Our family, for the past six months, has lived with my mother-in-law, father-in-law, and sister-in-law. They have a beautiful, bed and breakfast-style home with a cathedral ceiling and a wraparound porch that overlooks the layered land, a mix between mountains and hills.
Upstairs is a three-bedroom apartment with its own kitchen and outdoor entrance. Still, I feared living in such close quarters until my husband finished building our apartment in the warehouse on our property, across the road and field. But I have, in fact, cherished this time.
I have loved looking over the balcony and seeing my daughters reading on the couch with “Pawpaw,” and my eldest “helping” my mother-in-law or sister-in-law in the kitchen. I have loved the communal aspect of sharing the same washing and dryer (I do laundry on Monday and Fridays; they have it the rest of the week). I have loved the companionship of having someone to talk to throughout the day, even if it’s just while herding my children from the garage to upstairs for quiet time.
Living here, during this season, has made me aware that humans were meant for community. I grew up on a commune, of sorts, which is why most of my novels explore some aspect of community life. From the time I was six until I was fourteen, my parents were volunteer caretakers on a Christian camp, and I remember waking up in the tiny slave quarters where we lived–until my father finished building our home on the bluff overlooking the stream and pond–and hearing the voices of the staff all mingling together as they talked in front of the wood-stove that kept the tiny dwelling cozy on the cold winter day.
It was a magical season. I remember that most. I remember trampolines, camp songs, and bonfires; eating my fill of sour apples and pinching crawdads’ backs in the creek. I remember exploring caves and watching the catfish and sunnies, my older brother had caught, splash in the canoe that he had filled with water to keep the fish alive.
The camp disintegrated four years later, or at least my family and another family were no longer invited to take part. I was so young, no more than ten years old when everything happened, but for the next four years, I knew we were living somewhere we didn’t belong.
Right now, I am writing this on a futon, covered with a star quilt, in a massive cabin in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. It is the first time I’ve attended a women’s retreat as a woman (I used to attend with my mom when I was a little girl), and though I am mostly extroverted, I have had to force myself to embrace the fact that, this time, I really do belong.
It’s strange, because I love people. I love their stories. I love the backstories that they do not tell. And yet, a part of me still feels like that ten-year-old who stood on the porch in the summers and listened to kids my own age participating in camp activities down over the hill.
And this, more than any need to write a blog, is why I am sitting here. Because I am trying to process the struggle between guarding myself from pain and being real. Community is not perfect, regardless if it is formed through family or church, and to withdraw ourselves, simply because we fear being hurt, is to deny ourselves the privilege of true belonging.
The other night, our Life Group talked about starting a commune. We laughed about raising chickens and planting one massive garden in the spring. And though we weren’t serious, it was interesting how much we enjoyed the discussion, as if a pipe dream could indeed become real.
We were made for community, for fellowship, where we can know—without any doubt—that we do belong. So, I am going to close this laptop (my grownup security blanket) and go downstairs, where women of all ages and backstories are sitting around, drinking coffee, and becoming friends. You belong; you are loved; don’t withdraw but allow yourself to take part.
Have you ever experienced what it felt like to not belong? How did that change you? What is your definition of community now?