Community Matters

This year’s family Christmas party was different. I guess it’s the way I’m seeing the world these days. It supported observations I’ve made and a view that I’ve been developing for a while. You see, by and large, everything was much the same as usual with our annual family gathering at the farm. A home-cooked meal was shared and enjoyed with all the holiday comfort foods of our ancestors. Much of the fare was from the farm itself, such as the turkeys, roasted hens, turnip greens, hot pepper sauce, green tomato chow chow and, of course, Josephine Foster’s cornbread dressing. And, as our tradition holds, it’s always pot-luck in the category of desserts. And, a very competitive sport I might add, with great aunts defending their titles and pitted against nieces and cousins vying for the most compliments.  All great fun. Cousin Carmen won again this year, hands down, with her famous coconut cake (I’ll do what I can to squeeze the recipe from her for you). It rivals the coconut cake at The Peninsula Grill in Charleston.

What caught my attention this year is something we rarely see these days, and that is a gathering of people, a community if you will, of multiple generations. Out of the 109 guests (a record-breaker) five generations were present, with ages ranging from 3 to 93 years of age. They had come from far and wide to carry on a tradition that was started by my great-grandparents during the 1920’s, the Foster Family Christmas gathering. In those early days, it was held on Christmas Eve and that tradition carried on until my great grandmother, Josephine Crutchfield Foster, died. Today we gather in the same spirit of fellowship, telling family stories and just spending time together, but these days it’s held the weekend before Christmas and at Moss Mountain Farm.

The great diaspora of families in this country seems to be at an all-time high. In our isolated family gathering alone there were kinsmen from six states, and as far away as Washington state. To further underscore the far-flung, cousin Tim couldn’t make it in time, as he was returning from Antarctica (not the place he calls home, but on assignment with Nat Geo). But, you see my point, due to multiple factors we are all living in a dispersed and fractured world. The reasons are many –  jobs, educational opportunities, technology, health conditions the list goes on. Also, our obsession and dependence on the automobile and the ways communities are designed and built have spread us all hither and yon. When I really stop and think about it the reunion/party this year and those in attendance was something of a Christmas miracle.

But, this huge cultural shift is broader than what might be observed as a ‘one-off’ holiday phenomenon. It is simply a microcosm that demonstrates a larger need in the culture. Clearly we want and need to be together, increasingly so. There is something deep within us that is longing for togetherness. I see it everywhere. This lack of connectivity impacts our everyday lives. None more than the youngest and most senior in our society. Bringing together these two extremes of ages in our population is essential. We are losing something of great value when the young cannot be influenced by the older generation’s wisdom, life history, and experience. The knowledge that my great grandmothers and grandparents passed on to me has been invaluable throughout my own life.

My great aunt Mallie, 93 years old, going strong!

On the flip side, the curiosity, energy, and vitality of youth bring a certain joy and inspiration to older members of our society. The younger members bring on new ideas and ways of seeing the world. Their idealism and energy is refreshing and hopeful to older generations. For example, one little cousin has inspired the entire family with her love of animals and birds. The older generations love to hear about her discoveries, experiences, and accomplishments, and she is only 11 years old. Self-esteem and confidence are bolstered in the child, and inspiration and wonder is incited in the older generations through this simple example of the importance of multi-generational connectivity.

My nephew surprised everyone by dressing up as Santa!

Then there is technology. Only time will tell where it takes us. Facebook, Instagram, WeChat, FaceTime, etc. all have moved swiftly and deeply into our personal lives. Be certain that none of these platforms singularly or collectively are ANY substitute for the simple notion of being together and communicating face to face, one on one. The great irony for me, in this world we call the Information Age, is that real and meaningful communication between humans seems to have suffered, not improved. Today there appears to be more miscommunication, misunderstanding, and disconnection than ever before.  I know plenty who now only communicate via text, instant messenger, or email.  These forms of communication are seen by them, I suppose, as more efficient. Hardly the case, I say, more mistakes, misconceptions, and miscommunications are the rule rather than the exception. And, more often than not, leading to more wasted time and mind-share in the attempts to sort out the ensuing entanglements of not speaking directly. A disturbing trend, indeed.

Creating places and spaces that encourage, if not invite, people of all ages to experience more meaningful time together is a step in the right direction. This, no doubt will take time. Yet I’ve seen this happen at Moss Mountain Farm, another small example for the desire for connecting that has happened very quickly. Each year guests from around the country gather at the farm as a form of ‘community,’ where they spend time together, walk among nature and the gardens, dine with one another, and hopefully leave feeling reconnected, perhaps even making some new friends along the way. The family Christmas party, like our farm tour visitation, seems to grow in numbers each year. This is a constant reminder to me that we all need forms of togetherness, connection, and community.

Happily, during these visits when everyone is together, rarely is anyone on their phones, with the exception of capturing a few photographs of one another in a place that invites living in the moment and being together. Another hopeful sign.

As we look into 2020 I’ll be looking into various forms of community, human and otherwise. It’s an important concept that impacts so many aspects of life.  I hope you’ll share your observations and thoughts along the way.