It’s better outside

The Thinker by Rodin

I have a blessedly short commute to work, about three miles each way. The fastest way to work involves driving through a suburban, tree-lined neighborhood. This neighborhood is a lot like mine: single family homes with a third to half acre lawns, streets with sidewalks, trash collected on Tuesday and Fridays (I know because I am often dodging the trash truck), mailboxes on posts along the street, and lots of SUVs and minivans in the driveways.

I have been driving this route for years but only recently have I focused on a particular house I pass. It is peculiar in a way that should not be peculiar, but it is. Pretty much every time I pass it, in almost all sorts of weather except for rain or snow, there is at least one adult in a lawn chair parked in front of the garage. She looks like the mom of the house, and there are usually a couple of other neighbors in lawn chairs chatting with her as well.

If school is out, the kids are outside as well. They are mostly on bikes. The smaller ones are on Hot Wheels or pulling red wagons by their handles. Some are just running around the yard, sometimes with a dog in tow. Some are drawing on the sidewalks or driveway with colored chalk. The parents (usually mothers) sit in the lawn chairs, keep an eye on the kids (but not vigilantly), and chat while drinking coffee or iced tea. The kids, being outside and hollering, attract other kids. In fact, it appears that kids from blocks around are there, driven by the energy of other kids being outside.

Yes, this does happen, even in extreme weather. Northern Virginia gets more than its share of scorching hot summer days, with oppressive heat, humidity and bad air quality too. Those kinds of days drive me indoors. I get sweaty just thinking about being outside on days like that. It helps that this particular street is lined with tall trees that provide plenty of shade. Me? I have a porch that faces south and also looks out onto a street. The tree that used to anchor our front lawn was taken down this year, a victim of age. But even when it was in its lush prime, it wasn’t quite leafy enough to wholly block the sun and provide some measure of coolness under its canopy. This house, and most of the street, sits in the shade, which invites children to be outside comfortably.

To make a real kid-friendly neighborhood like this in the 21st century seems to require a mom, or maybe a bunch of them, plus a few neighborhood dads that I see from time to time, often with a can of beer. They seem to like being out there. And they are out there a lot. Mornings. Afternoons. Occasionally I will drive by in the evenings and I see kids and a parent or two out there. In fact, it seems like the mother of this particular house spends more time each day outdoors than she does indoors, and she is mostly parked in a lawn chair in front of her garage door.

In this environment, kids start playing with other kids who might otherwise be indoors on a Gameboy or zoning out on television. They start riding bikes relentlessly up and down the street, often in small gangs of four or six, getting plenty of natural exercise. Sometimes there is a lemonade stand, sometimes even in 2012 some are wearing roller skates, but they always wear helmets of some sort when they are on wheels. They all seem happy, healthy, whole and gloriously alive.

As for the adults, between their iced teas and cups of Starbucks or other brews they are laughing and chatting in the lawn chairs under the trees. They are interacting too, pretty much every day, weekends included. No doubt they are discussing their children and the issues of the day. Matters great and small are likely discussed, but if I had to guess more small than great. They are quite literally shooting the breeze. They are taking life as it comes, mostly outdoors. They are imbued in nature.

Nature can do that to you. It does it to me, at least when the weather is nice, like it has been this week. My doctor’s office is a short half-mile walk from my office, so there is no reason not to hoof it when I visit him. It takes no more than fifteen minutes to walk there, but the simple act of doing so usually perks me up. The view from my fifth story office window look out on trees and mountains, but it is not the same as simply being outside with nature. I don’t hear it. I don’t smell it. I don’t feel it. I just see it through a pane of thick glass.

Even when the weather is not optimal, there is something to be said about the value of being outside. When you are outside, nature fills your senses, whether you want it to or not. Most of the time, even in inclement weather, I find that being outside actually is preferable to being indoors, providing nature’s pests don’t use me as lunch. These days, if you still want the Internet, it’s not a problem. You take along your smartphone.

I’m wondering if that’s what the parents and kids in this neighborhood near Glade Drive in Reston, Virginia have also discovered. Life lived mostly outdoors can be a connected life: with nature, with neighbors, with children, with gardens, and with life. Perhaps we live so much of our lives indoors at our own peril, tuning out the world and seeing life through a filtered prison.

How would our lives be different if most of us spent most of our days outdoors? On a shady street off Glade Drive in Reston, Virginia the answer seems to be that life is a lot better.

Real Life 101, Lesson 14: The meaning of religion

The Thinker by Rodin

This is the fourteenth in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthda

America seems overrun by religion. It’s hard to traverse more than a couple blocks without running into a church, temple or other place of religious worship. Even those who are not particularly religious can feel the need to congregate in places that seem somewhat like a church or temple. For example, many states have ethical societies where, if you are not religious, you can still participate in a congregation of similar people. Your children can even get something akin to a religious education there.

Despite our abundance of places of worship, Americans are becoming more secular. Youth in particular are leading the trend, in part encouraged by their parents who often gave religion short shrift growing up. Others (like me) as children had religion crammed down their throats and had to break away from it as adults. Young adults these days are particularly irreligious. If they went to services growing up, it was generally because they were required to. Once independent, it seemed so unnecessary and kind of dorky. It felt much better to sleep in late on Sundays, assuming you were not rushing off to the Wal-Mart or the Target to put in an early morning shift.

Nonetheless, even if you thought you had enough religion to last a lifetime, in adulthood you may find yourself feeling a bit lost. You know you are missing something important in your life, but you are not sure what it is. Perhaps you are getting an early taste of your mortality as the drudgery of adulthood sinks in. Perhaps your circle of friends is a few classmates from high school and college plus some buddies at work. Perhaps you just read the news online and feel hopeless about how messy and discordant our world is and need to feel hopeful.

For myself, when I was in my thirties, despite having a wonderful wife and flourishing daughter, I felt somewhat hollow inside. I think at some point in life the feeling is universal and we tend to address it in various ways. If we did attend church or temple regularly growing up and we found it a worthwhile experience, it is easy and comfortable to pick up where we left off. Some Sunday you may find yourself back for a service with the same denomination. If you hit some major obstacles in your life, such as the premature loss of a parent or close friend, you may find out you need a religious congregation to help you sort things out. On the other hand, you could like me fall into one of these not very theistic but spiritual types and still feel the calling of religious community.

Here in America, we tend to associate religion with God, but that’s not necessarily what religion is about. Here’s dictionary.com’s definition of religion:

A set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

Notice that religion is principally about understanding the universe, not about memorizing Bible or Torah passages or salvation or being born again. Human beings are driven to ponder the imponderable, and since we are finite, it is in our nature to ask questions like, “Why are we here?” Through religion, you can discover myriad possible answers to these questions. Most religions are glad to assert they have the correct ideology. A few of them, like Buddhism and mine make no such claims.

If you investigate a religion, you will find one of two things to be true: either its teachings and values will resonate with you, or they will not. It may well be that, as I was taught, the Catholic Church is the only correct way to understand God and achieve salvation. It really doesn’t matter to me if this is true or not, because Catholicism does not resonate with me. So for me, it will never be my religion of choice and any proselytizing by the Church directed at me will be for naught. If that means I end up in hell, well, it’s in my nature, I guess.

Like it or not we are all on a spiritual path and each of our paths will be a bit different. Some people are on a very independent spiritual path. They feel no need for religion and seek guidance from within. However, the desire to make sense of the chaos that is life remains as much in them as with anyone. That is what drives most of us (at least here in the United States) toward religion.

Worship in some form goes back as far as we can trace humanity. It has evolved from worshiping a golden calf and sacrificing virgins to the volcano god. Today, we may choose to worship The Goddess. We may express worship as a pantheistic appreciation of our complex universe. The common thread is that people of similar spiritual values find a need to come together, express those values and ponder those values with other similar people. Many will find at a house of worship at least some balm for the angst that they carry in their souls. Those that do not may feel free to shop around until they find a religion and congregation that matches their spiritual needs.

I think another reason that is more primal exists for why we affiliate with houses of worship. Basically, we need a community. A real community. There is probably a thriving community where we work, but it is unlikely to resonate with our spiritual needs. Friends also provide community and may provide the spiritual sustenance that we need too. Growing up, most of us live in small nuclear families. Families are the foundation of our society, but as great as they are they are not the same thing as a genuine community. If you don’t have real community in your life, it is hard to forever ignore the call to acquire it.

Some weeks back I was reading about the Dark and Middle Ages in Europe. Community in that time had a much deeper meaning than it has today. It did not take a village to have community; it took a manor. A manor was essentially a large community house, hall, kitchen and mass bedroom, which were overseen by a lord and lady. You were born in or close to the manor and you died there. At night, particularly during the long dark season when light was scarce and not very luminous and cold killed, you bedded with all your fellow citizens in the safety of the manor hall, often sleeping cheek to cheek. You were intimately a part of a real community. Your survival depended on the success of the manor and how well all of you held up your part of your community’s covenant.

Most religions are selling or promoting salvation and/or some grand understanding of the universe, but what most are really doing is creating real communities. Unlike medieval manors where you largely stayed for life, today you can shop around for the manor/religious house of worship that feels most comfortable to you. In your house of worship, you will find similar people. You will find stories and guidance (sermons) and a spiritual leader usually trained in your theology (generally, a minister). You will have the chance to contribute to community life (such as teaching Sunday school). You will have opportunities to embrace a larger community, perhaps by providing food to the poor or by helping to run a homeless shelter. If you are doing it right, you will give and you will get. Everyone in the community should feel spiritually enriched.

Houses of worship are thus gateways for connecting with real people and the real world. They are also (or should be) places of safety and refuge. That’s why even today a house of worship is considered a sacred place. It’s why a church can shelter an illegal immigrant under its roof and know with some confidence that the immigration police will not storm the church. Houses of worship then are really refuges for the soul, places to heal from complicated problems, find strength in others, get guidance to life’s many problems, and a conduit for you (if you want) to stretch your humanity. It is difficult if not impossible to get this complete enfolding experience anywhere else.

There are certain denominations and houses of worship that may be more toxic to your soul than helpful to it. Most strive to emulate higher authorities, but all at their core are human institutions. In my mind, this is fine because I see the real purpose of houses of worship as building real community, not spreading salvation. You will often find giant egos and toxic people in churches and temples, as is true of anywhere else. Most houses of worship though strive very hard to be welcoming, spiritually uplifting and balms for restless souls. Like yours. Like mine. Like everyone who is a human being.

So if someday you feel the call of church or temple, understand that there is nothing wrong with you, that the call is entirely natural. You will probably grow as a human being by scratching that itch. I am glad that I did.

Covenanted

The Thinker by Rodin

When you live in cyberspace can you find real community? Does having with a network of friends online amount to the same thing as a network of friends in real life?

For the last few years I have been puzzling over these thoughts. I have been wondering if my family’s social life has become too virtual. I was arguably the first. Back in the mid 1980s my Commodore 64 was hardly warm before I had purchased a 300-baud modem and was discovering electronic bulletin board systems (BBSes). It quickly became my favorite hobby. At first I was online to download software. But gradually I found discussion boards. I found connecting with people online fascinating. Suddenly my community expanded beyond family, established friends and immediate neighbors into a much larger and diverse set of people, many of whom seemed far more interesting than the people I bumped into in real life.

Back then the Internet was virtually unknown and certainly not available to the average person. Its closest equivalent in the mid 1980s was an online service called Compuserve. Unable to afford a service I found instead lists of local electronic BBSes put together by a man named Mike Focke and started dialing. When I got an IBM compatible computer I graduated to the much larger world of IBM compatible BBSes. While chatting on line with other people from the Washington area I started to care about silly things like whether PCBoard software was better than Wildcat software. One nice thing about BBSes though was they were local. Most of us were too cheap to pay long distance charges to chat electronically with people. So after some initial shyness I got a chance to actually meet some of the people I met online. To this day I maintain a core set of friends from those days including Frank Pierce, Angela Smith and Jim Goldbloom.

But those BBS days are gone for good. The Internet arrived in the home. The location of people on the other end of a conversation became irrelevant. This was both good and bad. I missed those BBS get togethers we had every 3 to 6 months, usually with the online gang from The Back of the North Wind BBS. I still hung out online but it wasn’t quite the thrill it had been. The BBS world slowly died out and in 1999 even the venerable The Back of the North Wind BBS shut down after 12 years of nearly continual service.

For my wife the Internet was a way to connect with people of a very narrow interest that she would never have met otherwise. Around 1999 she jumped into the homoerotic fan fiction (Slash) universe big time. She has been happy in that community ever since. She considers her online friends just her friends. While a handful live locally most are distant. And yet we have met many of them. On our recent trip to Canada we visited one of her friends in every city we visited. She’s very tight with her online friends and her world is certainly richer as a result. And while she has shared intimacies with people who in some cases live as far away as Australia we don’t know most of our neighbors. We know some of them because our daughter went to school with their children. We know our next-door neighbor but not the one on the other side. Those neighbors I haven’t met might as well be on the other side of the world. They don’t seem interested in me and I haven’t sought them out either. We are unlikely to interact at anything more than a superficial level.

My daughter’s friends are mostly people she knows from school or through Girl Scouts. They meet in person from time to time but spend much more time interacting in cyberspace. In that sense she is a wholly modern ordinary teenager. Instant messaging is her primary means of communicating with friends. When she gets phone calls it is often from a friend explaining why they can’t get online. And yet even she has her virtual friends out there who will likely always remain anonymous.

I sometimes feel hypocritical and tempted to declare that this sort of online life is unnatural and wrong. Yet it is not without its allures and benefits. For me in the 1980s and 1990s it was a godsend. It gave me a sort of a social life without leaving home. We had something of a social life in those days but it involved around our daughter and her friends. Through her friends we met her friends’ parents and sometimes we found things in common. But they were rarely meaningful relationships. The reality of those times was that they were packed with parenting chores. The computer offered brief escapes into a world populated with adults. There I could talk about things I cared about like politics at my convenience. No one wanted me to read the The Very Hungry Caterpillar at all! And I could do all this without leaving home. It felt good. I felt optimized.

This new way of making and meeting friends and lovers may be the way it will be from now on. Yet something in me still yearns for the traditional sense of community that I have largely spurned. So this year when my local Unitarian Church once again made the appeal for people to join covenant groups I decided it was finally time to try it.

A covenant group is a group of people who agree to meet regularly to talk. I asked our minister to assign me to a random group. I was hoping I might get into a group with people around my own age. But it seems in our church that covenant groups are largely full of people age fifty plus. Perhaps most people my age are too busy with the childrearing chores to attend covenant group meetings.

Yesterday I attended my first meeting. I actually know most of the people in my covenant group. I know them in the sense that I recognize their faces from services. Some of them I know by name because I have talked to them a few times. But I have largely not really talked to any of them. A covenant group provided a structured way for me to get to know them as people.

This particular group has been around for a year or so, but there were a few vacancies. I and another lady filled the vacancies. We met in a room in the basement of the church for about an hour and a half. We introduced ourselves. Since I was new I gave them a short biography, both professional and personal. And I unloaded on my problems of the moment: my ailing mother and my wife’s imminent job loss. And I learned about some of their issues and struggles.

Every meeting has a discussion topic chosen by the group. Yesterday’s topic was how we got to where we are with our religious convictions. Being Unitarian Universalists a lot of us didn’t have religious convictions. I heard more than a couple in my group confess to being spiritually vacant and left-brain dominant. There were more than a few ex-Catholics like me in our circle too. I confessed that while I spent much of my adulthood as an agnostic it didn’t quite fit anymore. In that sense I felt more spiritual than many of the rest of them.

Despite being the youngest in my group it was still an enjoyable experience. We may all be white middle class people but we are a fairly eclectic and interesting bunch. Our group includes a physician, a man working for the State Department, the manager of a childcare center and a number of retired people.

So although I have a busy life I have covenanted to spend one night a month for a year with these people. I am there to get to know them at something beyond a surface level. In the process hopefully they will get to know more than a little something about me. I have heard of covenant groups that blossom into tightly knit friendship circles. Only time will tell if that will happen with our group. But everyone in my group seemed to be nice, decent yet complex people struggling through their lives and their issues. Perhaps in some small way we will find an old fashioned sense of community. Perhaps in time I will grow to find more of my friends in my community and fewer online.

Continue reading “Covenanted”

A Tribute to Robert E. Simon

The Thinker by Rodin

Sometimes giants do walk among us.

In 1984 I moved from Gaithersburg, Maryland to Reston, Virginia solely because I wanted to live in Reston. Earlier that year I had attended a science fiction convention in Reston. While the convention was not memorable, the time I spent in Reston was. Here was a planned community that was done right.

It was the architect Robert E. Simon who, at age 50, used the proceeds of the sale of Carnegie Hall in New York to buy what was then called the Sunset Hills Farm in Northern Virginia. He purchased 6,750 acres to create this unique planned community. This community he decided would be unlike anything done before. It would be a community that would be affordable to all income types. It would allow people to live close to where they worked. When housing was built the lots would not first be cleared of trees. Rather, housing would be built around the trees. Every resident would be within walking distance of a village center where they could buy the necessities of life. And neighborhoods would be connected to each other via trails that would wind their ways through the woods.

Beginning with the creation of Lake Anne Plaza in 1964 the community slowly blossomed. In the mid 1980s the rest of the world finally discovered Reston. Since then there has been no turning back. Reston has become a city with a cosmopolitan feel and a large, vibrant downtown. The Reston Town Center (what amounts to downtown Reston) is something of an oxymoron because there is no town called Reston. In fact there is no city called Reston. Reston is just a place in the middle of Fairfax County. It is wholly unincorporated. But there is an organization, the Reston Association, which ensures that Robert E. Simon’s vision for the town is maintained. The Association can be something of a pain to many residents but it has proven its value. Reston is now a very chic place to live. All those covenants and attention to detail have paid off in property values that are markedly higher than the areas around it. Although it was part of Simon’s vision to create a planned community affordable to all income ranges, I found in 1993 that I could no longer afford to live in Reston if I wanted to also live in a single-family house. Now I live in a nice neighborhood three miles down the road. But it is no Reston.

I miss Reston and I still feel it calling to me. Someday I hope I can go back and live there again. This nostalgic feeling returned this weekend when I (literally) got off my rear end and peddled up to Reston. I’ve been reacquainting myself with a bike lately. Last Thursday I biked to work. I’m finding biking is a convenient way to get the exercise I need. It is also beneficial to the environment. My employer, the U.S. Geological Survey sits at the southwest corner of Reston. It was one of the first employers of note to arrive in Reston. It sat largely by itself on a wooded campus when it opened in 1973. Now it is surrounded by high tech office buildings sporting a mixture of clean industries all very much in line with Simon’s vision for the community.

While I often pass through Reston on my way to somewhere else, and make regular trips to shop in Reston I haven’t really seen Reston in a long time. With my bike I am seeing and appreciating Reston anew. In doing so I feel both nostalgia and a deep hunger to live in Reston again. Yesterday I biked through an apartment complex where I used to live in the south side of Reston. I then biked down the trail that connected my old apartment building with the woods behind it. You can travel for miles on some of these trails and hardly see a house. Instead you feel the presence of nature all around you. I found it intoxicatingly delightful. It was hard to believe I used to take this for granted.

Today I felt more adventurous and biked all the way to Lake Anne Plaza where the community began. When I had first moved to Reston in 1984 my wife and I lived in an apartment complex across the street. We walked around Lake Anne many times. The community of Lake Anne has aged, but it is still a wonderful place. Townhouses, condos and a few single-family homes hug the shores of the lake. Ducks wander along the boat docks looking for handouts. A huge fountain perpetually blows water into the sky from the middle of the lake.

And there sitting on the bench by the dock is a bronze statue of Robert E. Simon. And as I sat there resting my keister on the bench who should amble on by past his own statue but Robert E. Simon himself. You see about ten years ago Bob Simon decided to spend his last years living in Reston. He walked by his statue without giving it a glance and invited a small group of friends waiting for him to join him in a pontoon boat tied to the dock. At age 90 he is stooped but walks around without a cane. He was relaxed and laughing as he piloted the boat out of the dock and into the lake.

This is not the first time I have seen Bob Simon in Reston. I have seen him a couple of times at the church I attend, the Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston. While I don’t believe he is a UU, he has attended forums we’ve put together on the Middle East. As best I can tell he sits there otherwise unrecognized by us inhabitants of his community. He lives nearby in the Heron House, a tall dozen story high condominium that overlooks Lake Anne. I am sure he is a fixture both in bronze and in person on Lake Anne.

I wish I visited Lake Anne more often. And I wish today I had the presence to go down and introduce myself to him. I would have liked to thank him for his vision. But also I would like to thank him for leading by example. I am sure Bob Simon is one very rich man, but he chose to spend his last years as an ordinary citizen, enjoying the fruits of his labor. Reston is not a perfect place. It has become more commercialized than I suspect he would have preferred. And it can be expensive to live there. But it is still very much an oasis for the human soul: a place where one can live in some reasonable harmony with nature and feels its presence all around you.

Thanks Bob.