The Virtue of Community

My most frequented café during my early twenties was a diner with a neon sign and a kitchen that stayed open ‘til two in the morning. Mama’s — even the name evoked comfort — always had a full crowd, but my friends and I never failed to find a spot at one of the red-and-white draped tables. Sometimes ten of us would gather, other times just two, always ordering the same grilled cheese sandwiches and bottomless mugs of fully leaded coffee with cinnamon.

Mama’s was the place we met to have our most important conversations; it’s where we went when we were hungry and had only stale pretzels at home. Night after night, oblivious to both time and fat grams, we picked apart the complexities of life, theology, and our various relationships with equal measures of urgency and angst.

We all had jobs (from what I remember) but few major responsibilities, so when we weren’t at the café, we were rotating apartments for Vietnamese takeout or piling into cars for last minute road trips to God knows where.

I doubt we had much awareness of just how good those years were at the time, or maybe we did in some intangible way, but that goodness had yet to find comparison. At the very least, I’m certain we had little grasp on the weight of all we were sorting out during those late-night confessions, sitting face to face with nothing but half-eaten french fries between us.

As a twenty-four-year-old, I didn’t think to give those crucial friendships a label of any kind. In much the same way that a steady diet of diner food had miraculously little bearing on the waistband of my thrift store jeans, the idea of community seemed almost inconsequential. The word, if it ever crossed my mind at all, conjured images of my suburban childhood. A community meant houses with manicured lawns. If you would have asked me then, I’d have told you it was the very thing I was trying to escape.

By the time I relocated to Tennessee some years later, I was nearing thirty, and just like my collection of secondhand cardigans and my diehard passion for folk music, my desire to hang out in a greasy booth after midnight had become a sentimental part of the past. I met my husband and the two of us settled into married life. We had a few close friends and a wide circle of familiar acquaintances but were generally content to spend most of our time with each other.

Anyone who has lived in Nashville long will tell you it’s a city that feels much smaller than its size. Our house was in an area of town popular with musicians and artists, so almost everyone we knew could be found within a mile of us. When my husband traveled for his job as a performing songwriter, I could easily walk to the nearby coffee shop or local market if I yearned for more connection. And while I wasn’t seeing close friends as often as I had in my single days, I held onto the vague sense that I was united with those around me if only by proximity. The word “community” had taken on new meaning.

Then, a year after our son was born, our family took a leap and moved twenty-five minutes outside the city. We found ourselves suddenly between churches and immersed in the time-consuming project of home renovation, not to mention raising our active toddler. Our efforts to stay socially connected proved more and more challenging, but I attributed it to the fact that we, like most of our friends, had recently had children. I reassured myself that once we emerged from the trenches of new parenthood, things would normalize and we’d invite people over for dinner.

It wasn’t until we had our daughter two years ago that I fully recognized how lonely I’d become. For all its mundane aspects, I needed someone to care that my ten-month-old still wasn’t sleeping through the night and that my older child was having almost constant tantrums. Our extended families live across the country, so moving through the days without any friends close by made me feel even more isolated. I needed a support system. In part, I longed for a voice louder than my own to tell me I wasn’t failing as a mother.

Naturally, I did what many over-extended stay-at-home moms do when they find themselves short on energy but desperate for escape: I filled the void with a distraction. My afternoons soon found me hunched at my desk, mindlessly scrolling through Facebook. Before I could see how consumed I’d become, my son had plastered the couch with dinosaur stickers while I had clicked with baffling interest through sixty-seven wedding photos of a complete stranger. I even started formulating my status updates while out buying groceries.

Also, I had amassed 524 friends in a matter of months. Not too shabby, I thought. My newfound mode of correspondence gave me a slightly arbitrary but still sufficient link to the outside world. Even with its flat, fairly impersonal approach, social media was meeting (if just barely) my craving for fellowship. I could stare into this two-way mirror with full control over the face I was putting on, without ever having to know who might be looking back at me. As an introvert, relating to others from behind a screen while editing myself at length actually suited me pretty well. I hardly needed to make a phone call anymore, let alone make the effort to meet a friend for lunch.

But my life was changing, as it always had, and with it came the slow, somewhat painful admission that being truly known requires more than uploading photos of my kids. And honest connection meant putting forth more of myself than just a witty line of text, especially when I had come to equate my likeability with the number of people who clicked on a button. It was a sterilized replacement for genuine friendship. Real intimacy — in the context of real-life relationships — involves stepping into uncomfortable places. It involves a bit of bravery. It necessitates putting on shoes.

What I’d had in my twenties in Houston was a rare kinship — a group of mutually invested souls with whom I could do the painstaking work of becoming a mature adult. What I needed now were friends to help me sort through all the baggage I’d accumulated since then. I needed people who would speak into my circumstances with objective wisdom, or at the very least, an empathetic voice of understanding. Facebook and mom blogs, despite all their merits, just weren’t cutting it. If I was going to keep from sinking then no amount of effort — not a thirty-mile drive toward town, not fifty dollars for a sitter — was too high a cost.

My husband and I joined a new church and through it were welcomed into a small community of friends. Twice a month we’ve congregated for a year now: four couples in a similar phase of life. We meet in one home while our collective seven children and a fearless (and most likely underpaid) babysitter play down the street in another.

We all contribute to dinner, and this tends to be my favorite part — us huddled in the kitchen to chop ingredients while talking over the week’s events. Often our time in the dining room lasts much of the evening, and this lingering always helps me to catch my breath. I’m consistently aware of how something as simple as laughter between good friends can melt away the stress of the day.

I’ve also been reminded that there’s no equal substitute for sitting across the table from another person. You just can’t replace the anticipation in a couple’s voice when they tell you they’re adopting a baby. Or the sadness on a friend’s face, not because of their own pressing struggles, but because they care deeply enough to climb inside your grief. Our bonds with each other have deepened. We’ve moved beyond our Wednesday night meetings to Sunday lunches and dinners out. We’ve celebrated birthdays together and delved into unexpected changes in our families. I think we’ve also grown more willing to lay everything out.

That’s not to imply that we each haven’t had a few obstacles. I often leave our gatherings knowing that my contribution was less than adequate, that I offered more silence and introspection than truth. I’ve learned there’s a gravity that comes when you’re seeing people eye to eye, especially when you know you’re committed for the long haul. We are eight distinct personalities that don’t always communicate flawlessly or meet each other’s needs at every turn. And it stretches us. It stretches me, at least. It amplifies my need for grace (mostly toward myself). But along with that stretching, this group of fellow wanderers has given me something I cannot live without.

In community, I’m able to wade through messes of my life with the awareness that I’m not entering them blindly; the friends on either side of me have trudged through similar muck. Our stories may appear different in some ways, but they also intersect in the most significant places and it’s within these overlaps that we are forced out of hiding. We even find courage to open chapters we’ve long kept sealed. And when we arrive, exhausted, at the end of all our digging, we are met with willing companionship that reminds us we’re not alone.

Photo: Kierstin Casella

Kierstin Casella is an artist, writer, and photographer who looks for beauty in unlikely places. Her favorite things include traveling to Southern towns, drinking good coffee on her porch swing, and spending quality time with her husband and their two small children. They occupy an old farmhouse just outside of Nashville and share their property with a flock of backyard chickens. Occasionally, you can find Kierstin on her blog, A Net for Catching Days.

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