Holding complexity in community

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This guest post is by Lindsay McLaughlin. You can read a bit about her on the “Denizens” page

It is cold. The mud on the path to the Meditation Shelter has frozen up in small bubbles and lumps. It crunches and crackles underfoot. The tree trunks and tangled branches are etched crisply against a pale sky, the high contour of the ridge clearly visible through the dry air. There are long pauses in the conversations of the forest creatures: a woodpecker’s thunk- thunk, silence, a blackbird’s caw, silence. The water in Deer Spring creek has stopped in icy patterns against the stones. I am reminded of the phrase we use when calling on the directions at the beginning of Restorying retreats: “Let us turn to the North, place of frozen stillness and quiet waiting, home of wolf and the season of winter…”

While the hush of the forest with its sense of stillness and slumber may invite peaceful introspection and dreams, winter is also a hard and uncompassionate season. Hunger prevails in the forest, judging from the speed at which the birds consume the seed in the feeders. We humans too have been having tribulations: while we have plenty of food preserved and available at the market, and wood for our stoves, we can feel confined and isolated, particularly the families with young children. The close quarters are a haven for germs and pests, which have wearisome and at times frightening consequences. A few days ago, Joy noticed lice among us; after hours of shampooing, vacuuming, washing, and tedious, meticulous combing and picking in almost every household, we were just calming down, when we learned that Joy and Luke had rushed baby Gael to the ER in the middle of the night with what turned out to be pneumonia. This intergenerational living in close proximity means that we experience one another’s ennui, worry, and terror just as we do everything else. Age no longer insulates us.

Two weekends ago, we had our annual community retreat. To begin, Linda led us on Friday night in a charming, whimsical activity for all of us, adults and children. She read aloud a picture book about a little gnomelike creature on a farm in Scandanavia who tiptoes around at night checking on the wellbeing of the animals and the sleeping humans and whispering reminders that spring will soon be here. No one has ever seen the “Tomten”, but his wise, reassuring presence helps all to endure the long winter. After the story, we used small sticks, clay, fir sprigs, and twine to create tiny, fanciful houses for the Tomten. We worked together, three generations of us, in couples and triplets, pooling our imaginations and creativity.

Later that night, we walked home under a luminous, sable dome, the stars sprinkled clear and bright against the dark depths. Scot made plans to stay out, in a thermal sleeping bag, the longer to be awake to the magnificent beauty of the winter sky. There’s always something to notice. In the morning, Scot told us that for the first time, he was able to discern the elegant sweep of stars that form what ancient storytellers pointed to as the bow of Orion the Hunter.

It’s never all one way or another. We wake to brutal cold and illness, and fall asleep warmed by connection and wonder.

The January 8 episode of the radio program On Being was a conversation with the elder writer and wise man Parker Palmer and Courtney Martin, a thirty-something journalist and entrepreneur, who thinks a lot about her generation’s place in creating resilient, responsive social change in a multifaceted, many layered world. The two are good friends and have spent considerable time talking and listening to one another. In the course of the conversation, Parker said this: “I think complexity can only be held by community.   And I think that one of the most important things that needs to happen right now is ….intergenerational community.”

It was a fascinating conversation, worth listening to. It’s gratifying to hear a comment like that in the public forum, particularly since the implication is that what we have more or less fallen into here at Rolling Ridge could be transformational for society, for our world.

But meanwhile, back down at the gritty, messy, wintertime level of frigid air, pesky bugs, illness, laughter, creativity, and numinous constellations, we tend to hold onto other things to bolster our courage and determination: the cheerful willingness of folks to search out emergency supplies of combs, shower caps, bobby pins, trash bags, mayonnaise, tea tree oil, and diatomaceous earth, and spend long hours going strand by slender strand through a thick or fly-away head of hair; the speed with which we come to one another’s doors in the middle of the night to stay with a sleeping child so frantic parents can rush the baby to the ER; the joy and unanimity with which we respond to a text “to celebrate our fun week of tribulations we are getting pizza and beer at Foxfire! if you want to join give us an idea of how many pizzas to get…” (answer: a lot).

A walk along Caddisfly Branch or the Perimeter Trail in winter reminds one that it is not only intergenerational community which holds the complexities and hope of conversation. The tulip poplars remain stalwart and faithful in the cold air along the banks of the rocky creek bed; the red-bellied woodpecker loops into view, then attaches, and begins again to tap the beat for the syncopated soundtrack of the winter woods; a squirrel scurries and rustles through the curling, ice-kissed leaves and under a fallen log. The gray plume of tail vanishes, while the stars of Orion’s bow await their turn to speak.

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