Seeking Community for our Families

BY Margaret Lasseter

“None of us come into the world fully formed. We would not know how to think, or walk, or speak, or behave as human beings unless we learned it from other human beings. We need other human beings in order to be human. I am because other people are. A person is entitled to a stable community life, and the first of these communities is the family.”
― Desmond Tutu

I grew up in rural Wyoming having the luxury of my grandparents living next door and my aunt and uncle two doors down. I had free reign of three acres of nature’s playground at my disposal. I could run on a path that led from my back door all the way to the front door of the farthest house.

Not only did we share pastureland for our farm animals and produce from our gardens, but each birthday and holiday too. It was never a question of “if” we would celebrate together, but where and when. I had built-in babysitters and I knew I would never be alone.

My brother, sister, and I now live states away and only see each other when we make a specific plan to do so. Our nuclear families continue to develop individually, but we have little physical connection, no shared space in which to raise our children. Our life paths have taken different turns and though we had the same upbringing, there are differences in how we now live our lives. Through the years my grandparents, aunt, and uncle have all passed on, and this past September I lost my mom too. Both of the other properties were sold off to strangers and now my dad is getting ready to sell his house to move into another home with his new wife. All vestiges of the childhood I remember will be gone.

True, memory is a stable friend,  but when I think of raising my daughters, I realize that they will never fully experience that sense of security, of community, that I did growing up. Who will fill in those spaces? Who will I rely on to form our extended family now?

A few years ago when I lived in Las Cruces, New Mexico, a friend invited me to the Fiesta de Guadalupe, a religious celebration and sacred day of the Tortugas Pueblo. One thing I noticed as I looked around, other than the beautiful dancing, dress, and adherence to ancient practices, was that it was impossible to tell which parents went with which children, what nuclear families existed. From an outsider’s perspective, the lines of family were blurred as the adults came together to celebrate their culture, enfolding the children as a group, not just individual parents with specific children.

The same thing happened when I spent time at the Ngala School for the Deaf in Nakuru, Kenya. I noticed  that the older children gladly took the younger children under their wings, making sure their needs were met and that they felt a part of the whole. If a small child was wandering away, an older child immediately took note and guided her back to the group. Untied shoes or unknotted dresses were fixed without question. My sense is that the idea of community for them extended beyond the physical construct of their homes and into the larger community. As we traveled through the surrounding villages I saw clusters of women working together, numerous children playing openly together–again, not in singular pods as we might see here in the U.S., but in expanded circles.

Wendell Berry, in his book The Art of the Commonplace, writes about community thus,

“A proper community, we should remember also, is a commonwealth: a place, a resource, an economy. It answers the needs, practical as well as social and spiritual, of its members–among them the need to need one another.”

As human beings there is a need for companionship, an echoing desire for shared experience and connection. It is this precise need that I feel within myself now. But where do I turn when there is no natural, organic community in place?  How does a person go about formulating such a community that will fulfill the practical, social and spiritual needs Berry mentions?

Recently I was part of an online community via Facebook. Originally it was established as a closed group with the sole purpose of providing an open forum for forward-thinking, open minded women to pose questions, ask advice, or simply vent. Few of us actually knew each other; it was a conglomeration of women whose commonality was the page’s administrator. It was beautiful.

Because I hadn’t known any of the women prior to joining the group, there was no sense of needing to be anything but authentic. The women on the page were insightful, intelligent and clearly as appreciative of the page as I. Topics of discussion ranged from relationships, parenting to health and nutrition. The administrator felt the need for community and, finding nothing suitable in her physical world, established her own. Several months in, someone betrayed the administrator’s trust. She broke the insulated bubble that had come to mean so much to the rest of us. Worse, the administrator didn’t know which woman it was who had divulged that information. End of group. We no longer could trust the boundaries and therefore the group came to a grinding halt and many of us, including the administrator, left.

Currently I am part of a group of wives of seminary students who have discovered just how invaluable we are to each other. Our husbands are here for three years after which they will most likely serve in churches as deacons or priests. In this small world, we are in a particularly interesting situation; we are not in school, but we are affected by it. We come from myriad backgrounds, but for this short part of our journeys we are in a similar circumstance. Most of us do not have a great deal of money as our husbands are in school full-time. These similarities bind us in some ways and create a community of sorts. However, because there are so few of us and we are only here for a limited amount of time, even this type of group can feel forced. What happens when, in such close proximity, there are diverse beliefs about social or political views, childbirth, childrearing, or environmental issues? How does a person glean the necessary support from a community when there are so many differences?

If, as the African proverb suggests, “It takes a village to raise a child,” then how do we go about finding, creating, or obtaining such a “village”? There is a straining, an ongoing need to find connection in this bustling world we live in. Perhaps there are no easy answers except that we continue the search. We need to be willing to be open to the opportunities that present themselves. In the absence of extended family, perhaps there are others who can fill in that gap, serve to nurture, support, and sustain us in the midst of our storms. What used to be a natural “given” may need to morph into an intention. If I am willing to take a risk, to open myself to potential connections, I may just be pleasantly surprised by the community in the making.