1999 was a rough year for us. We had just left a church we loved and sadly, when we did, we lost several close friends plus our spiritual family. There were others who had left at the same time, but we were all scattered to the different corners of our big metro area and rarely saw each other. We started attending a small church...and when I say small, I mean "20 to 30 people on a Sunday morning" small. The people were as sweet as could be but there were only 3 or 4 other families and again, we were scattered everywhere and initially, I one of only two stay-at-home moms. I enjoyed seeing the folks, but when you're only seeing each other a few times a month and usually just during 2 hours on a Sunday morning, you just don't get much intimate fellowship.
Added to that was the fact that we had a newborn baby. That brought our family to 4 children ages 5 and under. Yep...a 5 year old, a 3 year old, a 1 year old, and a brand new one. I was thoroughly overwhelmed. Other than keep food on the table, clean diapers on baby behinds, mostly clean clothes on the rest of us, and lipstick on my lips (and occasionally on hubby's), I couldn't handle much of anything else. Our proverbial plate was more than full...it's sides were overflowing.
I just didn't have the time or energy to reach out and try to build new relationships. Plus we were still hurting over leaving our church and the broken friendships that resulted.
Did I say it was hard?
Yeah...I thought so. Hard and lonely. And it was fixing to get even lonelier for me.
For a while we'd been dreaming about moving out into the country. We wanted land that our kids could roam free about, where we could have a horse and a few other critters, and we were desperately running out of room in our house. Our little 3 bedroom 1950's bungalow had seemed spacious when it was just the hubby, me, and a couple of little ones. But FOUR kids and their parents were getting tight and who knew then how many more kids God might have in store.
One day God led us to a lovely home for sale way out in the sticks. It was within our price range and with 5 bedrooms and a few more hundred square feet of space, it more than met our needs.
We moved out in the spring and immediately were hit with culture shock and a HUGE shot of loneliness.
See, when we lived in the city, we were literally within walking distance of the library, an ice cream shop, a pharmacy and discount store, our kids' "mommy's morning out" program, a restaurant, a gas station, plus our neighbors. And if what we wanted or needed wasn't within walking distance, we could easily hop in the mini-van and be just about wherever in 1o minutes or less.
Not so where we moved. Yes, it was peaceful. Yes, it was safe. Yes, it was beautiful and spacious and great for the kids and....
....and it was far, far, far away. Okay...so maybe mileage wise it was only about 20 miles away. But it felt like a whole 'nuther world. Our church was now a 45 minute drive for us. The closest grocery store of a good size was 20 minutes away...as was the library and the discount store and on and on and on. Even the little town with a few amenities was still a 15 minute drive. I had to learn a whole new way of planning things. No longer could I just have hubby run out to the store at the last minute if I was missing an ingredient. No longer could the kids just walk next door to play with their friends.
This was an issue that though looking back on it now doesn't seem that big of a deal, back then felt like a HUGE thing to get used to.
But the hardest element of our new life was the increased loneliness.
I'm a people person. Saying that my friends are my treasure is more than just a pithy fridge magnet saying for me. It's the literal truth.
And I found myself in less than 6 months going from having scores of friends and mommy pals that I saw on a regular basis to almost having none. NONE. In fact, now that I more closely reflect, I didn't even have ONE. I had a couple of friends from our old church that I'd talk to on the phone every now and again plus get together with once a month or so, but that was IT! Yes, I saw that small handful of women on Sunday mornings at our new church. But I'd not yet built any true friendships there went outside of church functions.
I was hurting. I'd meet women in our new community and I'd hope they'd want to be my friend, but to be brutally candid, they didn't want me. Oh, they were nice and all. And it wasn't ME personally that they didn't want. But they didn't want my friendship. They didn't need it. Our rural area is mostly comprised of folks who have lived here their whole lives or have married into families that have been here for generations. Most of the women around here are still best friends with their best friends from their growing up years or they're best friends with their sisters, cousins, in-laws, and moms. They do family get-togethers on weekends, they shop with their sisters, they invite their nieces and nephews over for playdates, they go to church with each other, and their lives are full to overflowing with relationships. They didn't need this outsider.
Again, don't get me wrong, they were very nice and helpful and all those Southern attributes that we're raised to possess here in Mississippi.
But they didn't need new friends and they didn't need me...even though I desperately needed them.
So, I decided that friendships in our community were just probably not going to happen. And I also wasn't going to have a friendship just appear on my doorstep one day all nice and wrapped up with curly ribbons.
I was going to have to get out there and find my own friendships.
It didn't happen easily or quickly.
Once the new school year started, I took our kids to the first meeting of the local homeschool group. It was a small group and even though I didn't find a kindred spirit right away, at least every Friday I'd have a group of moms I could chat with.
After a few months, a homeschool mom started coming to some of our functions and I made the effort to spend time with her and a friendship started. She had kids my kids' ages and she was from another state. She needed me and I needed her.
But still, this was one new friend and with my past and my personality, I'm used to and am most happiest when I have a large community of friends.
About 9 months after moving out to the boonies, my husband bought us our first home computer. Right away I visited the online support forum for our homeschool curriculum, FIVE IN A ROW. I immediately was welcomed in by this loving, funny, smart, committed bunch of homeschool moms...and a few dads. Quickly they became an online lifeline for me. We swapped recipes, sent each other used books, shared insight on teaching kids to read, gave advice on potty training, laughed at silly happenings, and prayed for each other. Over the years I attended two FIVE IN A ROW conferences, met up with other "rowers" on family vacations, started a local co-op for area "rowers", invited forum members to visit us on our farm, and even had 3 "rowers" present for the birth of one of my babies. We formed smaller e-loop groups and these offered even greater intimacy. We rejoiced with each other when our children read their first books, when our babies slept through the night, when our marriages were healed, when our homes sold, when we published articles, and when God called us into exciting new adventures. And we cried when marriages failed, miscarriages occurred, prodigals left home, and spouses passed away.
I consider these women true friends and the forum, though it's not a location that I can visit in real life, a real place filled with real family members. It's my community. I have a birthday card from a Louisiana mom above my computer and a photo of my California friend's family up not too far from it. A quote hangs beside my clock that my soon-to-be-a-missionary friend sent me when my step-dad died. The book I'm reading right now was mailed to me a few days ago by another "rowing" pal.
Nine years ago, those online friends were my life raft in a giant, isolated, sad sea. They sustained me as bit by bit over the years I rebuilt my circle of friends here in our area. I hesitate to say that I rebuilt my "in real life" circle of friends because that implies that my Five in a Row board friends are not part of my real life, but they are. They are just as real to me as the book-loving moms in my homeschool group or the people we minister alongside at the inner-city ministries.
Yeah, I rarely get to spend facetime with any of them....except at facebook (*wink*). Most of them I will never even meet. But they are real friends and part of a real community. A community of moms who filled a jagged,gaping hole at a frightfully, hard time and for that, I will always be very, very thankful.
I've recently become a part of a new online community, one with a different objective. A month or so ago, Deb Gangemi contacted me through facebook. For years now, Children's HopeChest has connected churches with carepoints in Swaziland, Africa to line up sponsorships of children who are in desperate need of education, food, medical care, and Bible teaching. But recently a dire need had arisen and there wasn't a church available to sponsor scores of needy precious ones. Through some divine leadings and meetings, God gave Deb the plan to start an online community that would band together to provide for the children of Beveni Carepoint in S.E. Swaziland. It still is in the planning stages in many areas and the majority of children are still needing sponsors, but it's been exciting to see what God has already accomplished and the people He is knitting together.
I don't know how tight this group will one day grow to be, but already we're seeing Christians act as the true church in fulfilling God's commandment to care for the "least of these" through this facebook based group. And though I don't know the specifics of where it will all lead, I know from my experience with the Five in a Row family that God can and does do mighty things within community...even online ones.
If you are interested in learning more about the Beveni carepoint and sponsorship opportunities, email Deb Gangemi at firstname.lastname@example.org .
BTW, this blog post is part of a synchro-blog network. To read other blog posts participating in the discussion of online community, check out these websites:
Jeff Goins is putting a positive spin on the answer to the question, Can online community exist? - http://jeffgoins.myadventures.org/?filename=can-online-community-exist
Jeff Campbell is pondering the Limitations of online community - http://jeffsdeepthoughts.wordpress.com/2009/01/07/community-2/
Paul Vasilko shares about A surprise in his inbox - http://paulvasilko.wordpress.com/2009/01/06/techonology-synchro-blog/