Monday, May 2, 2011

What Is Community (and why we need to have a conversation about it) – Part 1b

Wow, I really started a conversation with my last post about community, didn’t I?  Thanks to everyone who stepped up to the plate and commented.  I appreciate it.

I have a confession: I’m actually really bad at starting conversations. I’m much better at jumping into existing conversations and taking them in new directions. That I can do. But starting them is hard for me.  People might ignore me, or think I'm weird or boring.  Sometimes it just seems easier not to try.

I think community is like that, too. It’s a frightening thing to try and create some sort of social unit, by yourself, from scratch. What if no one is interested? Worse, what if everyone thinks you’re weird for trying?

I realized from a lot of the comments on my last post that a lot of people wanted a looser definition of community than the one I offered. And I think that’s fair. There is a more informal, ad-hoc kind of community that many people would like to have with their neighbors, their coworkers, the people at their church, their friends.

It’s not exactly the same kind of intentional, interdependent community that I have participated in. But it can lead to it. It’s a lot like starting a conversation. It’s the scary but necessary first step.

I'm going to call it ‘invitational community’: one person, or a few people, who are intentionally seeking opportunities for community. It’s one-sided in the sense that only the initiating party may be interested in community. The classic example which came up in the comments is getting to know your neighbors.

How do you get to know your neighbors? For some reason this seems difficult for a lot of us. I have had the ‘privilege’ of living in several apartment complexes over the years and discovered that despite the paper-thin walls and the scarce parking I almost never knew who my neighbors were.  If I did have interactions with them, they were almost always negative ones which involved calling the cops or passive aggressive letters slipped under the door. Why is this? Has modern society really conditioned me to be neurotically anti-social, petrified of humans outside of my peer group?

I don't think we have to be quite so hard on modern society (or me for that matter!).  The answer is more straightforward: there’s simply no organic way for me to interact routinely with my neighbors in an apartment complex. Even if I absolutely determine that I'm going to knock on doors and say ‘hi’ to people, this is likely to result in one or two awkward and strained conversations before lapsing into the occasional wave across the parking lot.

This is an important point about creating community: good intentions won’t get you very far.

After moving to my current neighborhood just three months ago I know my neighbors on both sides of my house and I didn’t even have to try very hard. The reason is simple: my house has a porch. In fact most of the houses around here have porches. And on a warm spring afternoon the thing to do between 6 and 8 PM is to sit out on your porch and enjoy the weather. So you’re out on your porch, your neighbor is out on theirs enjoying a beer, and you get to talking.

I’m lucky enough to live in a place that has space for organic interactions with my neighbors. If you’re not, you are going to have to create these opportunities yourself. And you might have to get a little creative. You might want to try getting a dog and walking it. Or… a cat.

Michelle has a cat, which she takes for walks.  I dearly would love to see video footage of this process, but regardless, I think this is an absolutely brilliant approach to 'invitational community', aka getting to know your neighbors. It’s a surefire conversation starter. We can easily imagine a wide range of responses that Michelle might get when she leashes up Princess and takes her for a stroll:

"Is that a…. cat?"

"Wow, does it like being walked?"

"Did you train it?"

"You’re the girl who walks her cat! My husband has told me about you! So nice to meet you!"

If Michelle is persistent and lucky, she might find someone like that last person who is also interested in 'having a conversation'. Her invitation is accepted, the conversation is started. And suddenly her ‘invitational community’ becomes… something else.

But what exactly? Where do Michelle and her neighbor take it from here? They might choose, as most people do, to keep each other at a comfortable arm’s length. Or they might take the more daring step of opening their lives up to each other.

There’s a deeper level of community beyond invitational community. It starts with that, but it doesn’t have to end with that. It can end with a group of people who know each other very well, who are involved in each others lives, who care for each other and who help each other in need.

The kind of community I was talking about in my first post is exactly this kind of community. It’s a group of people who have committed to intentionally creating something together: interacting on a regular basis, sharing things, becoming more dependent on each other. Maybe even living together.

As crazy and radical and frightening as this sounds, I really do believe that this is something that a lot of people need, even if they don’t know they need it. Why else do we want to get to know our neighbors better? Is it just so that we can have them over for dinner every couple of months?

Or is it because we want to belong, want to have people who know us and care about us and are involved in our lives?

What's your reason for wanting to get to know your neighbors?  Once you've started a conversation, what's the next step?

Monday, April 25, 2011

Why We Need Community (and why I have to write about it) - Part 1

I’ve meant to write down some of my thoughts about Community – what it is, and why I think we need it – for a long time. But something has always held me back. And I think that that something is fear: fear that I don’t know what I’m talking about. After all, I only spent nine months living in an ecumenical community in Amsterdam. Many of the people I lived with had spent years there and even been born there. What do I really know about it? Any way you slice it, I’m a rank beginner.

But. I have in fact begun. When I signed on to be a volunteer in a half-way house three years ago, I was like most twenty-first century adults: I had no idea what community was, and more importantly, no idea that I desperately needed it. And I imagine that most of the people reading this now will be in the same place I was then. So maybe it’s worth sharing what little I know.

Even though I’ve been back in the US for two years, I find myself still thinking about community living constantly. One reason is simply that I miss it. But another is that now that I know what it is, I see the lack of it everywhere; it’s a yawning void in the hearts of my generation, an unmet need that we don’t even know we have.

Throughout history most humans have lived in an intimate proximity to each other: in large, multi-generational families under one roof; in tiny villages where everyone knows everyone; in tribal groups setting up tents together in the wilderness. Not so anymore. Now we consider people living in communities to be eccentric at best, freaks at worst.

Which is too bad, because I think that people were really intended to live together. And the fact that we no longer do is what makes us feel lonely and disconnected in the modern world.

So I am going to write something about community living here not because I’m an expert on the subject, but because I have experienced it and most people have not. And because it’s something that so many people are missing. Even if, like me a few years back, they don’t even realize it.

What is ‘community’?
‘Community’ is actually a word we throw around pretty casually. When someone says “my community,” they might mean anything from the neighborhood where they live to the Greater Jacksonville Metropolitan Area, a region of around 100 square miles with over a million people living in it. Honestly, I feel that this might be stretching the definition of ‘community’ just a little. For starters, I think in a community you should at least know everyone’s name. Sorry, Greater Jacksonville Area. I don’t know most of your million souls personally, so you don’t get to count as part of my community.

I’m going to dial it back a little. When I say ‘community’ throughout the rest of this post, I’m going to be referring to something very specific: a group of people living in the same space and sharing time and resources among themselves. My community has to be mutually interdependent on each other so that they stay involved in each others lives. And despite great strides in telecommunications technology, we haven’t eradicated the need for physical proximity to really keep in touch with people. So my community needs to live, if not in the same house, at least on the same street.

Mind you, they don’t have to live in a compound in the middle of a desert. For some reason the communities that get all the press anymore are the weird ones where the members wear funny clothes, grow their own food and share wives and children. Are those communities? Sure, and Libya’s a vacation destination. But you don’t see many people buying tickets.

If you want a picture of what an ordinary community looks like, it’s best to start by thinking of a large family. In fact families are communities, the one form of community that most of us are still familiar with. ‘Community’ is just a broader definition of family that doesn’t require all the members to be related. But just like your family it’s chaotic, loud, somewhat dysfunctional but somehow completely indispensable.

Once, community living made a lot of sense: it allowed large groups of people to pool their resources to acquire food, raise children, and defend their families against enemies. Technology has freed most of us from having to worry about these kinds of survival needs on a day-to-day basis. It has opened up a lot of choices to us that ordinary people didn’t have throughout most of history. And that’s a good thing. But unfortunately, when given these choices people seem to consistently choose to go it alone and not to participate in any community. And I think we have lost something very valuable in the process.

We’ve lost a sense of belonging, of having our own place in the world. We’ve missed out on being surrounded by people who care about what is going on in our lives. We’ve passed up the chance to learn from our elders and share in the growth of young people by rubbing shoulders with them daily.
Instead we’ve compartmentalized and sanitized our lives, refusing any relationship that is not on our terms. We have peers – friends who are into the same kind of things we are into – and we have significant others – expected to all by themselves fill our need for human connection – and everyone else we pretty much keep at arm’s length, except for obligatory holidays spent with family.

In a sense it’s hard to blame people – relationships are messy. Even the ones we choose inevitably seem to go south and cause us a lot of heartache. Everyone has had that roommate or that friend of a friend they just didn’t click with. Who would willingly choose the endless drama that would doubtless result from living in a community, the equivalent of having dozens of roommates?
These fears aren’t entirely unjustified. Get a group of people together, force them into close, daily contact and sooner or later those little annoyances and frustrations will bubble up into arguments over the most insignificant of things.

And yet, with the right community, the right perspective and a little patience most of these problems can be overcome. And then through it all you might discover as I did that there’s something incredibly rewarding about sharing your life with others.

Part 1 of 3. Part 2 coming soon. If you're interested in reading specifics about my time in Amsterdam, check out the blog I kept while I was there called Chinese Apples. My friend Brenda also writes about community living on her blog So This Fits How?

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Community Life

I have finally returned to Florida, the Sunshine State, which is ironically in the middle of one of the wettest summers on record. But I still have a backlog of posts about life in Amsterdam to get up. So for the time being this blog will continue. Thanks so much to everyone who has been reading!

I thought that people might appreciate a pictorial glimpse into the day-to-day life of the OZ 100 Community in Amsterdam, and it's surrounding environs. I can provide that! My last few weeks in the city I made a concerted effort to photograph some of the ordinary, every day bits that you normally take for granted, living there. Now that I have returned home and had a chance to go through my pictures, I realize there are some huge gaps in the pictorial record. But we'll just have to do the best we can with what we have.

(For more, check out this post for pictures of the canals, markets and more street pics, and this post for some shots of our chapel)

The open window was my room. I had a small room which didn't lend itself well to be photographed and was in a state of perpetual chaos, so there are no extant pictures of the inside. Actually, though, it was one of the best rooms in the Father House. It was certainly large enough for my needs, it had its own sink, and most importantly, as you can see here, it faced the inner courtyard and not busy and loud Oudzeijds Achterburgwal, where the drunken football fans never sleep.

We continue our tour down the spiral stair and into the courtyard. These metal steps are a source of fascination for one particular Oudezijds toddler and thus a source of endless terror for his mother. 'Bove' (bohv-uh) is the Dutch word for 'upstairs' and not coincidentally one of the first two syllable words this small explorer mastered.

You can tell it's summer because someone has stashed their canoes in the courtyard. If we could tilt the camera slightly downward we would also see a profusion of tables, chairs and benches, perfect for barbecues on warm summer evenings.

Down a flight of steps from the courtyard lies this long corridor. It serves a number of purposes: wood storage, access to the workshop and bike shop, tool depository, entrance to the KruisPost Medical Clinic, and... the all important fietsenstalling. Basically, a garage for bicycles, which one can roll out the door, up the ramp, and onto Oudezijds Voorbergwal.

Out on Voorburgwal we find the front entrance to the KruisPost.

The KruisPost serves a heady mix of tourists, uninsured immigrants and homeless people. I occasionally worked in reception there and it was always an interesting experience. Our visitor book, which lists nationalities of the patients, reads like a roll call at the United Nations. I actually learned the existence of a couple of nations I had previously had no idea of while working there.

The kauit, or common room, is another room that is difficult to photograph. It has a low roof and quickly becomes crowded when there are people in it, which they usually are. For all that it is the place that visitors first enter, many of them people off the street looking for the coffee and tea we serve mornings and afternoons (and maybe a warm place to sit as well!).

Scott and Katy came to visit me in March. Here I ply Katy with some hot tea.

This is a slightly historic picture. It may be one of the last photographs of the old chairs in the Kayuit! They had a lot of personality, by which I mean they were very uncomfortable. The new orange ones are a great improvement, plus they are from Ikea (naturally!).

Before we head out on the street, I had to share this with you: a rather informal attempt at drying some extra laundry on a sunny day! This was not, I should note, my laundry.

This street runs perpendicular to Oudezijds Achterburgwal and Voorburgwal (literally, 'first wall' and 'second wall', the two main thoroughfares of the Red Light District). It runs straight down to the Dam Square. As you can see here, the Dam is often host to a small fair, complete with rides.

Almost home! This rather seedy looking corner is how I knew where to turn for my house in the middle of the RLD.

It's not just a pretty name: the street does feature plenty of red (and pink) neon. But if you want to see it at its best, you really have to see it at night.

The lights are on, the crowds are noisy and the girls, of course, are in their windows. It's a crazy scene, like something out of a fevered dream.

The storefront with the red awnings is actually a prime window location for several girls. But what do tourists stare at? The swans in the canals, mostly. Maybe they just don't know what else to look at.

And to be fair, the swans are beautiful.

Next post: What's so great about living in a community anyway?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Be Prepared

Know Your Amsterdam Weather

Having now experienced Amsterdam in all four seasons I thought I would catalog some of the weather types that a visitor to this city might expect to encounter:

  • Rainy
  • Damp
  • Wettish
  • Soggy
  • Thinking about raining
  • Will probably rain later
  • Looks nasty enough to rain, but no actual precipitation
  • Cold
  • Cold and windy
  • Colder than it should be, it's May dammit!
  • Snow falling but not sticking to the ground
  • Hailing
  • Snowing/Hailing
  • Hailing/Raining
  • Snowing/Raining
  • Snowing/Hailing/Raining
  • I'm just going to stay inside and open a bottle of wine
  • Cloudy...ish
  • Sunny, sort of
  • Not sure
  • Ambiguous
  • TBD
  • Decent biking weather
  • A bit chilly/damp, but still bikeable
  • Misery on wheels
  • I'll take the tram today
  • Raining tourists

Ah hah! I kid Amsterdam. We've actually had a few strings of quite nice days recently. But the weather around here? She is fickle!

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Red Light District

A woman with bleached-blond hair just road down the street on her bike singing at the top of her lungs.

Saturday morning there was a guy standing in the bridge over the canal in only his underwear, holding up a cardboard picture frame that had 'object' written on it.

Things are never dull in my neighborhood, I tell ya.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Orange and Black

Yesterday was Queen's Day in The Netherlands, a major national holiday. I will have a full post with pictures up later, but as lovely as the day was in Amsterdam tragedy struck elsewhere. The Royal Family was in a parade in Apeldoorn when a rogue motorist ploughed into the crowd. Apparently he was trying to hit the royal bus. He failed at this, but several people have died and many more were injured.

It seems very strange that anyone would want to attack the Dutch royal family, but these are the times we live in. Please pray for the families of those affected by this tragedy on what should have been a day of celebration.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The Other Way To Learn A Language

The accepted way to learn a language, and the method that I am diligently pursuing, is to pour over books, listen to audio, ask a teacher questions and take notes in class. This is one way to learn, for instance, Dutch. It is not the only way.

The other way? It appears to be simply playing computer games with a friend.

We have a new boy in the community, Brogan. He is Prossi's oldest son, but he has lived in Africa until now. He speaks English, but not a word of Dutch. I think he has been a bit lonely here because the children here speak only Dutch for the most part, so it is difficult to play with them.

But I have good news for him: he'll learn, and probably much faster than I can.

As I write this he is playing computer games with Norai. Norai speaks no English. Brogan speaks no Dutch. But these boys are nonetheless communicating with each other: arguing over which game to play, taking turns at the keyboard, and encouraging each other to try new techniques. I'll wager that within the day Brogan will know the meaning of 'jij bent'* without ever having cracked a textbook.

* Essentially, 'your turn'.