Finding Community

The problem with the world is that we draw the circle of our family too small
Mother Teresa
Sitting on the back porch, drinking wine, laughing, talking and enjoying happy hour with a few of my neighbors, it’s hard to remember how alone I felt in this house just a few years back. Some of us are fortunate enough to be born into a supportive community of friends, neighbors or family, some of us somehow step into a place that’s supportive, and some of us are challenged to create community out of whatever we happen to find around us. I am of the later sort, and let me tell you, it’s been one hell of a creative project!
My soon to be husband and I left friends and family in Los Angeles to start our lives together up North. We bought a home on a quiet, rural residential country lane. I had always been drawn to the natural beauty of Northern California and couldn’t believe my good fortune at finally moving onto a third of an acre in the Sonoma Valley. The mild Mediterranean climate offered gentle seasons in which to garden. We could jump in a car and, within less than an hour, gaze out at the Pacific Ocean or a walk through a redwood forest or enjoy San Francisco, one of the sexiest cities in the world. I thought I had landed in heaven. But there was trouble in paradise.
Fresh out of a private East coast College, I suddenly found myself in a rural blue-collar neighborhood.  Here’s a taste of the community we moved into: the neighbor whose house was in front of ours was a prison warden at San Quentin. He carried a gun when he went to collect his mail at the end of the lane. To our left lived a secretive, hoarder type neighbor, who turned out to be a pedophile, and on the right side lived an angry man who kept challenging my husband to fist fights and breaking the bulbs we replaced on the garage motion sensor light. There are only nine homes on the lane and, I was to learn, a slightly more wholesome reality was simultaneously taking place at the other end of the block. I had a hard time finding friends outside my neighborhood as well. I worked in nursing homes during the day and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome made it difficult for me to rustle up the energy to go out and socialize at night. The group I meditated with was in Canada so I only saw them once a year on retreat and my family was scattered about the country. There were no children on the block for my daughter to play with. As you can imagine, it was lonely. At times this little home in paradise felt like a prison.
To be far away from family and like- minded community is not that uncommon in our culture. Families, and single people, move to where there is opportunity and work, and sometimes that means moving away from support systems. This is hard enough when we are single but becomes even more challenging when we have children. We all need to feel like we belong to a community that cares about us if we are to thrive. But what do we do when our surroundings feel un-nourishing at best, or hostile at worst? I was just surviving on this lane and had to find a different way of approaching community if I were to thrive.
Although my experience of immediate community was minimal, one thing that made me feel connected to the world around me was meditation. In meditation there is no self and other.  It is a safe place to experiment with letting go of imagined barriers. During that half hour of sitting I could let go of my sense of self and become a part of everything. In that stillness and silence I was free floating in a realm of unlimited possibilities. This, plus the withering of ego that naturally happens when you become a mother and put your children’s needs before your own, tempered me. Over the years I became less attached to who I thought I was.
As often happens with inner work, although I enjoyed freedom while in meditation, it felt like nothing was changing in my everyday life. Then, out of the blue, an insight came. While on retreat, I kept passing a poster on the wall that read, Bloom where you are planted.  Strange how random things on walls, on the TV, on the radio or other unexpected places, can spark insights when we’re sensitized. This little saying on a monastery wall shifted my thinking. Bloom where you are planted. Some of us are planted in rich loamy soil rife with lively organic matter, some of us are planted in soil half dead from the use of pesticides and other chemicals, and some of us are planted in arid, thirsty deserts. Sometimes we have a choice in the matter of where we are planted and sometimes we feel stuck and unable to find our way to richer land.  I decided that I would bloom in the desert where I was planted and make community out of whatever cacti and scorpions I found there.
Taking a breath, I began to relax into my situation and release resistance to life as it was. I let myself experience the loneliness without filters. Fighting uncomfortable feelings can give them more power. When I stopped fighting the loneliness, stopped feeling like a victim, opportunities that had always been there came into view. I took another look at the people around me; the check out woman at the market, the neighbors I met on my walks, the elders I sang to in the nursing homes, the post office clerk and others in my orbit. I opened up to the idea that friends didn’t need to be people who thought like me, or had the same education as I had, or grew up in a similar background. Meanwhile, life continued to move through the neighborhood. Some old neighbors moved out and some new neighbors moved in. Bit by bit, my sense of feeling alone was diminishing.
One afternoon I was walking my dog down the lane and I ran into a neighbor mowing her lawn. Linda had been living on the other end of the lane for over 40 years. Throughout the years we passed one another on the street now and then and said hello but both of us were wrapped up in our families and weren’t drawn to one another. I heard that her husband had recently passed away and wanted to pay my respects. When we met on the road that afternoon we were both feeling tender, she from the recent loss of her husband and I from realizing how painful it must be for her to loose such an intimate and deep relationship. I wasn’t sure what to say so I just listened and felt her pain with her. There was an abundance of fruit on my lemon tree so I offered to bring her some lemons. When I returned with the lemons we made plans for her to come over for dinner. During our first few dinners we were both a bit awkward in our conversation, but after 5 or 10 nights of cooking for one another we began to find our rhythm.
At first glance we were unlikely friends. Linda had been a cattlewoman and devoted wife, I was an artist and single mother. But we opened to one another and, slowly, developed a deep, authentic friendship. For years since our first dinner we have shared dinners almost every week and we walk our dogs together in the morning. Our conversations have become rich and we are there for one another in times of need. Although our lives and interests look different from the outside, we both value home and family. I went on to reach out to other neighbors. Some became mutual support systems and others didn’t. But we all know one another on the lane. It’s a community, with all the conflicts, warmth and issues as any other community. I’ve learned that if I’m going to enjoy the connectedness community provides I also need to deal with the conflicts. It’s not perfect, but it is real.
I’m not advocating for remaining in a difficult situation. If you can get out of the desert then, by all means, move to greener land. But there are times, due to finances, health, or other circumstances, when it’s hard to see a way out. During these times we have the option to reframe the situation, to open ourselves up to what we can learn in the midst of challenges. The challenges become our practice.
Life on the lane has a nice rhythm now. I’ve managed to find a balance between being alone and being with people. Initially I thought my loneliness as a young mother stemmed from a lack of extended family and from the neighborhood I lived in. I was surprised to learn that these feelings of loneliness came, instead, from within me. Loneliness is often learned in a home where there are feelings of shame, either due to some sort of addiction or abuse. A troubled family pulls in tight in an attempt to hide its shame from the world. This is the sort of family I grew up in, that many of us grew up in, and my neighborhood echoed what I believed to be true about life. Feeling separate, either better or worse, then those around us creates loneliness. Once the illusion of being separate is released, once we take to heart our common humanity, we can find community wherever we are.
The smaller we draw the circle around that which we commit to love and protect, that which we call family, the lonelier we will be. I was seeking friends that looked and thought like me. My view of family has since expanded. I now feel like I belong here, in this neighborhood and on this planet.