Friday, October 16, 2009

Near and Far

I am intrigued by the way in which one's geographic surroundings shape one's perceptions of distance and community. Let me explain.

When I was in Western Pennsylvania, I noticed that people had a very small radius of places that they considered to be nearby and easily accessible. I asked if there was a coffee shop with Free WiFi and they said "not around here." Then I found out there was one in the next town. It was a 10 minute drive, but not considered to be "around here". As I got to know them, I found that the people and places of each town had a distinct sense of community. Traveling 10 minutes to the next town actually felt like traveling to an entirely different place. It had a different energy about it.

I noticed this small radius in West Virginia as well. If someone did not live in their "holler" (canyon between two mountains) they did not live nearby. They were separated from the next holler by a tall mountain yet it was less than a mile away as the crow flies.

In New York City, there are not tall mountains but there are tall buildings, which mean a dense population. A distance of only a few blocks brings you into a different neighborhood, where you may be surrounded by people speaking an entirely different language (and have access to a string of great restaurants reflecting their culture!). If someone lives a few miles away from Manhattan in Brooklyn or Queens or (gasp!) New Jersey, they are "far away."

My parent grew up among the mountains of Pittsburgh, so imagine their surprise when we moved to Fargo, ND and my first game as a cheerleader was three hours away in Bismarck. On the plains, everything is spread out, and people think very little of traveling great distances by car.

Geography is powerful. It affects our idea of the people with whom we live in community. When tall mountains or buildings or other structures cut us off from what is going on in the next town or holler or neighborhood, each area develops its own sense of community and develops slight nuances in culture. When we live in wide open spaces, we extend our sense of community much farther.

Just some early musings on the interaction of geography and one's sense of community. What do you think?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A 90-year Old's Secrets for a Long Life

I just spent five days in Pittsburgh, where I had the pleasure of visiting my 90-year-old step grandmother, Laddie. She has always been a kindred spirit with an interest in the arts. When she was growing up her mother would take her out of school to go see shows at Radio City Music Hall. Her parents cultivated a curiosity about the world so all five children in her family went to college. She was the youngest and entered Oberlin in 1937 followed by a career as a social worker.

When my family visited as we were growing up, she and my grandfather always had a new craft for my brother and I to try or were ready with a series of classic books for us to read. Todd and I read the entire Wizard of Oz series at their house. After retirement, she and my grandfather ice skated until she was 81. She said it felt like flying. Some of the "young" ice skaters still visit her, as do people from her church and other family members. She also reads the paper and has a lot to say about the world. She told me that the world is too interesting not to pay attention. She doesn't keep up on every new technology, but she knows how to use a cell phone so that she can feel close to family in Seattle. Before I left, we looked at her wall of loved ones, framed photos of people past and present.

Although I do not share her genetics, she has passed along other parts of her recipe for a long, healthy life. Friends, curiosity, intelligence, physical activity, purpose and a sense of connection to those she loves. She said that she hopes there is a way for her to know about my adventures even after she dies. I hope so too.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Urban Nomadic Church

I never realized it before, but I attend an Urban Nomadic church. They do not use the term, but they have five services in four locations every Sunday, none of which are in a building that the congregation owns. I walked into one of the locations that I had not attended in almost a year, unsure of whether I wanted to stay in this unfamiliar place. Immediately someone recognized me and approached me to chat. Then I saw two others that I knew and we sat together. The same musicians started to play, with their familiar sound. The same pastor preached. And I knew that I was at Redeemer, not because of the location but because of the people.

When it comes right down to it, Jesus himself was a nomad. He traveled all over to spread his message, and asked his disciples to leave everything to follow him. Perhaps I need to start telling people that I am trying to be more like Jesus by being a nomad. It wouldn't really be true because that's not why I'm doing it, but it would be a great conversation starter (as though being a nomad isn't conversation enough). Would that encourage greater acceptance of my choice or less? Its hard to say.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Cocktail Party Questions

When meeting for the first time, Americans love to ask "What do you do?" That question is often followed by "Where do you live?" It seems we want to get a basic framework for the people we meet, and these are two of the categories by which we box people in.

When I say that I am an Urban Nomad, it generally confuses people. I don't fit in a box. Admittedly, the Urban Nomadic life is not something that people generally choose. After people understand the definition (see sidebar of this blog) they often say that they could not do it. I understand that some people need to provide a stable home for their children or have other good reasons for staying in one place, but this is not generally given as the reason that people say they could not be a nomad. Usually they say that they want to be surrounded by their possessions. They can't imagine not having immediate access to their things. Are the possessions a comfort and stability, or do they define who they are at the very core? If they loose their possessions will they loose comfort or loose a core part of their identity?

These may sound like extreme questions, but I was once in band with a guy who refused to put down his electric guitar. Ever. He always had it, and even if it wasn't plugged in he still played it. We would try to have a serious discussion (as all bands have to have from time to time), and he would half participate while he was still practicing his guitar. We asked him to put it down. He wouldn't put it down. He said that the guitar was a part of who he was.

We all fall somewhere on a continuum in our connection to our possessions, ranging from completely detached to completely attached. We probably also all have different levels of how many possessions we need in order to feel like we have enough. I appreciate nice things and comfortable surroundings and take good care of the things that I have, but I aspire to reduce the number of things that I find completely necessary. I've already reduced into a small storage space. Perhaps more reductions will be in my future. Or, perhaps I will settle into another place soon. Until then, I will continue to confuse people at cocktail parties when they ask that inevitable question, "Where do you live?"
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