It has only been in the past few years that I’ve understood that “community” is a verb. I grew up in a small town where most people knew my parents. So even though they were not the world’s most social couple, we had community. My sister could drive away from the gas station “forgetting” to pay, and they would ring up my father’s law firm. I once called a local florist to order flowers for my mom, and they asked if I wanted it sent to her workplace, somewhere clearly already known to them.
Personally, a small town also means that you’re in school for years and years with the same people. For better or worse, they know lots about you and you about them, and the knowledge alone is a type of community. I always had a lot of friends. I was active in two different Christian youth groups, and various school activities. To this day, some of my closest friends are from my childhood.
When I went to college, it was an extension of what I had already experienced in my hometown. The university itself was almost as big, not to mention the town where it was nestled was a part of a greater metro area. Still, among all those people, I found my tribe. I pledged a sorority, I made friends within my major, I fraternized with people I met around my faith circles. Making and keeping friends came easily to me.
It never occurred to me that life wouldn’t always be this way.
One of the steady threads during all that time was a ongoing email conversation with my two best friends from college. We emailed every day, throughout the day. Leading three totally separate lives, in three scattered states, the “reply all” button took us through the minutia of our day and the big questions posed post-college. We called our lengthy daily communications “forum,” and I’m not sure I would have survived those years if I hadn’t been anchored by that virtual inbox.
While working on another show for MTV, an email friendship sprung up between me and a co-worker. I call it an email friendship because although we were on the same set, we were not in the same department, and didn’t really see each other all that often. I’ve forgotten why we started emailing in the first place, but it led to a year of daily emails, completely platonic in nature, where we posed questions to one another about everything. I’ve kept those thousands of emails and it is so clear through our questions that we were finding ourselves, trying to define ourselves with our answers. We typed every single workday, as much for our personal gain, with the added benefit that there was a listening ear on the other end.
In time, both the emails with the college friends and with the co-worker tapered off. I can see now that a need had been filled in writing all those words for such a tiny audience, and it came to a natural end. In the time that followed, a new set of email buddies formed between some of my friends from childhood, and, being that we were in a different season of marriage and children, it too took on a life of its own. There were four of us in this email group and we had known each other for a very long time. I stayed up late into the night composing emails that parsed the dynamics of our hometown, of our theological roots, of our shared memories and different perspectives. These emails exchanges with all these different people were soul-sharing.
After I gave up trying to make meaningful girlfriends in Los Angeles, there were some mighty lean years of loneliness. I had fewer than a handful of good friends in LA, and they lived in other parts of the city or our work schedules weren’t consistent, or maybe we just didn’t make it a priority to connect. I talked with friends from home regularly, and I believe that if I hadn’t fallen in love with the man who was to be my husband, I would have moved back to Oklahoma based on community alone.
In the same general span of time, three things happened that changed my relationships: I started a book club, I started a blog, and we bought our lake house.
I started the book club with three other women that I already knew. So it seems that it was the consistency of meeting once a month for a large chunk of time that deepened those friendships. Our lake house town embraced us in a way that’s really a whole ‘nother ball of wax, but was so significant to my heart and my marriage that it can’t be left out of an explanation of community.
When I started my blog, I was hoping to join the online community that I had only witnessed from the outside. I have always loved the internet and after resisting for a long time, I launched my blog with the hope that I would join in the conversation. I learned a hard lesson again: life doesn’t happen overnight. Blogging is such a solitary activity, and in person a connection doesn’t always translate. Just like offline, there were some tries and misses in the early days. But eventually, I found my people and they found me. It isn’t what I would have expected. What we have in common isn’t what would have drawn me to someone had we met in person first. But, in one hundred thousand ways, I found my tribe online.
It’s not just one. I met several dear local girlfriends on twitter. And they treat friendship with the same loyalty as I would have hoped. I have more than one group of friends online, just like one does in real life. Sometimes it culminates in real life meetups, and I feel no less of their true friendship than I do of the women I know and have known offline.
As I was thinking about community earlier this week, and feeling blessed and emotional over what a journey it has been for me, I realized that since college - since I left Oklahoma - my chosen community has all been through the written word. Our own words, or, in the case of book club, someone else’s. It surprises me, as I grew up thinking community was about shared circumstance. It suits me that, as an adult, my friendships come from my deepest love.
Friendship behind a computer screen is just as real to me as someone down the street, but a keyboard cannot bring you soup when you’re sick. Even still, I’ve given up on thinking that online friends are in any way inferior, as I have witnessed the abiding love myself. Friendship as an adult, friendship in this century, doesn’t look like I would have predicted. But rather than feeling crippled by shyness, or excuses, my adult self feels emboldened by and proud of the relationships I’m building online and off.
Especially after the quiet years.
photo by visualpanic