Friday, July 2, 2010

Country Girl in a City Meeting

I missed Meeting again this week. My husband only has every fourth Sunday off so we have limited opportunity. This week we thought we'd go to the urban meeting because my youngest has wanted to go to "his school". We don't have a First Day School at our Meeting so the kids like to visit the city where there are so many other kids. On their website they indicated that their summer hours are different than their ordinary hours. Since it is not summer yet, I thought we'd arrive there quite a bit early. We were twenty minutes late. I have a personal policy that I do NOT walk into any meeting for worship or church service late. Oh well, it was probably for the best. I don't really belong there.

The Meeting is a liberal Meeting in an urban setting about an hour's drive from our house. Although we've attended on and off for two or three years, I can't seem to get comfortable. In fact, I feel like a foreigner in their midst (much as I do amongst other bloggers). When they speak, they speak of events and assumptions with which I cannot identify. Their metaphors and illustrations are all about large crowds of people, about pavement, tall buildings and busy schedules. They are urbane and I am provincial. They speak of organic food co-ops and of flowers struggling through cracks in the sidewalk. I live a short walk from the nearest farm amidst a riot of flowers, grasses, and trees against which our sidewalks struggle to survive. Theirs is a world of street traffic and fancy restaurants, of parks and shops and traffic- and mine is a world of vineyards and orchards, of greasy spoons and tractors.

The meeting is full of professional women and men who speak casually of things that I know cost more money than I earn in a year. Most significantly to me, they do not seem to realize that their meetings, their retreats, their conferences, and their vacations are not accessible for most people on earth. Why should they know? We're as mysterious to them as they are to us. Their city is a very isolated urban area in the midst of vast stretches of rural landscape. While there is much reason for those of us in the country to travel to the city, there is little reason for them to venture far afield. No one comes to my village. They pass through it. "You live where? Oh, yes, I think I drove through there once!"

Funny that there should be so much difference between their home and mine. Travel for any more than half an hour in any direction from the city, and you're in the countryside where we don't have therapists, gurus, yoga instructors, and chemical sensitivities. We have family doctors, schoolteachers, exercise videos, and headaches. Life moves at a different pace. Don't get me wrong. We are just as busy but the business has a different flavor. There's no rush hour traffic where I live and we don't have quite so many sirens. We have a noon whistle and the church bells play hymns for the entire village to hear.

You'd think that such differences wouldn't matter. It isn't as though I'm a complete hick. I have lived in cities and I have plenty of friendships with folks from all walks of life. So why do I feel so insecure and off when I attend that urban Meeting? After Meeting for Worship, my husband and children go off to enjoy the hospitality hour. I wander off on my own and look at the brochures and booklets. Sometimes I make a show of speaking happily to my children or husband so that people can see that I am not completely sour and unsociable. I make an art of moving between my family, the front hall and the cloak room in a manner calculated to appear to look purposeful although its only true purpose is avoiding conversation with anyone.

I'm terrible at small talk. Awful. I have no interest in discussing nothing in particular--but one can't launch into deep conversations with strangers unless one knows the rules. "Hello. Nice day isn't it? I wonder if Mary Magdalene and Jesus had a sexual relationship?" or "Thank you for your message in meeting today. What do you think about process philosophy? Postmodernism? Semiotics? Star Trek?" Right. People who are good at talking to other people about the everyday things of life and who know how to laugh and share a few words over coffee cake don't realize what a gift that is. I might as well be walking around with a name tag that reads, "Tedious Insufferable Nerd."

I can hear that the city folks share so many of my values, my politics, and my beliefs but for some reason when I am amongst them, I find myself craving home and the people who live there. I think part of the problem is that I don't know the rules of city small talk. (You city folk may not think you have rules but you do!) I overhear the conversations and am just baffled. What are they talking about? I may as well be in a foreign land. They mention streets and projects and committees and events with which I am completely unfamiliar. And I just feel lost.

I think of Dad's country churches peopled by elderly ladies with snowy heads of tight curls and big red-faced, jovial men who clap each other on the shoulder with work-roughened hand. "Well, how the hell have you been!" I think of green bean casseroles eaten in slightly musty church basements with folks who wear "slacks" and sit on "davenports" and whose families have lived in those villages for "pritti-near ta two hunnert years." I know how to behave with these people. I know to speak fondly of my grandparents and assure folks that they are doing well. I know to laugh with the ladies about how loud the little boys are and how there is always laundry. I know to mention the weather and how beautiful it is but shouldn't we have a bit more rain? And yes the kids are growing fast and no, it doesn't seem as if we need another traffic light in town. I know to talk about the festivals and the road work and the colors of the leaves this fall and whether or not I think the snow is any deeper this year or if the raspberries ripened early.

One would think I'd feel more at home talking to people who share my beliefs, politics, and educational background as so many people in the city do. Don't get me wrong, I have enjoyed great conversations both online and in person with "city folks." The deep conversations, the academic, intellectual, and passionate conversations are almost always with you folks from more urbane settings and/or with folks like me who are country-bred but university-influenced. And I do get lonesome here in the country. No one wants to hear me talk about process philosophy and feminism here in the country any more than they do in the city. In fact, I'm pretty much a puzzle to the folks around here. They are kind to me, but they laugh at me too. That's OK. At least here I'm home. I'd rather be an ugly duckling here in the country than a swan anywhere else.


Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Are you sure no one wants to hear you speak of process theology or of Star Trek? I know I'd love to talk about those things with you. (Well, more Star Trek than process theology, I admit. I'm smart, but my intellect and my religious instincts are not wired for comfortable use in tandem.)

My experience has been that a lot of Quakers are socially awkward when it comes to making conversation with people they don't know well. It takes some daring on both sides... and a little willingness to talk about stuff you don't care deeply about long enough to sense who in the fellowship room may be a closet Star Trek (or process theology) fan after all.

Yeah, it's pretty agonizingly difficult to approach someone to thank them for their message in meeting, or to ask questions about the First Day School, or who is in charge of fellowship and my what a nice cup of tea this is. (Reading over my sentences, I can see that this could seem sarcastic, but I'm sincere; I also find these kinds of conversation difficult, PARTICULARLY after worship.) But after a few stiff and difficult interactions, you might observe a Friend or two who seems more approachable than another. Or be able to start up a conversation on how difficult it is to start a conversation as a newcomer to a meeting... or on how you never know what to talk about, when your instinct is to talk about Star Trek and process theology.

If you are willing to risk being real, you will find others who will risk it with you.

And as for the urban/rural divide? Listen to where the words come from in messages; look with the eyes and hear with the ears of Spirit in fellowship. We have so much more in common with another than we let ourselves know, and God is all the time insisting that we do let ourselves know, and let ourselves be gathered.

It is a hard job, but it is worth doing. Seriously; I speak from the experience of wrestling my own demons of alienation.

We belong to one another. I believe.

Lone Star Ma said...

Come to Texas(:

But seriously, I think Cat's right - not that I'm often brave enough to do it.

Hystery said...

Of course Cat is right. She usually is. :-)

I think I will not come to Texas. I'm not only a country girl but a New Yorker. You know, they warn us away from Texas from the cradle. LOL

Mary Ellen said...

I find Cat's advice good even for me - several decades into my relationship with my meeting, I sometimes feel at a loss in how to transition from worship to socializing. I, too, have done the so-busy bustle when I felt at a loss at beginning a conversation. Other times come more easily - especially when I have a role to play, representing a committee, conducting some fragment of Meeting business. Could you find some committee to connect to, even as an occasional worshiper? That's where people in my Meeting make real connections, as we're just too dang big, in some ways.

Hystery said...

For God so loved the world that he didn't send a committee...

I don't really see myself as a committee type of person. That generally goes very badly for me.

But it doesn't really matter. I was really just talking about how difficult it is for me to visit an urban meeting. I was kind of hinting at social class and cultural concerns here, but I guess that got lost in the face of my overwhelming mental aberration. :-)

Daniel Wilcox said...

Dear Hystery,

I love that last line. I should have seen it coming. Good comparison/contrast between the country and the city.

Being of the corny sort, I was tempted to start this off with "Dear Sparrow/Dove; pigeon/seagull; vulture, eagle";-)

I grew up in a village of 350 people in Nebraska, then later lived in Orange County--all 3 million of us; moved to Pennsylvania and lived for a summer on an island, where I forded the creek every morning to go to work in a small town, but took the bus and El on a long ride into Philly once a month for Friends meeting or/and for rock concerts; worked on a ranch where I could see for 50 miles...repeat country/city, repeat...

When I was young, I loved living in the country; now that I am elderlying along, I find mostly I like mid-sized city life, though my wife and I need to get out to the Redwoods or the mountains every few weeks.

And you say, "It isn't as though I'm a complete hick."

But maybe a complete hicksite;-) LOL


Hystery said...

Thanks, Daniel. You know of what I speak. There's just something about a country church and a country village that can't be replicated in a city. Not to say that there's anything ideal about the country. The country has its own viciousness, doesn't it?

Tom Smith said...

As usual, Hystery, you "speak my mind" on many things. I appreciate your comments. Cat also "speaks to my condition." See how easy it is to get caught up in jargon even though the meaning behind the words is very sincere.

Coming from a "country" meeting that seemed much too isolated by familiarity to a "city" meeting that seems too insulated by sociability, I still feel out of place. I still prefer one-on-one discussions of meaningful ideas. As an INTJ I never feel so alone as in a large crowd and never feel as sociable in a one-on-one conversation.

Priscilla said...

I love the Star Trek next to semiotics. Now that's my kind of blogger! Keep writing--wherever you reside. :-)

fdmillar said...

Dear Hystery: I know what you mean. While attending Iowa YM this summer, at one breakfast the men talked for an hour about tractors they had known. It all seemed perfectly natural and the details were important. Which model, which year, how old was he then? In my down East days it would have been fishing boats. Our Montreal meeting is big-city but small enough that personal stories and searching questions are very much part of our fellowship. Maybe we are lucky?

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