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Community: Our Long Lost Friend

by John Bonica

A new friend dropped by just to say hello. We began to know each other beyond just a passing nod and a smile last October, in the wake of the latest outbreak of suicide in the Methow, at a meeting called by three concerned people.

The meeting notice attracted fourteen of us to a room at Aero Methow - the organizers and eleven bewildered attendees. As each person spoke the rest us listened, witnessing expressions of fear, sadness and confusion. Together we watched each speaker's face, quietly reaching across the room with common desire to understand, comfort and love.

I felt a powerful yearning in the room that night, for some large unspoken potential. This deep broad hope abided most clearly in the women present; they wept for it even as they struggled to identify it. Working through her tears, turning over words that might set it free among us, one woman finally named it: Community.

Thirty years ago, Community was able-bodied and active in the Methow Valley. The Community Center was thriving, as was the Senior Citizens Center, The Eagles, The Twisp Grange, the Methow Valley Citizens' Council, the Twisp United Methodist Church and the Winthrop United Methodist Church, The Glorieta School, the public school in Winthrop and the public school in Twisp, the Winthrop Barn Association, and the Mazama Community Hall. We needed all those roofs to house all the groups of people operating in the Methow Valley, all those organizations that gathered the dynamic and powerful forces of neighbors sharing interests, efforts and their lives.

Orchardists, ranchers and farmers had a place to speak their minds and neighbors who would listen. Young families found support for the harrowing and glorious adventure of raising children. People organized to protect the landscape of home against the commercial interests that would sacrifice that landscape - and the living it harbored - for money. Community theater thrived in front of applauding and appreciative crowds. The same place gave birth to the valley's independent schools, its volunteer fire crews, ambulance service, community kitchen, and art gallery.

That place was Community, so strong and vibrant it occupied physical space. So powerful and pervasive, it was carried as Love in the hearts of the Methow's men, women and children: Love and respect for, and commitment to, each other.

Winters were hard. Get stuck in a drift on the back road and, while night came on and you were digging yourself out, you hoped a neighbor would happen by to help. No cell phones, and no Triple-A. We were on our own, but we were surrounded by neighbors.

In the last twenty years, we seem to have reached a critical mass of population and net household worth that have made living here easier. The Methow has grown more sophisticated, upscale and diverse in its interests, and more specialized and separate in its expressions of community.

The Valley has experienced a powerful influx of two generations, people in their twenties and thirties. Look around and marvel at the thriving young families, the young artists exploring interior landscapes and creating brilliantly, the farmers producing bushels of dazzling foods at summer markets.

People are working diligently for themselves; there's ambition that won't be denied. But along with this energetic deliberate living there's a need for connection.

My new friend comes from a large extended family, big ranching family of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, children, nephews and nieces; lots of people loving each other, lending a hand. They're all in Montana, and my friend is here. He misses them.

Most of us left our families somewhere else. We came here pretty much alone, maybe with a partner. Maybe we have kids and maybe they are still at home, or maybe not. Still, we no longer have that extended family that loves and supports our lives, that broad warm network of help and understanding that - up until people started moving away from rural homeland into cities - we all enjoyed. In the last three or four generations, we have moved away and cut ourselves off from our tribes. Maybe that's why, sometimes, we feel so isolated and desperately alone that we despair and think about giving up.

We need Family. Here, we can have Community. The Methow Valley has always been fertile ground for fellowship of common attitudes, interests and goals for as long as I've been here and, I'm pretty sure, long before that. Community germinates here - it's in the soil. Maybe it's the responsibility of elders among us, those of us with the bulk of our work behind us, to reach out to our neighbors, to invite a coming-together. And maybe it's the responsibility of younger people, busy building their lives, to be grateful for the invitation, lay down their tools, and join us for dinner.

The Methow is often seen as a hide-out where city escapees want to land. But the Valley now may hold our best chance to build the kind of Community that we, and the rest of the world, need: a place where we enrich each other's lives with the love, understanding and support of neighbors.

Let us rely on each other, and ask for help. And then let us help. We need each other, perhaps now more than ever.

January 15th, 2009