Community is sweat. It beads on the brow and drips down the back. Under the raging sun we labor, helping our friends load their truck. They’re moving today.
Muscles tense and release. Grab the box from the previous person in the line. Pass it on to the next person. Our line snakes from the apartment, down the stairs, out into the back lawn, and to the truck. All of our friends’ belongings make their way down. Nothing gets forgotten.
Conversations ebb and flow. Some boxes don’t weigh much, and we exchange jokes. “The label on this one says, ‘Don’t read this label.’ They must have had fun writing these.” “Oh, and do you know what’s the definition of a good farmer?” Other boxes weigh more than seems reasonable for their size. There’s no room for casual conversation. We can’t spare the effort.
Labor stops and starts. Those loading the truck ask us to pause so they can catch up. We put down the boxes and grab a drink of water. But soon the cry goes up, “More boxes, please.” On we go.
Breathing quickens to a pant – as if to make up for the non-existent breeze. The sky is clear and cloudless. Sweat falls like rain.
beneath heavy loads
muscles pushed to a breaking
we become stronger
those bonds grow even tighter
we are a community
We think we want a comfortable and easy life, but that’s not what makes us happy. Work – hard work – pushes us to grow. It makes us feel helpful and valuable. And we love to feel helpful.
Hard work also brings us together. Working side by side toward a common achievement aligns our interests. We put aside differences and focus on what needs to be done. The challenge of the work reminds us how dependent we are on others. We need community.
Our train was scheduled to arrive well before midnight, but that’s not when we got there. We stopped for a signal failure on the tracks ahead. We stopped to wait for a freight train to pass. We stopped to get a new crew – engineers, conductors, and all. We stopped for another freight train. It was nearly 1:30 by the time the train neared our final destination.
And we stopped again.
Yet inside the train, not all was still and motionless. People who’d been sitting within three feet of each other and hadn’t said a word, begin chatting.
“They’re not normally this bad,” says one woman who had ridden the line many times before.
“Yeah, but I’ve got a two hour drive after this,” another guy mentions.
“Ouch. Where to?”
He gives the location.
“Oh? I lived there for ten years. I love that town…”
When the train pulled into the station – two and a half hours behind schedule – we bid farewell with sleepy eyes. We probably wouldn’t ever see each other again. But in that moment of shared frustration we became more open than we would have been otherwise.
trains race in straight lines
its connection to a place
lasts just a second
life moves like a snaking vine
tying us all together
We often avoid difficulty and hardship. But shared pain brings us together. It forces us outside of our predictable and comfortable boxes – the busy schedules that leave no room for uncertainty, the orderly ceremonies that offer no space for depth, and the expectations that prevent us from running through the rain .
Struggle is where life is. It’s the territory where friendships are forged and connections strengthen. It’s raw and real.
My wife and I don’t know too much of her story. We’re not sure if she’s homeless or just prefers to hang out on that corner. We’re not sure if she has any family nearby. But regardless of her circumstances, we often stop and say hello.
Today, as I pass her usual spot by the train station, she motions me to come over.
I can smell the smoke and sweat on her clothes, but I approach anyways. She reaches out her hand for a handshake. Yet when I extend my hand to return the gesture, she wraps me in a big hug instead.
I was tempted to pull back, to push away the discomfort. But I’m glad I didn’t. I would have missed the opportunity for connection.
She’s not so different, really. She wants love. She wants to matter.
clear out all the dirt
make sure everything is clean
so white and spotless
but where will the flowers grow
where will the love blossom
We try to avoid people who are poor, insignificant, or off-putting. It’s as if associating with them will lower us from our pure and clean state. In doing so we miss the chance to serve, to be a blessing.
But more than that, we miss the opportunity to receive. These men and women have much to teach us, much to give us.
In many of photos of Mother Teresa, you can see the effect of leaning into that chaos. A smile of joy and contentment lights up her face. When listening to my grandfather, you could hear his love for the people he served. He took such pleasure in being a part of their lives.
They gave, and when they had nothing left to give, they gave some more. And in giving, they gained everything. They gained life.
So can we.
A few hours later, the moving truck is full, and our friends are ready to depart. We wish them blessings and safe travels. Prayers are spoken. Hugs are given. We wave goodbye.
Back at our apartment, I lay down on the couch, exhausted. I have nothing left to give to the day. But I couldn’t be more content.
PS: I had the honor of contributing to my friend Joy’s collaborative project on peace. Check it out.
PHOTO: Working together in the dirt.