This past weekend, I set my alarm for Too Early on A Saturday O’clock, showered, dressed up and then grumpily drove for two hours into the heart of Minnesota farm land. I had a funeral to attend. The father of a friend of mine had passed peacefully at 92 years old and, well, I guess we needed to bear witness. It was not my first choice of weekend activities, to be honest. But it need to be done.
So we gathered in the church, heard and said all the right things. Then we ate the ritual ham sandwiches on white buns and drank the instant lemonade. We made the required small talk. We toasted Leonard’s memory with the traditional weak, lukewarm coffee. Such are the Middle American Christian funeral rites.
I can get cynical about big emotional events. Too much emotion for me to cope with in public maybe. So I have two choices. I can get sarcastic and engage in inappropriate humor (not generally acceptable in anyone over 10, but especially middle-aged ladies) or I can step back and get analytical (usually entertaining only to me, so I merely think these things, which makes me look contemplative and wise).
The truth is, I had snuck in to the funeral late. My friend Karla, Leonard’s daughter, didn’t know I was there until she stood up to speak. I saw her look out into the pews and see me sitting next to two more friends who had snuck in late. I saw the look on her face. And in that moment I knew I was right where I needed to be that Saturday morning. I also knew I would not be returning home after the Holy Ham Sandwiches of Grief, but would drive another hour away for the internment. It was what I needed to do. Just like my compatriots in tardiness needed to give a ride home to Leonard’s former roommate.
Let me tell you about this group of friends. I didn’t grow up with them. I didn’t even go to school with them. We met through the convoluted geometry of human relationships that leads to terms like “ex-stepmom” and “fake daddy.” Our friendships have grown in a fog of late nights and alcohol and loud stories and ridiculous games. In all honesty, there is not any logical reason for us to be as close as we seem to have become. But now we help each other move, but each other up when we are in town, read to each other’s children, follow each other’s careers, attend funerals and give rides to elderly gentlemen. It’s what we do. Somehow, we have become a community.
I also am cynical about communities. In part I feel the word is being tossed around lately so much it is losing meaning. In part because I’ve dealt with and lived in communities that became toxic. In part because it feels like so many people – especially in the church setting – see community as the solution to everything. In part because it often boils “I like hanging out with my friends.” In part because even the word feels suffocating to me.
Just recently I have been thinking about my attitude about communities and what part of that I need to own. In the enneagram, we talk about subtypes, sort of the way you express your type. There are three subtypes: social, sexual and self-preservation. It’s similar to the introvert/extrovert scale, but more nuanced. Social folks do well as part of a group, especially knowing where they fit in a group. Sexual folks thrive on one-to-one interaction, usually with a specific someone.
Guess who is deeply in the self-preservation subtype. If you guessed the woman who feels suffocated by communities, you’d be right. Self-preservation people are all about their personal comfort and alone time and frankly we can sometimes forget that we are a member of anything at all.
But the enneagram is not just about self-discovery, it’s about achieving balance; we all need quality time in groups and with individuals and alone to be well-rounded and healthy. I vowed during my New Year review to seek out more group activities. Guess how many non-work related group social activities I have taken part in so far in 2015 (that’s ten months, case you are counting). Three. Remove the weddings and funerals and you get none.
But Saturday, walking around a small country cemetery, holding hands with a friend’s mother, just being present for the people who needed me – for my people who needed me now and who I had needed in the past and would in the future – I was overwhelmed with gratitude for the people to whom I belonged. The Midwestern farm people who decorated their grave markers with sheaves of wheat. The round-faced women who made weak coffee and served cake in times to crisis. The friends who were growing up and growing old with me. For the generations of men and women who had done what needed to be done, just because it was there for the doing and the needing – those people who taught me by their example: this is what we do.
And then, later, after the cousins had left for Ohio and the pastor said his good byes and the grounds keepers got to work, the last four of us drove into town for dinner. And in that truck stop we laughed, told stories, made plans and fought over the check, a little island of love that didn’t need labels or rely on proscribed relationships.
Maybe that’s the kind of community I can do.