As families gather together for Thanksgiving we tend to remember the importance of community, friendship and togetherness. I find it worth noting that this is also one of the biggest travel days of the year. This makes me wonder, what about the rest of the year, how do we fill our need for community on all the other days? Do we hurriedly go without it all year long only to replenish over vacations and holidays? In America today many families find themselves scattered across this great land of opportunity. Sometimes it’s taking an opportunity or living near our family that we have to choose between. So how do we evaluate such decisions? And what conclusions arise years later that we could not have predicted? I encourage you to find out from your own families as you gather in celebration this year.
Taking my writing inspiration from personal experiences is common for me and this writing is no exception. Our family is well represented all across the United States—California, Arizona, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Florida. These are a few of the places where we find family. In the last two weeks, family from all of those states traveled to Oklahoma in order to say a final farewell and to honor one of our most influential members—Grandpa.
Gathering a group that was so geographically spread out was challenging, yet it happened quickly and we were together on the day of the memorial. Nothing else seemed to matter. This group came together in unity despite challenges and even some disagreements over the years; they all came in support of one another in loving remembrance. We all told each other how good it was to see one another and reminisced about why it takes an event like this to gather everyone together. I wondered what it would be like if all of us lived in the same city. Would our families have a better community around them all year long? How do we adapt to the fact that all of our family lives so far away?
As a mother to 3 fantastic kids, ages 5, 9, and 11, I have read numerous posts and articles concluding that raising kids without having family living nearby negatively impacts mothers, fathers and children. The presumption of independence is so pervasive that we forget that complete independence is impossible to achieve—and why would anyone want to anyway? Bringing it down to the most basic level, we would have to grow our own food (while depending on rain and fertile ground), generate our own electricity and walk everywhere if we were to call ourselves completely independent of other people’s contributions to our lives.
A wise friend gifted me the book A Life of Being, Having and Doing Enough by Wayne Muller, in which he describes this topic with ease, “As we become more and more ‘self-sufficient’ with our own cars, computers, and cell phones, we deceive ourselves with the insidious fiction we have become powerful enough to dismiss our interdependence. This is a terrible lie. It erodes our fundamental resilience, weakens our spirit, and promotes feeling crushed by the weight of deep loneliness.” The impossible standard of accomplishing life “independently” is a stress that fosters a reluctance of asking for support when it’s needed, as well as a lack of understanding of how to receive it—with gratitude rather than guilt— when it’s offered.
A friend recently reminded me of Ecclesiastes 4:12, ”Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” Community is essential to every person, and it is important to recognize the fact that actively building a community of family and friends around your family will bring a lasting impact. As children watch their parents intentionally build a group of trusted friends—especially in those families that don’t have relatives living nearby—it will enable them to do the same in their own lives as they grow.
Personally, I was mistaken for years thinking that friendships happen by chance, leaving out the fact that those relationships take nurturing time and effort—things we seldom have in abundance and must intentionally invest wisely in. That time and effort are so worth it when you consider the richness of life that comes with interconnectedness and community. I remember a time when I watched Friends on TV and thought “Wow, how fortunate for them to have moved next door!” without recognizing the amount of time and effort it takes to build lasting and fulfilling friendships. This is one of the life skills I intend to develop much deeper with my children; it will take time and effort but I believe they’ll be much further ahead in this understanding than I was at their age.
So from a practical standpoint, I ask, what can we do about this in the reality of our daily lives?! I am no expert on this road of discovery, but I will share a few of my thoughts. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and I am thrilled to say we will have people at our table that we have known at all different points of our lives. This group will range from my sister whom I have known since birth all the way to someone new that I will meet for the first time when they walk through our front door. My stemware won’t match and the plate design will alternate—I just don’t keep that many dishes of the same kind at the house. We are borrowing 4 folding chairs and as in years past, I can say with certainty that no one will notice. We will play games and watch the parade as we wait for the turkey. I am so thrilled this has been the case for as many Thanksgiving celebrations as I can remember.
I am reminded of Dr. Meg Meeker, who shared this sentiment in her book Strong Mothers, Strong Sons. She interviewed adult sons, asking them to talk about what was so influential in the way their mothers raised them. One man told her about his mother who always had an open door in their home growing up—people came to dinner, visited during the holidays, and were welcomed whenever possible. This son remembers these experiences and attributes them as being instrumental in his adult life.
A community is an ever-changing phenomenon. The one you are in must be easy to join, built on positivity, and must include sharing experiences with people from all different parts of life’s journey. I have a friend in Virginia who used to constantly reach out to me when I first became a mother; she wanted to go with me on my strolls around the mall to soothe my colicky baby in the after-dinner hours. This friend gave me something I didn’t even know I needed. She was single with no kids at the time, and I wondered, “Why would she want to go walking around with me and the baby?” She loves my kids and they love her. I treasure our friendship every day, and now that she has a child I try to share the journey of motherhood with her. There are not many young professionals who intentionally spend time with young families. I must say, I wish I had done that before having my own kids. Having that foresight would have better prepared me for what was ahead in life, while at the same time offering them (young families) companionship like no other.
When my kids are grown, I intend to be like another one of my friends who enjoys retirement with her husband, just taking long bike rides in nature and slowing down the pace of life. After returning home from the bike ride today she texted me this, “I have an extra bag of potato roll dough that you can bake tomorrow for Thanksgiving. They are a family favorite. We could drop them by later today and say ‘Hi.’” I value this friendship immensely and someday intend to give this kind of friendship to another young mother. I have another friend who called me out when I unintentionally hurt her feelings. How many women would value a relationship enough to kindly call someone out in order to preserve a friendship? It would be so much easier just to walk away and get back to our busy lives. I can say with certainty, this friend is with me for life.
They say if you want a good friend, you should be a good friend to others. What a challenge this is, yet the rewards are many for each person involved. Friends become family as we walk side by side in relationships. It is a beautiful process to prioritize and teach our kids to invest time and energy into this—especially in a world where family is often separated by geography. “More places to visit!” as my kids would say.