I've been appreciating Thomas Lynch's essays in The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade, working my way through slowly, usually one-essay-at-a-time before bed. His reflections resonate not just with recent news of deaths, but with my affection for Three Rivers, another Michigan small town not unlike Lynch's home of Milford.
This morning, a paragraph from "Mary and Wilbur" had so many synapses firing at once with recognition and connection, I had a hard time getting through it. It wasn't that I had a one-to-one correlation for Wilbur in mind, but that it captured such an aura of small town experience:
Wilbur Johnson knew everyone in town. It was his style. For seventy years he's worked in the produce section of the local market, proffering welcome to newcomers and old timers over heads of lettuce and ears of sweet corn. The market first owned by his father and then by his brother had changed hands a couple more times since Wilbur's youth. But Wilbur always went with the deal--an emblem of those times when people came away from the market with more than what they'd bought. Once known by Wilbur, you were known. Unafraid of growth and change, he thrived on the lives of those around him from children in shopping carts, their young mothers, husbands sent to market with a list, bag boys, and cashiers. His own life, perfectly settled--he never changed jobs or wives or churches or houses--gave him an appetite for changes in the lives of others. He kept an open ear for the names of newborns and newlyweds, news of setbacks and convalescences, the woeful monologues of the jilted, the divorced, the bereaved. He remembered the names of children, visiting in-laws, friends of friends. He had a good word for everyone and everyone knew him. Nowadays we call this "networking" and the store of information Wilbur kept on the lives of others, a "data base." But Wilbur called it "neighborly"--the attention we pay to each other and each other's lives.
I think of two young women who wandered in our shop just the other day who were surprised to find something of interest in such a small town, even though I would guess they were only from Kalamazoo--a small city of about 75,000. I asked them if they were just in Three Rivers just to hang out and they politely scoffed at the question: "There's not much to do here. We're just waiting for a friend to get off work." I wish I'd had a clever retort that would have opened their eyes to the unique wonder of rootedness in time and place, of readily accessible "wilderness," even of the endless possibility of empty storefronts. I wish I could have introduced them to one of our Wilburs, who might just have gone beyond simply charming them with his small town ways to giving them a sense of being known that perhaps they were missing in their pseudo-cosmopolitan lives.
Well. If we end up being rooted in a place, as I hope we will be, I have many more years ahead of me to cultivate such responses, such ways of being. Maybe I'll even become a kind of Wilbur myself. And in addition to personal application, Lynch also makes me reflect on how our work with *culture is not optional might not be so much "networking" as simple "neighborliness"--not so much a strategy for organizational success by some corporate definition, but day-to-day faithfulness in making connectios among the people with whose knowing we are entrusted.