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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:

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.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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