A couple of days ago, I drove through Eastman on my way home.
Eastman sits at the center of a farming community, where children go to play ball, adults gather to re-create some childhood magic, and the Fourth of July finds reasons to celebrate in food stands, beer tents, parade and fireworks exploding in the nighttime sky.
The ballpark that sits along the highway at the south end of town was empty on this day.
Four bases sat silent, like vacant houses on a street. No one ran the paths. No one broke for home. Billboards lined the outfield fences, showing the support of the community, with no one there to read them. It left me with an empty feeling that lingered the remaining 15 miles home.
Two days later I sat in the same ballpark to watch my grandchildren play T-ball. My grandson galloped to first base after a lifting a hit off the tee. My granddaughter waved at us while rounding third base. Other children played in the infield dirt, oblivious to the happenings at home plate.
We sat next to a retired businessman, now a grandfather more interested in base hits than balance sheets. He asked, “What’s new with you, Eric?”
Where do I begin? I began with what’s old. Looking back comes into focus easier than trying to figure out what’s right in front of us. We shared histories of our families, reciting the location and occupation of our children and the activities of our grandchildren.
“The river flooding is causing economic hardship,” I said, offering a subject not new to springtime on the Mississippi River, but new in its unrelenting persistence. “Run, Jase, run!” I shouted to my grandson trying to find his way home from third with his arms moving faster than his feet.
This is community. The definition rises from conversations about our overlapping lives that happen in ballparks, grocery store aisles, on street corners or in post office lobbies. The definition has little to do with geography, highway population signs or street maps. It has nothing to do with boundaries – municipal or political.
Community cannot be measured solely by what we receive from this collection of humanity – although that is plentiful – rather by what we give.
And what we give cannot be measured in property taxes and utility bills. We measure community in human terms. The sacrifice of veterans, the contributions of service clubs, the generosity of churches and the collegiality of social conversation represent the currency of community.
The essence of community lives in the spaces between us and the generous spirit we offer to fill the void.
Astronauts have reported the view from space changed their perspective of humanity. “You see continents and countries without any political borders. It gives you the impression that we’re all in this thing called humanity together,” astronaut Scott Kelly said.
Perhaps the view from space represents an idealized perspective. In the same way we cannot see the bases in Eastman Ballpark from space, we fail to recognize the very real differences in culture and political perspective between countries and people from such a great distance.
So too, we fail to see the social fabric of society from space, knit together by relationships formed in both the rending force of adversity and the unifying bonds of community.
During the flood of 2018, people from towns across the area descended upon the community of Gays Mills, which sits upon the unruly Kickapoo River, to help. The “boundary” of Gays Mills grew by 30 miles that day.
People lined up in the Community Center, waiting for their assignments.
Food, clothing, shovels and other equipment filled the room, an arsenal of generosity assembled overnight to fight adversity. Along the river, volunteers worked beside flood victims torn between grief for their struggle and gratitude for their neighbor’s assistance.
Hardship exposes the fallacy of our independence. Rugged individualism might get you through the night. Community gets you through the days that follow.
Like an empty ballfield, the absence of community leaves a void in the heart. We fill the space with benevolence, taking our seats to bear witness and support our family, friends and neighbors. That community has no boundaries.
The sound of children playing on the field and chatter in the stands was intoxicating that day in Eastman.
I’ll remember that the next time driving through on a quiet day.