Gram and Me: Community in Time and Space

I serve on a committee at my synagogue that brings in speakers every year for a series of talks and special meals. It is a small comittee, and before I joined, the average age of the participants was probably close to 70. The former chair is a formidable and funny woman in her early 90s, who has been a member of our shul since the 40s and who remembers everything. There are two older couples in their 60s, a woman in her 60s, myself at 37 and a friend of mine in his early 40s who just joined, pressed into it by desperate pleas for help and by the fact that it is impossible to deny Sadie, the woman in her 90s, anything.

Most of the members have served on the particular project for a long time, and are more than a little weary of it. They look at my friend Steve and me as the next generation taking over from them, and most would like to pass the whole thing off to us. The problem with this is that there are only two of us younger people on this committee, and there aren't likely to be more any time soon. There are perhaps 10 actively involved, regular attendant couples in our rough age group, all parents of young children, perhaps 20 people in all in my age range. Most of us serve on other committees as well, because all the committees have much the same problems of older, tired membership. Of the 20 people who might be drawn upon, two of them are us and two of them must be left out of any consideration - they are Steve's wife and Eric, and when we are at meetings, they have the kids. The others serve in so many capacities already in the shul, on top of full time jobs and young families that they simply can't do any more.

Our committee finds itself with a difficulty - the speakers we bring don't pay for themselves, since the tradition is that the talks be free. Most of the money raised for the event comes from the luncheon and other food that we offer - but with such a small committee, the members of the committee can no longer manage all the cooking and serving, so are paying to have it catered. This cuts into our profit, obviously. The older members of the synagogue can no longer handle the heavy burden of doing the cooking, and would like to pass the job off to Steve and I - one of them told me, accusatorily, "when we were your age, we did all the cooking." And I have no doubt that they did - and feel some guilt that I decline to take on the job myself. But I also know two things have changed. The first is that the majority of the women who showed up regularly to the synagogue kitchen (because everything must be certified kosher, we can't do potluck, and so you have to actually schedule time and come to the kitchen to do the cooking) didn't have full time jobs when their kids were young. And the second is that there were a lot more of them.

The last ten years have seen our shul's rolls decline by a quarter, through attrition and internal conflict wrought by a previous Rabbi. I look through the photos taken shortly after we joined the synagogue, in 2002, in the yearbook published for the synagogue's 110th anniversary, and I count how many people have died, gone to nursing homes or moved away. There are a lot, most of whom I knew only by sight, some of whom we were friendly with, and a few friends. There are some new folks, younger families with children coming in to fill the gap, but not enough. And many of them are like me - they have real constraints on the time they are able to devote to the synagogue - in large part because both partners work full time, and do parenting and domestic work in the evenings and on weekends.

I was thinking about this as I read the next of John Michael Greer's pieces on community "Secret Handshakes" which includes an account of his attempt to revitalize and participate in one piece of our aging community infrastructure, the local Freemasons. I found it a compelling story, and I'm glad he's telling the story of the fraternal organizations, which do provide a model and structure on which we might build. Indeed, some of the story he's telling tracks my own family history both good and bad.

My own grandmother was a devout member of Eastern Star, which with only minor inaccuracy might be described as the female Mason's auxiliary. For more than 50 years she and her sister were stalwarts of a Connecticut chapter. The both served as officers, ran meetings, sent mailing, raised funds, knitted and baked for fundraisers, visited older members in nursing homes, brought meals to members having babies or with sick family members. My grandmother had had polio in her youth, and by the time I can remember, used a walker or cane and struggled to drive - but she made every meeting and devoted herself to community work of precisely the kind that Greer rightly points out is necessary.

My grandmother did work - she worked at the telephone company as an operator into her 60s. She was something unusual for her time - a divorced woman in the 1950s. My grandfather had beaten her, and she, disabled, vastly smaller than her husband, left him and moved in with her sister, with whom she raised her sons. She went to work by necessity, and still served. In this respect, just like my own service, she found time - Greer is right about that. But that's not all the story - because my grandmother was also the recipient of a great deal of help from Eastern Star, her church and other organizations. She was a controversial figure in the 50s - a woman who had left her husband, but the organizations largely ponied up support, according to her. She was able to participate - but also to reap the benefits of a large body of women with more time than she had who were proximate, and could come to her aid.

Greer begins his discussion of the commentary his article on community has given with the claim that none of us who commented grasp the role of history here. He writes:

em>Still, it interests me that so much of the discussion, as so often happens, went on as though history has nothing to teach us. One example out of many, and by no means the worst, is Astyk's suggestion that the reason community has fallen apart in recent decades is that so many people work so hard, and are too tired to get involved. This echoes a common plaint, but the fact remains that a century ago most Americans worked 50, 60, or more hours a week as a matter of course, and most of those hours were spent at hard physical labor. Somehow that didn't keep a dizzying array of community groups from flourishing to an extent I think few people remember today.

In this, I think that Greer failed to grasp the point I made in my commentary - it wasn't simply that we work longer hours than many of our predecessors (although we do work longer hours, if less physically, than many of the people who formed these organizations, as Juliet Schor does document). It is, in fact, precisely the lessons of history that I wish to draw attention to - not the sweeping Toynbee-esque history that Greer so loves to cite, but the ordinary social history of American women and men that I think is important here. For Greer, the central point is that we don't choose the work because of both the costs of community and not needing it so badly - and I agreed in my previous essay that there is some real truth to this. I still think so. But I also think that Greer ignores the material realities that shape our world - and much of that has to do with gender and women's history - and this shapes both our perceptions of the need for community (more affluent, with more social programs, as Greer points out) and our real experience of community.

Now it is too simple to say "once upon a time women didn't work, now they do, that explains everything." Women have always worked, of course, and often extremely long hours. I think in fact what matters here is the pattern of women's work. In her book _Women in 1900: Gateway to the Political Economy of the Twentieth Century_, historian Christine Bose takes a close look at the historical statistics of the turn of the century, a point at which the fraternal organizations that Greer speaks of were thriving, and, and finds, not surprisingly, a lot more working women than the census acknowledges. She argues that 46% of American women were working in 1900. But overwhelmingly, they were working in a home.

The vast majority worked from their own homes, or from the homes of family members with whom they resided (Bose does some interesting work on "hidden" heads of household as well and finds subfamilies, headed by women in many more households than were acknowledged in the census data). A smaller but significant portion worked as domestic servants in houses in which they resided. The other 54% of American did traditional, non-remunerated "women's work" at home. The percentages of "non-working" (I'm using the census terms here, we all know all women work, right?) are much higher for women with children under 10.

I think it is important not to reduce this discussion to "who worked longer hours" alone but to discuss the nature of those hours. For more than 80% of American women, work - whether domestic or remunerative took place in their place of residence, surrounded by other women who also worked at home. In 1900, also, more than 60% of all residences included at least one adult who was not part of the nuclear family - for middle class and affluent households, there was often one or more resident domestic servant, and in all households, often extended family members.

Women's paid work, then, was often linked structurally to their domestic work - if they took in laundry or sewing they did their own at the same time, roughly speaking. If they took in borders, they cleaned their own homes. They had much less paid childcare, but they were much more likely to have someone in their homes or nearby to cover if they went out of an evening or needed to run next door to talk to someone.

But it isn't just women - although I think women are central to this discussion. In 1900, according to Historical Statistics of the United States, a collection of census data, more than 40% of American men also worked at home or in close proximity to their home - in shops, on farms, in home workshops and businesses. Most of the American public worked within 3 miles of their residence. Now it is important not to overstate the closeness of those miles in a time when foot and horse travel predominated, but it is also the case that by necessity, most American men were living and working in their communities.

Contrast that with the pattern of work now. As of the 2000 census, 77% of American women are now employed outside the home, and the numbers are nearly as high for those with young children. The average American has a 25 minute commute by vehicle - which can mean they live anywhere from 10 miles to 30 miles away from their workplace, depending on traffic. For those with young children, the journey to and fro often includes school or daycare drop offs as well, adding miles to their commute. Add this the vast majority of American men also working away from home - and one in six men and women has a commute of more than 45 minutes.

At the same time, hours spent on domestic work have dropped only slightly, and hours spent in childcare not at all. Instead of being at least partly integrated into daily life - you were spending time with your children while working on the farm or sewing at home, you could do your domestic work in small spurts along with your paid work, these things are back-loaded to evenings and weekends, as parents attempt to compensate for long hours spent away from home. Hours spent in elder care have also not fallen - but more of them are spent in the car driving aging parents to doctors and rushing back and forth to nursing homes and assisted living places, and fewer at home in direct care.

It is true that people worked long hours in the past - but the pattern of those hours was radically different. Community thrived when more people lived and worked embedded in their community. Now most Americans spend a third of their waking hours in a workplace community, often completely unconnected from the community proximate to their home. Their co-workers may live an hour or more from them, if they are commuting from different directions. Their neighbors, like them, are only home in the evenings and on weekends, and often not that much then. Instead of belonging to connected social institutions, if they are members of community organizations, they are probably members of completely different ones.

As someone who works from home, I recognize the distinct advantages of that situation for both community and domestic work. I can throw on a load of laundry during my lunch break. Because my husband can do some of his work from home, while I do all of mine, we do not have to work extra hours to pay for daycare for our children - one of us is always with them. It is possible for me to stop by a neighbor's house and drop something off in the afternoon before the bus comes or to stop what I'm doing when someone stops by to say hello. The problem is that there are increasingly few neighbors to stop by. Certainly no one from my shul lives in my rural area, and most of my neighbors are gone during the day. All of us begrudge our evenings and weekends because at some point we have to let the kids plays, do the laundry, fix the deck, visit Grandma...

And even with my advantages, I find it hard to find time to go to meetings and show up to do my share of the event cooking, or planning or other work. The price of my husband and I splitting the childcare is that we treasure our precious time alone. The price of living cheaply and working less is that at the end of our workdays and our farmdays and our homeschool days, we often cannot muster the energy to go somewhere. Instead of looking forward to getting out of the house, we want nothing so much as time at home. So I rely on older women and men - many of them retired, to carry the enormous burden of holding up our community. I know that when these women and men were younger, they did more than I do. I also know that when they were younger, they were not laboring under the double burden of a life so divided by space, by numbers. And it was in a culture where service to these institutions was taken as a given. In this respect, Greer is right.

The core weakness of the lodge system turned out to be the issue I brought up in last week's post: the cost of community. As I mentioned then, too much talk about communities in recent years has focused on their benefits, and ignored the money, time, effort, and commitment that has to go into making those benefits happen. Membership in one of the surviving fraternal orders is a great corrective for this sort of fuzzy thinking. You can get community there, but it costs; there are dues to pay, meetings to attend, work to be done, and jobs that are paid only in old-fashioned titles and a sense of belonging. Lodges are also, by their nature, governed by tradition, which means that younger members generally have to develop a certain tolerance for the social habits of an earlier time. (The necktie I mentioned earlier is one example; I dislike wearing neckties, but the custom of wearing jacket and tie to lodge is fiercely upheld by elderly members who consider it a sign of basic respect, and matters are unlikely to change much while they live.) All these factors militate against the survival of lodges in today's culture.

In this sense, Greer's observations and mine dovetail to make a vicious circle. There are 20 or so active members of our shul in their 30s and 40s. There are three or four in their 20s. A generation ago, those numbers would have been unthinkable - joining community institutions was part of the culture. But living fully in the community you lived in was the culture as well. The younger families who do participate do a great deal - many of them more than Eric and I. Steve leads a daily minyan, monthly services, reads Torah, serves on several committees. Our synagogue president is younger, as is our Rabbi and his wife, also a Rabbi. And the costs are considerably higher than wearing a tie for most of us - one couple, who serve on several committees, run the Junior Congregation and lead minyan and read Torah between them, while maintaining two high powered jobs and raising two children admit that between their jobs and their responsibilities they often go weeks where they do little more than wave to each other and exchange the most pertinent information before falling into bed - often apart, because one handles morning schedules, the other evening. The physical, emotional and marital costs of this investment in community and life, which they make unstintingly, are extremely high.

But even for thsoe willing to pay those costs, there aren't enough of us, and our time is more straitened than previous generations - not mostly because we work longer hours, but because we work and live further away from these institutions, and because of what we aren't doing when we're at work.

Why are there so few? Some of this may have to do with the decline of religious life in general, but a lot of it it is this - the reasons for community are, as Greer points out, less evident. Some of this is affluence. Some of it is cheap energy. But some of it is simply this - we no longer live in the community in the same way. My grandmother could ride to her Eastern Star meetings with two of her neighbors, also members. Her church was in walking distance, and many of the members were neighbors. Over the years, my grandmother patronized the same establishments and talked to the owners about donations for the silent auction - returning patronage and publicity in exchange, donated through her church and Eastern Star and other groups to the children of the firefighters with the station down the road. And it wasn't just through these groups - no neighbor had a baby, no neighbor grew ill or elderly, without my grandmother and aunt bringing a knitted cap or a pot of soup. They attended every funeral. They greeted every neighbor. The shared the flowers from their garden. They worked and lived and stayed in one place.

My grandmother's participation in Eastern Star, the DAR and her church was also generational - she joined women's versions of organizations that her parents had supported. This was enabled by two things not true any more - first, that there was a greater degree of consistency between generations, and a greater degree of physical stability of locale. I don't want to over-romanticize these things - there are a good number of reasons why I personally don't long to join Eastern Star, although a friend of mine and fellow convert and I have joked about starting an all-Jewish chapter of the DAR. But the truth is that this history of service, this consistency of place, this hard work alongside the same people you served with helped structure our community involvement.

In a sense, my grandmother is a poster child for community. When she and her sister grew very frail, they were able to stay in their homes for several years longer than they would have been had they not been there. Each night, the firefighters at the bottom of the road stopped by to put my aunt into her bed, since my grandmother could not help her. The man who owned the hot dog stand we always visited brought them dinner once a week. The aide who helped them was not a member of Eastern Star - she wouldn't have been invited, but her son received a scholarship from them to go to college. A neighbor stopped by every day. My uncle, her younger son, had lived in extended family in early adulthood with my grandmother and aunt, and later in their lives, Gram and Aunnie provided childcare for their children. At the end fo their lives, my uncle and aunt did the hard work of tending them.

And on another hand, my grandmother was a poster child for the failure of community - the way that time and its passage has degraded it. When my grandmother, finally, due to post-polio syndrome and increasing illness went to a nursing home (fortunately, the one at which her son worked), my uncle reported that no one from Eastern Star, her church or the DAR, the other organization to which she'd devoted herself ever came to visit her. They knew she was there, he reported, because they never failed to call up and ask for donations, or to renew her annual dues. But her own peers dead, failing, dying, no one remembered my grandmother. The organizations that were supposed to return good to her for the good she'd given over more than 60 years failed her. Not, I'm sure, from malice, but from decline - decline due, as Greer observes, from people not understanding the importance of these institutions, of abandoning them because they didn't want to do the work of community. But also from fewer women with fewer hours to give, and from institutions that changed too slowly - that kept up the knitted caps but never thought to provide daycare for working mothers to attend meetings. And also from patterns and structures that take us away from the places we have most needed to be. The history of our own exhaustion is not enough to explain the decline of community - it is more complex than that. But it is a part - and an important part.

Last week at my synagogue, I ran into an older woman who I've often chatted with. Some time back, I had invited her to visit our family on the farm, and she'd said she'd like to, but we'd never arranged a date - the whole thing was very casual. When I saw her in the bathroom, she was shaking and nearly in tears - I was startled when she began the conversation by saying that she couldn't come visit me - ever. What had been a casual invitation became something more intense, to my initial confusion. I hadn't expected so much emotion - but it gradually came out - her diabetes is out of control, she is going blind, she has just lost her ability to drive, she has just moved to assisted living, her partner gone and her children far away, and now she is alone in a place she does not know and cannot control her destiny by bringing herself places. She sees in us the loss of potential, the chance that she could someday come to us, and the growth of loneliness, and the terror of loss. She is still making it to synagogue, because of the kindness of others who drive her - but they are mostly older folks like she is.

When I saw her, shaking with emotion, I saw my grandmother, and how it came that she went to the nursing home to wait for someone from all of those prior years of work to come and visit her. It was not by intention that Eastern Star failed to take care of her as she had taken care of others - it was simply that a new generation came and they did not fully understand - or they had less to give - or they didn't give what they didn't imagine being returned to them in a failing institution - or that and more explanations. Had I not found her in the ladies room at that moment, I might have wondered later, perhaps even years later, what ever happened to this woman, as I have so often with older congregants who fade away.

Her "I can't come to visit you" was an attempt to forestall that end, to tell me what gripped her, to cross time and generation so that at least in one case, I'll understand the ties of communal obligation. And it worked. I told her that when the grass is green again and the walkways no longer treacherous, we will come and get her and bring her to the farm, and that in the meantime, we will come, my four loud children and my husband and I will go to the place she lives and visit. I'm not sure where we will find the time or what it will come out of, but we will, out of the profoundest necessity.

I don't know what the answer is to the problem of community, or the myriad problems communities raise for us. I don't know how to bring other younger families into our community, except by simply showing that we have vital and engaged group of younger families. I don't know who will cook the luncheon for our speaker event - that one still escapes me. I don't know how a dwindling number of people, working longer, because we have less and are living in harder times, will actually put in the same time that previous generations have. What I do know is that the simple answers aren't sufficient - that it isn't enough to point out that we don't want to pay the price, because while that's true sometimes - maybe even often - that's not all the truth, or even half of it. Sometimes we do - and we just don't know how - or know it will not be enough.


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Very nicely done, Sharon. I thank you, and my grandmothers thank you. I'd read your previous, related piece, and Greer's as well. Your effort here is a candle lit, and well shows why the ongoing discovery and recovery of true community is at the center of us. How inimical our world is to this!

By oldholmes (not verified) on 22 Jan 2010 #permalink

Something else I would ask, above and beyond merely the daily commute: Do people stay in one community for as long as they used to? I don't believe that we even stay in one state or one country as long as we used to. How can people be persuaded of the importance of community when they know that it's likely they won't be a part of that community for more than a few years--perhaps a decade at most, before their employer either transfers them elsewhere or downsizes them? If you don't live in a major metro area with good employment for your field, you likely will have to move quite far away, like it or not, community ties and investment or not. Other options include unemployment, retraining for a go-anywhere field (e.g. nursing), and finding a sympathetic family member willing to support you.

(Insert cynical murmur about turning people into Human Resources here.)

This is most evident in science as an occupation, I think--people are expected to move around plenty to find any academic job at all, and industry certainly moves R&D around wherever it sees fit, including overseas when it's cost-efficient. In fact, I just had a loooooong conversation with my boss, trying to explain why I did not want to move up in a particular direction, because it would ultimately require more globetrotting than I am comfortable with just to remain employed at that level. The conversation got so long because he had absolutely no idea why I might not want to live in China for five years, India for three years, some South American country for another few years. It was simply an incomprehensible notion to him, because moving around all over the earth just to have food on the table is apparently something we are supposed to accept without question as the price of modernity.

Why do people live apart?

- to get away from commanding family members with their many rules
- because they can do what they want with their time (= independence)
- because they want to have a family of their own
- because it is held up (sold?) as "normal"
- because it is part of the adventure of growing up.

But time gets burnt, wasted on trivia and watching TV. Hm. Was it us that made that choice?

Humans are happiest living in tribes, in "long houses" where families share resources and are in continual company. Do we want to loose the control we now have and go back to that model? Most don't; I don't!

Where then can we find the happy middle? The terraced-houses of England seemed to work well, traditionally with strong communities... but these are old-fashioned now in the eyes of the young, painted with a Victorian brush. Who wants to hear the neighbours shouting on either side, their TV and kids wailing?

So it's all up to those with an adventurous spirit, people who are unafraid to venture out into a perhaps hostile world - and meet people. And that's scary, dangerous even... so we are told.

Why then are things like this? All the incentives are: live independently! Perhaps because this means the everyone buys a washing machine, a cooker, a microwave, a TV, a fridge, a vacuum... the list goes ever on. Now, there is a model which suits the powers that be!

By disillusioned (not verified) on 22 Jan 2010 #permalink

These quotes jump at me, Sharon.

âCommunity thrived when more people lived and worked embedded in their community. Now most Americans spend a third of their waking hours in a workplace community, often completely unconnected from the community proximate to their home.â

âThe problem is that there are increasingly few neighbors to stop by. Certainly no one from my shul lives in my rural area, and most of my neighbors are gone during the day.â

âinstitutions that changed too slowly - that kept up the knitted caps but never thought to provide daycare for working mothers to attend meetings. And also from patterns and structures that take us away from the places we have most needed to be.â

Fragmentation. Itâs the antithesis of community. Toiling hard within fragmentation will only lead to this: âThe physical, emotional and marital costs of this investment in community and life, which they make unstintingly, are extremely high.â

Institutionalization. Committees, budgets, meetings⦠ugh. Maybe falling memberships are telling us all something. People donât want to do the institutional tapdance anymore not because they are selfish, but because they have come to see that it does not serve their needs. (?)

Just musing⦠in European villages, farmers live close to one another for community. They travel out to the fields which need them less often than humans. In America, itâs the other way around⦠why? The fragmenting surveyor mentality?

Maybe you could marshal the resources of the younger set in your synagogue by actually bringing them together, rather than having them scattered through the congregation, more dependent on the drive of their elders who are leading the various groups. If you have a regular session of the younger members, they could parcel out to different committees and community responsibilities from that central base rather than more haphazardly.

I think another aspect of the continuity disruption comes from the major cultural transitions that we've gone through in the last century, not just on a gender or work basis, although these things are all interconnected of course. We have come out of an era of such dramatic forward motion (called "progress") that the value of history and tradition is greatly diminished and therefore the wisdom of our elders is seen as archaic. The increase in age segregation over the last century has also decreased our ability and drive to succeed at intergenerational relationships, since we have so little experience going more than one generation away from ourselves.

By Christina (not verified) on 22 Jan 2010 #permalink

I think you're spot-on about the affect of long commutes on community, but a big factor you didn't mention is television. We're encouraged not only to veg out at home in the evening, but to accept TV as our community and cultural touchstone.

Developing a sense of community requires learning the land and its history, and hearing the stories of the people who inhabit that land. Imaginary lives on screens now substitute for the people and places outside our doors.

Christina, I don't think it is haphazard, actually - I think it is self-organizing, but for the most part, people are spread pretty evenly. They are weighted a bit towards things like the membership committee and the school board, but that's probably as it should be. The problem is that there is more work and tradition than there are bodies to bear it.

Vera, I hate committees and meetings, but barring dictatorship, this is how things get done. You have to have a budget to do things that cost money, you have to show up for the meetings to plan events. This is the nuts and bolts of community service - and yes, some of it is boring. But what job doesn't have a boring part?

Lora, that's why I left academia and why Eric took a non-traditional (and untenured) route within it - I simply couldn't endure the decade of instability and uncertainty that went with it.


dear sharon-
I'm finding this continuing dialogue between yourself and greer all a bit too reminiscent of old arguments about the number of angels suupportable on the head of a pin or christian v. pagan influences in beowulf.

I think it is fair to say that the community organizations referred to by both of you grew organically in response to socio-economic conditions. They coalesced around ethnicity (Hibernians, K of C); religion (Hadassah); employment (Grange, Woodmen) and class (Rotary, Jacks and Jills). They survived as long as social conditions gave them a reason for existing. As government took over many of the functions of these organizations; insurance, health care, unemployment relief etc. they became less and less necessary. This occured against a backdrop of a steadily declining tendency of Americans to self identify in the categories that once seemed so important such as ethnicity.

It is interesting to note that it is the private organizations based on class, e.g. Rotarians and Chamber of Commerce that seem to be thriving while the Hibernians, Polish Eagles and K of C are waning. Apparently, class and ownership of capital still matter.

As we descend from the peak of energy consumption and accomodate ourselves to living more locally and sustainably, these organizations, under new names and organized along different criteria will be reestablished. As always, people will design the structures that they believe will serve their interests.

I find it touching that both you and Mr. Greer are attempting to breathe some life into senescent organizations. Whether you succeed or fail is ultimately irrelevant. When social conditions require the re-creation of such organizations you can be sure that they will be there.

By jay moses (not verified) on 22 Jan 2010 #permalink

I'm quite detached from the community I actually live and work in. We've been here for years, but most of our friends--our real community--are scattered all over New England and even further afield. It seems to me the combination of the Internet and mobility has made it easy for people to develop far-flung friendships based on common interests and affinity despite lack of proximity.

This was great as long as it lasted, but becomes more challenging when money as well as time are tight. I'm in several organizations that have a wide geographic base and of late we've noticed less participation--people simply don't have the money for gas for the long road trips we used to take without even thinking about it, and those who are more environmentally aware think twice even if we can fill up the tank.

As inflation continues to grow the cost of everyday goods and services is going to increase and yes now more then ever we are starting live more off the community with shopping at lower priced farmer markets etc.

Also society is looking at ways to make money from home. There is a website called where you can learn for free how to make money from home and learn the residual secret.

Excellent stuff Sharon. My grandmother and mom are both poster children for community building too - my gtrandmother organized the distribution of damaged food from the loading dokcs to poor families in her town during the depression, my mom was involved in so many groups - ranging from girls scouts to helping establish a thrift store to benefit the homeless. Yet as with your grandmother - when gram became ill and housebound - no visitors and little help. My mother routinely helped elderly women in our town - even I had to take her old lady friends grocery shopping periodically. Yet now that she is elderly and housebound - there is no one for her outside of family. This not only stinks for her - but it means that I have less time available to continue my own involvement in community organizations.

There is another side to fraternal organizations unmentioned - in many cases these organizations 1) discriminated against various groups and 2) the fraternal organizations became networks that gave preference to mebers for employment. I worked in a county once where you did not get a job or a contract with county government if you were not a Mason or married to a Mason. If such organizations are going to be revived to assist in the difficulties ahead - I hope they will not have discrinminatory admission practices and that they won't form strangleholds on jobs and decision making.

I have to agree with what Jay Moses said, specifically these two paragraphs:

"As we descend from the peak of energy consumption and accommodate ourselves to living more locally and sustainably, these organizations, under new names and organized along different criteria will be reestablished. As always, people will design the structures that they believe will serve their interests.

"I find it touching that both you and Mr. Greer are attempting to breathe some life into senescent organizations. Whether you succeed or fail is ultimately irrelevant. When social conditions require the re-creation of such organizations you can be sure that they will be there."

Back in 1978, as some may recall, the Boston area suffered a huge blizzard of a snow storm. Yes, there are bad snows somewhere around the country every year, but the 1978 storm shut nearly ALL traffic down in eastern MA for a whole week+. With that, people had to *walk* to get anywhere, and even that was difficult due to the snow. The quick result was that new friends were made, often across the street. Local businesses thrived, while the malls and big box districts (what there were of them, back then) were dead. People helped each other out, locally, and why not? People were home all day, every day for the duration. Now a week wasn't enough time to breathe new life into the Masons, DAR, etc. But based on what I saw back then, even one week of forced local-ism had amazing trans-formative powers, leaving me little doubt that if and when people are once again denied the localism-destroying technology of car trips and at least some TV, people will come together again faster than one might otherwise think.

By Stephen B (not verified) on 22 Jan 2010 #permalink

"I find it touching that both you and Mr. Greer are attempting to breathe some life into senescent organizations."

Yup. I think that people like Sharon are being dumped on with old problems of institutions. Those old committee members did not pay attention to the signs that the old ways were no longer serving the needs 20 years ago. Now they want the young to do more of the same in turn...

Institutionalization and bureaucratization is not the only way to get things done. These forms of doing have a high overhead and heavy costs in human weariness. Isn't it time we looked for other ways? Or do you want to be, some years ahead, the last few elderly survivors of a moribund institution like the Masons are now?

@ Sharon,

I think a big difference in communities today, from 50 and 100 years ago, is indoctrination of children.

Before public education really got going with their homogenized platforms of being citizens of the nation and the world, families raised children. Children grew up to be members of - the family, and the community. The culture that raised them was focused on family needs and the culture - the agreed upon rituals, traditions, and values - of the community. It used to be, and to some extent still is today, that upon marrying, a man became a husband at home, and also in the community. A marriage is a community event because marriages enlarge the community.

A church I attended some years ago had a practice, that someone moving in had to attend classes to show respect and reverence for the church's teachings. Communities used to do that - you could live there for years, or mere months, but until you passed some real but unstated hurdle, you weren't a "local". If you didn't act as if you were a community member, you stayed an outsider. This is much less obvious today, but many times there are still "orientation" rituals.

Since the advent of national newspapers, magazines, and radio, then TV, then video cameras and Interstate highways, standardized school placement and evaluation tests and texts - even before the computer - marketers and the politically ambitious delighted in building their brand and selling their product - at the cost of widening the world view of children and adults alike. That is, they destroyed the parochial sense of community of neighbors, for most people.

Today the discussion is about what it takes to sustain a community, and I am *sure*, that the starting place is the family, and the community, and supportive cultures in home and village. As long as mate-picking is random, that is, not done intentionally to strengthen and support the extended family and community, then binding couples and families into communities is going to stay as random as the chance that couples will sustain themselves in a viable and happy home.

I think that sustaining community requires that the community grow in a sustainable fashion - through births and adoptions. A sustainable community must be proactive in getting adoptees - newcomers - incorporated into the community, both screening applicants and orienting those accepted.

You may have to examine how many religious communities a village can tolerate and remain viable - two churches/synagogues usually means two communities, sooner or later. Or look at how many un-churched people a community can tolerate. How many major industries, etc.

I am not advocating ignorance, or intolerance. But the sustainable communities of the past were *not* indoctrinated by a national teachers union or a US Department of Education. They didn't grow up thinking "entertainment" included 1/2 hour broadcast programs with 7-12 minutes of disrupting advertising. The collective cognitive dissonance of splitting the day between personal contact with electronics and personal interactions is vastly different now.

How can one ponder a sustainable culture, either community or family, without relating the two? How can you focus on hours available and ignore the difference between then and now in the way that personal interactions have changed? Back then non-personal interactions included horses and other livestock and pets, where so many to day interact with electronics - TV, computer, iPod, etc.

Back then families were often large, with the intent that a daughter would stay at home to care for the parents when they became old and frail. Today the government garners votes by promising to care for the elderly, to assure safe pre-schools, to assure "quality" education in school - in short we gave away our children. We let the government and advertisers and program producers indoctrinate our children into a vastly wider community, once that is forever undefined and unsustainable.

If you want a sustainable community, you need the elders, the extended families, and families aligned culturally, and you need to manage growth - by birth, and especially by being serious about managing adoptions.

One other difference you mentioned. How many, aside from the Rabbi and his wife, and stay at home parents, work at something that directly and specifically serves the shul? That, I think, is a really big part of the difference between then and now. And, too - how many people are working to serve local people, as opposed to an amorphous "large" market?


We are here for nine more years and then going somewhere else. I don't want to set down deep roots in a place I don't want to be and am not planning on staying. My husband commutes an hour and a half a day for work and is involved in our religious community (school committee and board member) a scout den leader and a volenteer for a non profit. I am involved in a few playgroups and that is plenty with two kids and we are talking seriously about scaling back because there are too many weeks we hardly see each other.
When I go back to work 90% of the outside activities will end because we will both need to do all the stuff I do now for the home/family. He has had to remind the various groups that he works with that he has children, limited time and no, meetings that end at 10pm on a school night are not ok- he wants to see his children while their eyes are still open and the child care falls on his wife and I have a life too.
It is difficult to have a sense of neighborhood when we walk 10 minutes to the park on a beautiful day and no one is there and my daughter and I did not see a single soul on the way. Our friends are 30-45 minutes away and while I have spent years looking for my people here I am not sure they exist.

By Stephanie (not verified) on 23 Jan 2010 #permalink

Ann #6 - me too. "TV" is a much bigger factor than most are thinking here.

We need to include video games, also- something not mentioned elsewhere. And of course DVDs, etc. All those screen related pass times are DESIGNED by their makers to hold your attention for as long as possible. And the designers are good at it.

Not only does this leave less time (many hours less) for interactions with other humans, it warps our expectations. When people don't respond to us the way they do in entertainment devices we- what? Withdraw, I think, is the commonest response. This person is just weird, I'm going back to my video world, where everything works out. By the end of the movie, the bad guys are dead, and the hero is dead too- but comes miraculously back to life after 35 seconds of sad music. Every time.

Real life is also deadly dull compared to video- in any good game/movie/show the protagonist ALMOST DIES at least 4 times before the end- but survives! Whew.

Video also teaches children to focus- straight ahead. We're going through this intensely right now- my first two kids grew up with very little tv, and no movies in the house until VCRs got really cheap (they were about 9 and 12, I think). Smidgen, about to be 5, started watching movies in utero. Lots of Jackie Chan, with interesting explosions.

Single data points are odious; but... Smidgen has a much harder time finding her socks than her two big brothers did... we're having to actively teach her how to look around. Hm.

Also- growing up in vid-world has, already- KILLED children's culture. The older among us can remember- you actually spent as much time as possible playing complex games with any other children you could find; with zero adult oversight. Older kids taught younger ones how the games worked. Most kids today know "Statues", "Red Rover", "Mother May I", and the phrase "Olly Olly Oxen Free-O" only from strange books- if they read.

So they grow up already crippled as far as self- motivated interaction goes. Sure, they get a bit in school, but it's totally not the same thing as building a secret tree house where no grownups can see- or stop- you; with 4 other kids, one of whom you don't like one bit.

That training in community is totally gone. Now- we hit a bump in an interaction- and the major response is to withdraw; go home and watch a favorite movie. Where you know how it comes out, and you like it.

Wonderful post and I have so much to say about it.

Number one, no wonder I feel so alone! 77% of women now work outside the home, hadn't seen that stat. and don't know why I'm surprised, but that explains it...I'm home, in a wonderfully old-fashioned and close neighborhood, but I'm one of very few home all day and it's lonely. I wrote a blog post somewhat related to that and this topic the other day, entitled "Are We Raising Our Children To Be Parents?"

Number two, the tradition of ladies' clubs is still alive and well in a small town in northeastern Iowa that we lived in for a few years. You can join a club for just about any cause there, but they are very traditional and while the younger women are part of the clubs (not much else to do in small NE Iowa towns), they are still run by the older women's ways. Coming from suburban Minneapolis, I had never seen anything like it. They had very formal meetings at each get-together, following Robert's Rules of Order complete with treasurer's reports and old business/new business. I expect this on the Boards I've served on at church and preschool, etc., but from a social club I was surprised and soon grew to dislike it (boring). I was there to meet people, socialize and make those important connections, learn a skill or discuss a book, eat some good food, etc., not to attend a formal meeting! Like Greer's tie-wearing, if I had stayed in that town I would've had to adopt to an older generation's way of doing things but knowing my personality would have likely rebelled at some point. We left the town, and we felt we would've been outsiders there our whole lives anyway.

I feel I saw the near-complete decline of community while I watched my mothers and other mothers go to work. The difference in my upbringing in which my mother often worked but most of the other mothers didn't, and the upbringing of my brother who is eight years younger (born 1978) during which time nearly all the moms went out to work, is astonishing to me. I would NEVER blame women for this, or the need to work, because as you state in Depletion and Abundance, men at one point left too, and IMO women could not exactly be blamed for following them 100-200 years later. It is lonely at home! Esp. with the breakdown of everything else--extended family, neighborhoods, etc. There is no doubt in my mind that people working outside the home so much, and kids at daycare and/or school all day, just want to stay home and relax. I love my church, and even though I'm home much of the week, I still have a hard time getting myself and family up and out the door on what feels like our one day to hang out and relax together.

Another thing that adds to this is marketing and our parents, the Boomers, desire to rebel against their parents' generation. Rejecting everything that came before is a huge part of our psyche now, thus partly explaining my dislike of those formal club meetings.

I think technology and our ever-increasing need/want to stay connected to EVERYTHING via internet, tv, radio, cell phones is also exhausting us to no end.


With my biological family far away (1,000 miles or so), visiting was never quick or frequent, but with enough money and a few paid vacation days, it was pretty easy.

As we are all aging, and as my resources rapidly decreased, visits are less frequent and more difficult to plan and execute.

All through this time, I have thought that given our situation - widespread biological families, thanks to cheap oil - it would be good to simply shift our attention. In other words, find people who need visiting and help right around us, and trust that the more people who do that, the more likely our biological families will be looked after.

That has happened to some extent in my life. There is a minister who has been very helpful with my dad, not in an official role but as a friend and protegé. And there are people here who are my father's age who I spend time with.

Nieces and nephews are far away, but I have younger friends here with whom I spend time and offer help. Whether there will be help for me when I need it is something I do not think about much. It will happen or it won't, my spirit is in good hands either way.

Just another report from this part of the field. Keep writing, sister.

While I'd really like to get into the deeper parts of your post, because I think this one is a great read, I just don't have the mental energy to do so today. Which leads me to the point of my comment:

I'm too tired to do much else besides be a wife, mother my 3 kids (one of which is high-medical-need), take care of our small house, and work a 40+ hour a week job as a teacher.

I am semi-active in my church, but we purposely chose a church who didn't have the doors open every day of the week for this activity or that. We go weekly to worship and host a small group at our house each week. That's about all I can do.

I don't belong to any clubs or civic organizations like I did in my 20's and pre-kids. I don't do much besides work, clean, laundry, spend time with the kids, homework and such.

Some days my life feels rather "lather, rinse, repeat-ish" but it is a good life.

I have no idea if this has any bearing to your situation or not as I live in the Bible belt. The one synagogue in our town has closed its doors because all the members were dying and there was little new comers. They couldn't keep it open and pay the bills (which is sad because it is a gorgeou facility). Most of the jewish people now in our area drive 45 mins or so to attend the booming Jewish community in Greensboro instead.

So there is my very uneducated, but heartfelt comment. It all boils down to: I'm too tired.

A very thought-provoking post. I've been thinking about community lately, in response to the posts of Greer, Hopkins and yourself. The most important factor seems to be getting some kind of benefit from the community, whether it's neighbors keeping an eye on the kids, fraternal organizations providing social services or religious groups providing a place of worship. As Greer points out, there's always a cost involved in being part of an organization. The benefits have to outweigh the costs.

Our mobile lifestyle also makes it difficult to form community. I live in the city and it's a wonderful walkable community, but I don't really know my neighbors. The neighborhood is a mix of single family homes and duplexes that are rented out. 2-3 houses are sold every year on my block and who knows how many apartments have different tenants. It takes a big commitment of time and emotional energy to get to know your neighbors and if there's a good chance that they'll be moving within 5 years, it hardly seems worth the effort.

Another part of the problem is that there are so few families with someone home during the day. As many people have pointed out, after you've packed all of your chores into the evening and weekends, there's not much time and energy left for attending community events.

Which brings up the final point. I think organizations fare better if the members live within 15 minutes (whether it's 15 minutes by foot, bus or car) of the gathering point. Outside of that radius, it takes more motivation to leave the comfort and relaxation of home.

I have always agreed with the concept that the working mum has affected the continuity of community.

But after reading this, I am struck by the need to define "community". It seems that most of us have a golden picture of a group of people with like minded interests, a welcome for us and that warm feeling of fitting in.

Maybe we need to rethink this?

I know from my mother who is elderly that she was previously active within the community, well respected and well known.

This is not because she was a nice or popular person who was doing a sterling job out of a desire to be nice to other people.

It was because THAT WAS WHAT WAS DONE! Like wearing a jacket and a tie. You helped people because that showed other people that you were capable and empathic.

You joined in groups because you didn't want it to be said that you were snobbish or stand offish or that other people could do more than you. Society ran because people believed there was no other choice than to be involved. Friendly societies and groups were supported because their members felt they would then be supported back in whatever circumstances they serviced.

Their interactions and their conduct of community affairs was governed by stringent and unfailing social rules. Ladies called each other "Mrs" customarily and wore their best outfits out to vie with each other.

Mum still talks about some of her associates whom she didn't like (for 60 years) but with whom she successfully worked.

What I'm saying is that maybe we should stop looking for the happy group of friends where we can be comfortable and just plunge in with a vow of service to whatever is our interest. Do you find that many egos can make this difficult or distasteful? How much better if they were forced by convention to be unfailingly polite to you.

Can this 21st century society sustain the type of disinterested service groups and organizations that we may be talking about when we say "community"?

By Lori Scott (not verified) on 24 Jan 2010 #permalink