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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WE RISE AGAIN

Our communities erupt in anger and fear 

 

                     BUT WE RISE UP

 

We lose our homes

 

                 AND WE RISE UP

 

Our children are terrorized at school.

               AND STILL WE RISE

 

We are lost in addiction

                                 BUT WE RISE UP                                                                                                                 

 

We find strength in  faith, in hope, in each other,  in the beauty of nature, in the goodness of life.  We rise  because there is a God that loves us in spite of our foolish missteps and selfishness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Easter is  for me the physical manifestation of hope.  It is when the scarcity and withering of winter is transformed into the abundance and new life of spring.  It is the symbol of the faith that sustains me when life pushes in and tempts me to lose heart, to wonder if  it’s all just a cruel cosmic joke.  It is the reminder that I am not alone and that together, no matter what,  we always rise.

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

Hold fast to what is good (1)

I began my morning walk with Jake and Jesse burdened with the troubles of our world; the famine in Africa, the injustice visited on children in wars,  petty politics, corporate greed; all being paraded in rapid fire across the TV screen on the morning news.

The rustle of the wind through the tall pines, the sun sparkling on whitecaps on the lake,  the mallard ducks floating serenely on gentle waves,  the lush perfume  of jasmine on the fence and gardenia by the garden gate – none penetrated my mood.

Jake and Jesse strained on their leads pulling me behind them down the path like an overloaded dogsled.  I had no appetite for bringing them to heel, dimly aware that  allowing them to pull on the lead  meant more work for me in retraining.  If not for their insistent  pacing back and forth to the door when it was time for their walk, I would have bagged it  altogether.

As we started  up  the hill, a golf cart came into view heading toward us, the driver braking when he saw us.  I didn’t recognize them, but it was clearly a grandfather out with a morning ride with his two granddaughters; perhaps four or five years old.  Of course, they wanted to “pet the puppies” and PawPaw was OK with it, so over they came, squatting down to eye level,  tentative little fingers touching furry black ears and and quickly pulling back with giggles and shrieks of glee.

“Look, he LIKEs me, PawPaw,”  the oldest said as Jesse licked her finger.

“Likes me too!” from the younger.

After five minutes or so of playful chatter and pleasantries,  Grampa decided it was time to go home before Mom got worried.

“Well, you know what?” the oldest asked, swinging into the cart.

“What?” I answered.

“You can come visit me sometime. And bring the puppies!”

“I will!” I answered.

The grandfather turned the cart around and headed up the hill.  My  earlier foggy malaise slowly dissipated  as  I watched the happy little trio, the  girls chatting away and pointing out various points of interest to their grandfather as only small children can,  a squirrel, a bird perched on a high limb, a lizard, wildflowers,  until they rounded the last curve and disappeared up the hill.

Yes.  There IS that.

It is important to remember that in our troubled, broken, scary world, there are still grandfathers taking grandchildren for a ride on a beautiful spring morning.    That is good.

And what I learned in Sunday School is as true today as it was then:   “Hold Fast To What Is Good.” (1)  Don’t ignore the pain, the trouble, but hold onto the good.  With all your might.   That is what will get us through.

(1) 1Thessalonians 5:21

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.

 

 

LOUISIANA

Bayou
Ben Pierce Photography

I come from tears, I come from joy
I come from pain, I come from ease
From time-infested lies and truth that will not die
I come from Louisiana

farm woman w truck

I come from scoundrels and from saints
From mothers old with toil and moneyed indolents
I come from Jesus and from Rex
I come from Louisiana

images-3I come from backwoods berry trails and morning jasmine dew
From summer firefly nights and crashing thunder-rain
From mist of bayous’s breath and windy forest sighs
I come from Louisiana

Oak tree and bridge

I come from running away and yearning for home
Once I was old, now I am young
Once I was there, now I am here
What I really want to say is—

I come from Louisiana

Louise Canfield