Ellen lives in Tacoma, is active in Earthbank and is on the board of IN CONTEXT.
I WANT TO SHARE with you a gift I have sometimes ignored, a relationship with place and time which has grown out of more than 20 years in a suburban community. It is a rich and multi-faceted relationship, and it leads me into three seemingly different worlds, three different ways of being and relating. Sometimes it feels like they conflict – at other times I simply appreciate the tapestry they weave.
THE WORLD OF NEIGHBORS AND FAMILY
Come, let me share this life with you. You would enter our house from a busy suburban thoroughfare, your car crunching down a long driveway surrounded by tall old trees and large, unkempt shrubbery. Like our lives, it’s in the middle of the community, separate yet intertwined. You don’t enter or leave accidentally – you have to take aim, make a decision about it. Here it is safe.
Outside, the thoroughfare leads to adventure and connection. Take a walk through the neighborhood with me and I’ll tell you about the place where lightening struck and shimmered, and show you where a car piled up on our mail box and the driver ran off and left it and several baggies of dope. Just a block away a friend’s teenager was raped, near the pasture where we later kept a horse, next door to a plucky old woman who died after she’d been left tied up by her own nephew who robbed her. We could go on bicycles to my husband’s high school, to the church we used to attend, to the place where we play year-round tennis, to Grandma’s house, and two sets of aunts and uncles, to a large, wild open park near the community college where I sometimes teach sociology, to the country club, to the edge of the freeway to friends and acquaintances whose lives have woven with ours over the years.
Maybe we will go by the Johnson’s old house, a 70-year- old frame structure looking like an ancient farmhouse with a barn and horse corral among the firs. Our connections are many. George, my husband, went to grade school with Chuck. Our daughter and theirs are lifelong friends, even though they now live in two different states. Chuck was President of the Board of two different agencies where I worked. When George’s dad died last year, the service was held in the memorial park that Chuck runs. Each year George, Chuck, and a band of cronies laugh and ski for a week at Sun Valley. When the Johnsons lived near us, Chuck was married to Katherine. She burst her way out of the marriage, house and suburban expectations. I love to visit her in California and delight in her growth and expansion.
You can meet our next door neighbor, Vince, a brusque, kind Swede, nearly 80. His wife was born in the house where they live. He’s the natural caretaker of the neighborhood, retired for years. He taught us that you can burn just about anything if you get a hot enough fire going and stir it. I appreciate him every time a huge pile of brush reduces to ash. A year ago he went out to get his mail and a blood vessel broke inside his head. For weeks he was comatose and then, still unable to speak, he would grasp our hands and acknowledge us. Seeing him now – older, frail, but able to plant roses, laugh and complain about taxes – is like witnessing a miracle.
Vince and the Johnsons give you a window onto one level of my suburban life. In it we don’t think about paradigms and world views, because our connection is based on knowing each other – a natural instance of unconditional love.
ROLES AND COMPETENCE:
MY SOCIAL AND CIVIC WORLD
Let’s travel further, because I want you to see another picture. We’ll go for some recreation to the Racquet Club or the bridge table. We’ll be with solid, good people. We’ll talk about our children’s adventures, our aging parents’ health, menopause, other friends, real estate, community news, Hummels, movies, certain of our plans, and rather circumspectly of politics. We avoid talking of our own personal growth and our deepest concerns. We are good companions.
Or let’s go to the symphony board (Tacoma has the only free symphony of its size in the nation); it was a first for me, being in the arts and not social services. The activity of the board, how to speak and act and the logistics of access to the money that supports the symphony are played out at a different level – the paradigm of the social contract.
In this arena, relationship is based on the performance of one’s role: skillful and appropriate conversation, proper dress and manner are hallmarks of a competent and trustworthy human being. The sororities and fraternities of our state universities are excellent training grounds. So is the workplace, family, football team or factory. It’s a hard fit for me sometimes, because following the role-rules tends to lop off parts of people – sometimes their, or our, whole being. I get uncomfortable in situations that seem to assume the whole person to be limited to his or her roles.
Sociologists describe the ways we are trained into our roles from the moment we’re born. Knowing what to do and understanding what behavior means are essential navigational tools. Spontaneity or living consciously enables one to go beyond the limitations of role, to carry relationships into the level of unconditionality and the level of spirit.
FRIENDS WHO SHARE A VISION
Come on, let’s continue our tour, because I want you to see a third sort of relationship. Scattered around the region (and the world!) there is another community. These are people whose awareness of self and connection expands beyond roles and even beyond the unconditional acceptance of loved ones.
We can walk over to Barbara and Dan’s comfortable lakeside home. Their presence introduces spirit into ordinary community life. Barbara has taught yoga and meditation for many years; she introduced me and many others to the path of love and spirit. After I quit my job as administrative assistant in a mental health center I volunteered to help Barbara with a project. Her vision was to teach pre-natal parenting lessons that encourage expectant moms and dads to regularly and consciously send love and acceptance to their unborn children. What a struggle! I tried fruitlessly to fit her inspiration into my social science background. I remember telling her of a study I’d read that validated her ideas. Patiently she explained that she trusted her intuition: ideas that come from God are already valid. Outlandish!
There are other individuals and clusters of people drawing upon their visions, working in daily life on projects that are small or bold – or even grandiose in presuming to manifest the particles that become a new culture or a new life, one attuned to spirit and in harmony with the sustainability of this planet. We may have to use the car or phone to be in touch with this regional community. The people of IN CONTEXT make up one particle, and connect many others. EarthBank Association and its spin-off, Cascadia Revolving Fund, focus on ways of doing business and economics. The Permaculture Institute, Abundant Life Seed Foundation and Turtle Island Land Trust are dedicated to stewardship of the land and its culture. Chinook Learning Community teaches about the connection with spirit and planet and inspires application in all directions. Sunbow is another community focusing on daily life and following a vision that moves toward land stewardship. (I believe that Sunbow’s healing group may have helped our neighbor Vince get well.) And some of these visionaries aren’t groups or project-minded at all. They just live their lives differently.
MY WORLDS ARE ONE
And so, my visitor, our tour is complete. We’ve seen vignettes of three models of relationships: loving acceptance, roles and competence, and the visionary. The essence of the first is to be; of the second, to perform, to do; and the third to share of our vision and our personal movement toward it. It is somehow a creation of mine (I hope not yours, too) to see these as separate ways and feel as if I have to turn on one part of myself and tuck the other parts away to fit the situation. At my best, I know that you and I will evoke and give all three of these relationship qualities wherever we are.
A phrase catches in my mind. "The good is always the enemy of the best." It snags me in a vulnerable, guilty area, catches me looking over my shoulder at other lives and making comparisons. I wonder if it would be somehow a more potent statement if I were to be boldly different from our neighbors – or to leave altogether and be part of a visionary community, a team forming a demonstration of the new.
But the inner prompting for such a move has not yet come, and the particles that make up the team seem to crop up in odd places – in my husband’s warm laugh, in the organic garden of a conservative friend, in the reading of a bridge-player. I feel grateful for where I am, for the challenge for growth in each area, and for the nurturance of the community of spiritual midwives.