by Ryan Dalton
It was so wonderful to receive your letter! It does me well to hear that you have understood the necessity of this season, no matter how difficult or trying it may be, even if the fullness of the necessity has yet to reveal itself. What resonates in both of our experiences is how hard it is to live somewhere when you have left your heart elsewhere. Unquestionably difficult! I also, very frequently at that, think of the time spent with you and your family (our family) in Nashville during my time in Tennessee. Those weekends I spent in Nashville were bursts of light in a fairly dark time for me; but let me not be too dramatic, for it was most certainly not all doom and gloom.
The stick analogy in your letter really spoke to me and provoked some interesting thought:
“I aimed at being intentional in building thriving friendships; trying to gather sticks from under the tree, intent on building a raft that could carry me through this season. I found those sticks only useful for fire to keep me warm in those moments. I learned quickly the differences between hanging out and spending time with brothers.”
I too can relate to wanting more out of relationships than the intermittent “coffee shop buddy” you spoke of, providing warmth for only the moment, and if that. In retrospect to when I first moved back to the States, at the time, I really felt like the average conversation I had with the average person did not scratch the surface — the surface of what I was feeling, or anything genuine, or what I perceived as “real life” in general. The typical conversation would jump from the latest celebrity scandal, to a game of a particular team of whatever sport was in season, to whatever was happening on the popular sitcom of the day, to the most recent Youtube video that went viral, to the autotuned version of the most recent Youtube video that went viral; most of which was like a foreign language to me.
On a side note, I think another form of pseudo-sharing that occurs in our celebrity-obsessed, entertainment-addicted culture is the overwhelming level of investment so many people have in the lives of famous people. What if, as a culture, we spent that level of time and energy and investment in our actual relationships with actual people around us? But that is possibly another subject for another day.
Back to the conversations…
I was uninterested in, or could not relate to, most of the above mentioned topics, though the Youtube videos were usually entertaining. And it sometimes felt like I was having carbon copies of the same conversation, over and over and over again; smalltalk is great as an appetizer to the conversation, but it cannot give subsistence and sustain as the main course, meal after meal after meal. Simultaneously, during those conversations, I recurrently felt like people were looking at me, but not really seeing me. I know that sounds odd. But all I truly wanted, from the bottom of my heart, was to cut past the superficial surface and bleed out conversationally.
I occasionally experienced that too, and those conversations were cathartic.
However, revisiting your stick analogy, I have, as it seems you also have, realized the importance of seeking far more than to merely be kept warm, or even to be carried by a raft built from other metaphorical sticks; lest we forget that we are also sticks, with the ability to serve a purpose in the lives of others. The spirit of Ubuntu is not satisfied with solely feeding into our individual needs, with no personal responsibility to give back. Rather, true community is when we gather the sticks around us, our stick-selves included, and build a home of mutualism and sodality, a place where we can all hold up one another and be held up, support each other and be supported; and I know you know this type of communion, as you speak of it so fondly in reference to your time in Johannesburg.
Every stick might not be able to hold the same weight or provide the same level of stability, but linked together as one, they collectively provide shelter, a home, community, Ubuntu.
You ask how’s Brooklyn? Extraordinary! As a matter of fact, I have managed to build a beautifully diverse “stick-home,” with “sticks” being added by the day. Let me count a few…
My apartment door is a revolving door, with daily visitors of all ages.
Friends and neighbors stop by unannounced, more often than “expected” visitors, at that.
My across-the-hall neighbors’ microwave broke, so they come over to use mine.
My neighbors often share their food with me, and I share mine with them.
I help the neighbor kids with their homework.
My way-across-the-hall neighbors look out for the UPS man and hold my packages when he comes when I am at work.
I bake cupcakes with my twelve-year-old neighbor.
My young neighbors sometimes bring me presents, and very often bring youthful conversation.
My colleague-turned-friend, who also happens to be a neighbor, comes over and we sit like two grannies, sipping hot tea, speaking about the problems with the American education system, the need for community, these “kids of today”, or other dilemmas of the world that seem to be so fixable in those moments.
I read books with my four-year-old neighbor.
We all joke and laugh and live together.
I assure you, those are simply a few glimpses into my life here, and I could tell you story after story, for days and days, but the summary of all of those stories is: I am happy, loved, loving, and content. I would love for you to visit Brooklyn someday, to see this “stick-home” for yourself. Again, please send my love to Woodie and the nephews; I really miss watching all of their sports games! As usual, let me know about any signs of Ubuntu you encounter in your day-to-day. Stay well!
Love from my Brooklyn stick-home,