catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 15 :: 2011.09.02 — 2011.09.15


Waving back

When I moved to my current neighborhood five years ago, I was excited to get to know my neighbors. It was a nice middle class subdivision. I expected the neighbors to come by with bread, cake or a bottle of wine. It never happened. It took me three years just to get one neighbor to wave back at me when I drove by. My very friendly wife has become somewhat cynical about waving lately. One day, my son’s ball rolled across the street into a neighbor’s yard. I walked over to retrieve it and the man of the house said with a cold stare, “What are you doing?”

I do have a couple of friendly neighbors with whom we talk about the dandelions popping up in the spring or the teenagers who drive too fast on our street, but to call what we have here a community is an insult to the concept I write about. I want to sit on their porches in the summer and discuss whether Obama will get reelected. I want to hang out with Norm and the good folks at Cheers! I want to move to a commune where intellectuals talk about God or gardening while sipping hoppy ale. I know that community cannot be forced — only cultivated and enjoyed for what it is. I use the term in an intimate sense — not people simply living in close proximity to each other. It is not even people who live together who have a lot in common. It is when souls connect and freely share.

I am a people person. I cannot imagine it any other way. I do enjoy quiet time alone, but I need people in my life. I often reflect on the first semester of my sophomore year in college. For whatever reasons, that time in college influenced my feelings about community as much as any other time in my life. Perhaps it was because I did not have my act together.  I partied too much, rarely went to class and usually slept until about noon. I was stressed about losing my academic scholarship, disappointing my parents and choosing what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I was supposed to be a medical doctor according to most people who knew me growing up. I wanted to be an artist. I tried a double major — art and biology. Needless to say, not too many classes overlapped in those two programs. Eventually I dropped both majors to pursue theology and philosophy.

During that year, when I most needed people, I had three guys in my life who I will never forget — Winston, Tim and Steve. Winston was from South Africa. He was still trying to figure out how he ended up at a small private college in the hills of West Virginia. He lamented a lot about how he wanted to get laid. Tim was a transfer student from another school where he had already had some big life experiences. He was trying to settle down a bit. A double major in chemistry and philosophy, he was a West Virginia native and son of a Methodist minister. Steve came from a very wealthy family in the D.C. area. He had spent his freshman year as a ladies’ man and he and I had pledged the same fraternity. Now he needed some guy time and some deep late night conversations.

It was my dorm room that became a sort of haven for these guys on a nightly basis. Regardless of what we did that day or evening, somehow we would end up in “the room” for a smoke, some classic tunes from the Dead or Neil Young, and conversations about girls, God or post-college life. The fact that we had time to talk a lot about girls so much reflected the fact that that none of us had girlfriends that semester. Tim and I had similar theological beliefs and backgrounds. Winston and Steve were not sure what they believed, yet often asked questions and joined in the conversation. Post-college life terrified all four of us.

What I miss so much about that semester was the openness we had with each other. We all completely embraced each other’s quirky differences and ideas. We were forming post high school relationships with other humans who were all struggling in different ways. I don’t know that any of us fixed each other’s problems (although I do not think we made them worse either). We listened without judging, laughed without hesitation, and often spoke without thinking. We told funny stories, shared about our day, ate ramen noodles and grilled cheese; and when we were too tired to talk, we fell asleep. Winston would crash on a blue papasan cushion. I would sleep in a loft hidden by tapestries built over a couch. Tim would wander down the hall to his room.  I can’t for the life of me figure out where Steve ended up.

After that semester, things changed. I got a new roommate. He actually showed up the week of Thanksgiving. We had planned on being roommates from the beginning of the fall semester, but he had to take the semester off because he was too high (literally and otherwise) up in a tree, fell and broke his tail bone. He visited over Thanksgiving and never left. He was part of the group as well, but the dynamic was beginning to change. After Christmas, the group reconvened. I took a three week January term class called “Human Sexuality.” It was amazing how I was able to get up for that class, when I could not get up for other classes the previous semester! Two months later, I collapsed, which is a long story in itself. I only need to say that hard living and a growing burden of guilt and mental turmoil led to the inevitable change, and I transferred to another college.

I have rarely found the same sense of openness in the Christian community. As I have moved to different places over the past fifteen years or so, I have found that people are too busy for community or too afraid to let their guard down. Over the past two or three years, I have come close to finding that community again; however, two of my best friends are not allowed to have a guys’ night out more than once a year. Another one is here at the house most of the time when he is not living in Egypt, France or some other exotic place. I have another friend who comes over for a drink or two and to play guitar on occasion. Another lives three hours away and we get together a few times a year.

I am blessed to have these friends. I will continue to be sociable. I will wave at my neighbors, whether they wave back or not. My home is a community. My wife and two children form the nucleus of that community. We are a close family. My children have a lot of adopted uncles. I am lucky to have a wife who accepts my need for friends. People come in and out and know that they are welcome. It is just that I have this nostalgic ideal of nightly conversations and radical transparency founded on one great semester in college. What was the difference then? Was it youthful inquiry? Was it that we all had more free time? Was it fate or accident that we all connected during that semester? What are these guys doing today? I only know that I cherish the moments in my life when souls connect and when laughter and thoughts flow like improvisational music. I need community and always welcome the opportunity to expand my circle of friends.

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