Community is where you find it.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu cites the South African concept of communal unity, in his native language, “Ubuntu,” explaining, “We are made people through other people.”
That we, as a species, are hard-wired to seek each other out, the comfort of strangers, the delight of new acquaintances, seems self-evident to this old reporter. But maybe to the student of journalism, this is a novel concept.
“Community is a verb,” advises David Woronoff, the wise publisher of the Pilot of Southern Pines, N.C. — meaning that finding, establishing, nurturing community is something you DO. It’s not a passive thing, he insists, but rather an active verb.
Breakfast at the Blue Benn Diner
We are passing through little Bennington, Vt., pop 15,000, on our way to a two-week retreat from North Carolina’s big heat to Booth Bay Harbor, Maine. We ask our innkeeper: the best place in town for a bite? The Blue Benn, comes the quick reply. And with good reason.
An independent, family-owned and run honest-to-God diner. Tiny, cramped, funky and just plain wonderful — no wonder the Blue Benn is a community institution — what sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls “A Great Good Place.” The antithesis of McDonalds.
“Morning, Willard!” calls out Laurie, the middle-aged waitress, to the cane-toting customer hobbling through the front door, obviously a regular.
“Morning, Laurie!” responds the gent, taking his place at a well-worn counter stool with an audible sigh.
Yes, if this exchange smacks of “Cheers,” then you have it right. Everybody DOES know your name at the Blue Benn. And even as rank strangers, just folks passing through town, we are quickly assimilated — my Carolina T-shirt prompting a friendly query from customer, resulting in a companionable conversation with a new-found friend.
The Bennington Banner
Out front of the Blue Benn, a teal-colored newspaper box dispenses the local community newspaper, the kind that warms the cockles of my heart: an independently owned, feisty, (with a newsroom located right on the heart of main street), 42-page daily crammed with local content — what CBS legend Charles Kuralt called “Relentlessly Local” coverage.
Over a heaping New England breakfast, we spend 30 minutes totally engrossed in these pages – reading about new teachers at the schools, the opening of the garlic and herb festival, the local high school valedictorian going off to college, an antique car parade, and a scathing take-no-prisoners editorial taking Trump to task for his tweets and lies.
And here’s the clincher: we don’t know a single soul in town.
Why can’t Chapel Hill-Carrboro have a paper like this, the wife asks.
I sigh heavily. Why not indeed.
The Cello Player
As we are settling up our bill, in the diner walks a middle-aged woman toting a cello on her back.
Wow, I stop her in her tracks. I want to take cello lessons, I say.
Putting down the case, she opens it proudly to reveal her 150-year-old French cello, like a mother pulling aside a blanket to showcase a beautiful baby.
And there we are: two rank strangers/now friends gabbing conversationally about cellos like we’ve known each other for years! I ask her for advice about taking lessons and she hands me her card amiably. Been playing cello for the Vermont Symphony for 40 years. Maybe she can help.
We leave Bennington’s little Blue Benn Diner, paper in hand, stomachs filled and souls satisfied, Bishop Tutu’s words ringing in my ears. We are made whole people by our relationships with other people.
Community is where you find it.