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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Summer Rainstorm

 

 

It is early morning and I watch the sun rise over the lake from a sagging settee on the sleeping porch.  Our Boston Terrier, Jake
IMG_1910peacefully naps  at my feet.  As I sip my morning coffee, I watch his rhythmic breathing  punctuated now and then by a twitch of his ears, a muffled yip or a brief pummeling of his legs.  Maybe he dreams of chasing  a squirrel or a cat.   Maybe he doesn’t dream at all.  I wish I knew.  I wish he could tell me.

Our house is on a cove. which  this morning I share only with  nature’s creatures, or more accurately, they share with me.   A great white heron perches on a rock, his large round images-1body impossibly balanced on  one long thin leg. A school of ducks fat from the bread we feed them  paddle languidly by and assorted songbirds compete for air space.  An occasional bird of prey soars overhead in search of food.  Today there are only buzzards and hawks but on rare occasions, we see golden eagles.  I wonder why we revere hawks and eagles, and find their buzzard relatives disgusting. I wonder if buzzards know this.  I wonder if Eagles do.

The loblolly pines on the distant banks are a blue-green blur in the morning light. One by one, lights appear in houses along the shore as daybreak approaches.  A lone fishing boat advances slowly from the far side of the lake, the sounds of its outboard motor growing louder as it nears.  I watch it come closer, its metal hull slapping on the waves, a flag  of Louisiana fluttering from a standard.   It is a bass boat, rigged out for serious fisherman.   Its occupants are visible now, two young men in camouflage hats and gear.  Seeing me, they wave, and I wave back as they veer into the main channel of the lake, headed for the fishing grounds.

The statue-still heron on the rock  cocks his head sidewise, and although I cannot see it, I know that  his steely, menacing eye is intently following the movement of an unsuspecting fish below the water’s surface.  He holds his preposterous pose perfectly still, patiently waiting for the right time to strike.  Suddenly, and with lightning speed, his long pointed beak jabs into the water.  His ambush is successful; he  emerges with his prey in his beak,  lifts into the sky and soars above the lake, his long neck curved backwards towards his body, legs straight behind.  I watch his great wings
images gracefully folding and unfolding, embracing the morning air as he glides away.

It is perfectly still in the aftermath of the kill.   The only sounds are the waves lapping at the wooden bulkheads below and the chirping of a small martin warily eyeing the bird feeder in our crepe myrtle tree.   The rising sun glittering on the undulating waves creates the illusion of tinsel blanketing the lake.  Only the slowly escalating motion of the waves foreshadow  a storm brewing in the south.

A squirrel hops effortlessly between the limbs of the sugar maples bordering the lake and disappears into the high branches of a nearby elm tree. The creatures, sensing Mother Nature’s mood about to change, disappear into their nests or hiding places.  Blue-grey clouds slide in front of the sun and jagged lines of lightning, white against the darkening clouds light up the sky,  followed by thunder claps, getting louder as the storm nears.   Jake is suddenly on his feet and into my lap, ears back, trembling, his nap destroyed.  His big brown sad eyes seem to plead with me to make it go away. I wonder why he is so afraid, and I wish I could make him understand that he’s safe.

Curtains of rain advance across the lake minutes later as the storm gathers force.   The first raindrops hit the tin roof of the sleeping porch in single sharp pings. Slowly they  intensify into a steady rumble. The wind IMG_0373has picked up now, and the lake is choppy.  The rain slices at the side of the house and the wind drives it into the porch.  I watch the rain pounding on the lake and wonder about the young men and their ill-fated fishing trip.

I revel in Mother Nature’s operatic performance and  am loathe to give up my front row seat. I hold Jake tightly to calm him but the thunder is getting louder and he is increasingly more anxious.  I cannot stay.  But for this moment, I am at peace with myself, the lake and its creatures.

 

 

Demise of Autumn

Overnight great clusters of gold and red leaves released their tenuous hold and drifted to the forest floor.  Their abandoned branches, now reach empty into the somber winter sky.  A light rain peppers the lake and a soft wind nudges the waters southward.  Small flocks of ducks fold and unfold from arrow formations into ragged lines, haphazardly,  perhaps savoring a final outing.  Soon, at a time known only to them, a lone bird will lift suddenly into the sky and one by one, with much cacophony and fluttering about, the others will follow,  slip into the pattern and soar out of sight.

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