philip Morris commercial, Lucy tells us “how to keep your man happy” by choosing the right cigarette.

Click here to view.

Most  men, including my father and uncles,  in the small Louisiana community where I grew up smoked.  Sundays after church would find them clustered on the steps or under a nearby tree, hastily lighting up or stoking pipes, although it was considered immoral by some,  and especially on church property.  However, it was more or less accepted as a good man’s reward for bringing the family to church.  There was no debate, however, on the subject of smoking for women.   It

A pack of cigarettes in 1957 cost about $1.75.

was “trashy” and everyone knew it. I never smoked until years after leaving home and then never, ever, in the presence of a family member.   The only woman I knew who was able to escape the ire of the community for  flaunting the “smoking ban” for women was my wonderfully eccentric Aunt Ivalee.  But then, she was from New Orleans…

 I began smoking in earnest in grad school.  And I loved it.   I loved it all.  The ambience,  the romance  of it,  that special camaraderie among smokers.  I loved blowing smoke rings.   I loved a cigarette with a cup of coffee after dinner.  I loved the  way it made me feel.  And it didn’t hurt that it helped me keep the weight off.  And after all, I  could always quit…whenever I was ready.

A pack of cigarettes today costs about $5.50

On July 12, 1957, the Surgeon General issued the first official, and greatly understated, warning about the harmful effects of smoking.   Seven years later, the American Cancer Society released a slightly stronger warning.  However neither acknowledged the compelling evidence of the link between lung cancer being suppressed by the tabacco industry.   A virtual war ensued over the next three decades between health care advocates and the powerful Tobacco Institute.   Eventually  health advocates won an uneasy peace, taxes were levied, warning labels required, and smoking rates declined, as more and smokers attempted to kick the habit.   But  what no one knew then,  was that the power of the nicotine addition is comparable to  that of heroin, and for most people,  more powerful than alcohol.

I eventually quit smoking in the 80s,  my resolve being fortified by the  growing public disfavor of smoking.  Secondary smoke had been implicated in lung cancer and  growing number of restaurants restricted smoking to designated areas.   Some airlines banned smoking on flights less than two hours and by 1990 all smoking on airlines was banned.

But breaking the nicotine habit turned out to be far more difficult than I had imagined.   A few days (or hours) after gathering my resolve, throwing all my cigarettes in the trash, out the window, giving them away, etc.,  would find me scrounging for cigarettes under sofa cushions,  jacket pockets, even trash cans.  Those humiliating experiences gave me a new understanding of  the power of addiction and compassion for those under its spell.

Today, with all the knowledge at hand about the harmful effects of cigarettes, smoking would seem to be a game-stopper.  However, about 15% of adults and sadly,  20% of teenagers, are smokers today.  I  would like to think that if my rebellious teenage self had known what I know now about smoking,  she  would have exercised the good  judgment not to light up.   But, sadly, good judgment  seems to be something we learn by making mistakes, assuming  we live through them.

Click here to view a history of the effects of smoking on health.

 

 

 

 

 

You’ll get used to it!

A southerner waking up that first morning in Wisconsin, I was sure I had mis-heard the weather forecast: “-25 deg with wind chill factor.”  Whatever that was. Surely not – people couldn’t survive that!  I switched to another channel.  Sure enough, it really was  -25 deg with wind chill.  Certainly businesses were closed.

But they weren’t.    Soon I saw neighbors faring forth, picking their way down the sidewalks.  Still incredulous,   I layered on most of  the clothes I owned, and slipping and sliding, eked  my way to the bus stop where  people  stood around casually talking or sipping steaming coffee from mugs,  like nothing was amiss.

“Is it always LIKE this?” I chattered to the woman nearest me, hands jammed in pockets, feet stamping for warmth.   She flashed a knowing smile.  “You’ll get used to it,” she said.

And I did.  Which was a good and proper thing if I planned to stay in Wisconsin.

But “getting used to it” isn’t always the answer.  In fact, I’m wondering if it isn’t at the root of some of the turmoil in our country today.

For starters, when did interrupting not only become acceptable, but commonplace?  There is hardly a “news” show that doesn’t sound like a magpie convention.  This obviously rude and irritating behavior is now widespread, and since more and more anchors  adopt the practice,  apparently worthy of emulation.

And  when did it become OK for politicians  to  lie  on prime-time TV?  When did we “get used to”  leaders that had nothing more to offer  than insults for their opponents and end up voting for  the lesser of the evils?   How would John Kennedy’s clarion call be received today? “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”

I greatly fear we have lost our respect for each other and with it, our self-respect.   Perhaps  our cellphone-internet addictions have so immersed us in a  web-game-world of noisy anger and violence,  glorifying an insatiable need for power, appearances and possessions,  that we have come to believe that what matters is what the internet sells: the illusion of individual power.   In other words, “F You!”  But that is foolish. Our lives are utterly and eternally interlinked by immutable laws of nature. No  cell phone or internet game will change that.

And speaking of the “F” word,   when our kids were in college (OK, it was the nineties)  the commonplace word “suck”  was considered inappropriate in polite conversation, although its genesis was and still is,  disputed.  Use of the “F” word in public was practically unheard of.   Now it  is openly bandied about by teenagers in restaurants and  peppers conversations in popular TV shows.  Ironically, it is especially popular with young women.  Really?  Have we forgotten the connotation of the word for women?   And what if someone else simply doesn’t want to hear it shouted out on the street?   Wikipedia calls this phenomenon the “dysphemism treadmill, meaning former vulgarities become inoffensive and commonplace. Or simply, we “got used to it.”

So take it or leave it, but from where I stand, disrespectful language and behavior are just that, disrespectful.  And if  we allow ourselves to get used to disrespect, can abuse be far behind?   Don’t we deserve more?