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The Loose & Lively Book Club

Lindsey Smallwood

I've always been a book nerd. It wasn't until recently I realized how many other people were too. I'm at Middle Places today on (re)Connecting with an ode to my first ever book club friends. 

A few years ago I was lonely. 

I found myself in a new marriage, a new house and a new job and I was struggling to find myself in all of my new contexts. I was lucky enough to have a fabulous mentor who I met for coffee a couple times a month. 

One afternoon over decaf lattes, after lamenting to Sharon how out of place I felt, how much I longed for the easy friendships of earlier seasons, she looked me square in the eye and said "What are you going to do about it?"

I was taken aback. It’s not like I hadn’t tried – at church, in my grad school seminars, over Hot Pockets in the teacher’s lounge – I’d made small talk and invitations to get together, but nothing seemed to stick. What else could I do about it?

“What do you mean?” I asked, knowing she knew the ways I’d be trying to connect, since this wasn’t the first time we’d had this conversation.

“You say you’re lonely, so get some people together. You’re in charge of your life.” Sharon replied, eyebrows raised in a way that let me know she was laying something important out there for me.

“How though, Sharon? Seriously, what people can I get together?” I asked, ready with my list of reasons why forming community in the Bay Area with other 20 and 30 somethings is nearly impossible.

“What’s your absolute favorite thing to do, Linds?” she asked gently, giving me space to think for a moment before I answered.

“Read.” I said dreamily. “I have a stack of library novels next to my bed and I can plow through 2 on a Saturday afternoon. But you can’t make friends reading books.”

Did you catch that last line? Yeah, Sharon did too.

“Oh honey,” she laughed. “Let me tell you about book club.”

It sounds so strange now to think that I’d never considered starting/joining/participating in a book club, what with my love of reading, people and membership in groups. I started turning the idea over, wondering if anyone else would be interested, if this could really be a thing.

I emailed everyone I knew, classmates from graduate school, girls I taught with, friends from church, neighbors, a couple of gals who I’d mentored through campus ministry. I picked a date and a time and a book – The Hunger Games – and bought wine and cheese and crossed my fingers.

A delightfully ecclectic group gathered for our first meeting. A social worker. A special ed teacher or three. A non-profit director. Grad students of various stripes. We were Christian and Buddist and Jewish and Atheist. Most of the women in the room didn’t know each other. But we knew Katniss Everdeen and her bravery and cunning. We knew Peeta and Gale and the 12 districts of Panem and that was enough to get the ball rolling.

The Loose & Lively Book Club was born.

That little community became one of my favorite parts of the month. It didn’t even matter if the book was good – we all hated The Paris Wife but the spread of French-themed food we found to tie into the book was amazing. We tried to be ambitious in our choices, sometimes overly so, like the time we attempted The New Jim Crow but no one actually read the book so we had to nod along when a friend of a friend dropped into the meeting because she was eager to talk about the principles of race relations discussed in the weighty tome.

We liked Where’d You Go, Bernadette? so much that we went to meet the author in San Fransisco. We read Gone Girl because it’s some kind of book club rule that everyone had to read it three years ago. We geeked out over all the local references to our fair Cities by the Bay in The Circle and Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour BookstoreThe Great Gatsby was picked solely for the purpose of having a reason to go watch Leonardo DiCaprio look sultry in the new movie together.

The week I lost my first pregnancy to miscarriage I went to book club anyway, crying into the pages of The Geography of Bliss and being thankful that even though bliss felt a long way off, these women and that space were a happy place for me.

Truth? I probably wouldn’t have picked this group of friends. But thanks to a nudge from Sharon and the uniting power of Katniss Everdeen I found a tribe among book lovers like me. And for three years until our recent cross country move, we kept reading together.

Book club, you guys, it’s my jam.

It’s my way of reconnecting with the 10 year old girl inside me that could read four Babysitter’s Club books in one sitting. And doing that while building new friendships and learning new things? Just rad.

So here’s to nudges and novels and unlikely friends. Here’s to trying something new and putting yourself out there. Here’s to community and good cheese and long nights spent in laughter.

Whether it’s reading or running or cooking creme brulee, here’s to finding your tribe.

 

PS: Lest you worry about me, I’ve joined two (!) book clubs since arriving in Colorado. Because obviously.

Useful & Delightful {Sasha Maples Johns}

Out of the OrdinaryLindsey Smallwood

Today I get to feature my sister on the blog. Not my actual sister, I don't have one of those - although I've got a sister-in-law who is pretty rad. No, this is one of my Middle Sisters, the women behind one of my favorite corners of the internet, Middle Places. Sasha Maples Johns is good-hearted and hilarious, a winning combo if ever there was one. She's southern in all the best ways and specializes in making beautiful jewelry and wine-flavored jelly. You read that right. Oh my yum. Get yourself over to True Vine Gifts and order some, but first, read this sweet story about her out-of-the-ordinary season with the women of Chattahoochie Unit of the Herb Society of America...

The year was 1999.  I was 25 years old, still technically a newlywed, living just outside of Atlanta, Georgia. A young professional, I loved my job and my co-workers and worked as many hours as needed. I didn't have kids yet, and outside of work, I really didn't have too many friends.

Somewhere along the way I began gardening, specifically growing herbs. I had several decorative flower pots all over the back patio of my tiny little apartment and they were full of culinary herbs. I did cook a little with them, but I mostly just loved all the different shades of green and the amazing smells they produced when I brushed my hands through them. 

It was still the “early days” of the internet. There was no social media to speak of, but I began to research how to take care of my herbs on the world wide web. I was looking for practical uses for these plants, when I ran across some information about a special gardening society that met at the Botanical Gardens once a month. The website said the society existed “for education in use and delight.

I cleared my schedule for the evening of the next meeting and showed up all by myself, not something I would have normally done. 

I loved the Chattahoochie Unit of the Herb Society of America right away, especially their food. Turns out every meeting was a pot luck of herbed delights from all of the member's gardens. I'd been to pot luck dinners all my life, but never one like this. The food was a blend of savory tastes different than I had grown up with back home. 

As I went back to meeting after meeting, I fell in love with more than their food. I loved those “herbie ladies.” Most of the women in the group were my seniors by at least 15 years or more. They worked as doctors, lawyers and other kinds of professionals. Most of them were fairly liberal in their ideas and their politics and many of them were also women of faith. I had no idea that was even possible. To be liberal and a believer was an oxymoron in the world of my fundamentalist upbringing. All of the women I knew back home in this age bracket were homemakers or teachers at the small Christian school. I loved the women that raised me and thought highly of them, although I hadn't darkened the door of our church in about 5 years. I left feeling stifled and held back by the Christian culture I was brought up in, bitter but still believing, longing to know what else was out there. The "herbie ladies" were a whole new tribe. They shattered my tiny little view of what a woman had to be. 

For more than 5 years, this group took me under their wing. They gave me an amazing storehouse of knowledge about gardening and cooking. I learned about wines and how to pair them with food, which herbs complimented which foods, and enough about gardening that I began teaching my own herb classes.

These women did more than just expand my domestic and speaking abilities. They challenged my world view. I was given a safe place to discuss and consider views other than those I'd grown up around. Being exposed to new ideas stretched me in ways I'd never imagined. This well rounded group of ladies showed me I could consider other philosophies and beliefs without having to accept or reject them. It was okay to just think on things. For the first time in my life, I could really enjoy the company and friendship of those that believed a different way than I did. 

Eventually, I became a mom. My season with the herbie ladies came to an end as my life began to go in a different direction. Thought I do stay in touch with several of them, sometimes I long for those get togethers with that unique group of women. My time in their tribe was a critical point in my life, and it was no coincidence that I was led their direction.

The website had been right - I'll always remember my time with the Chattahoochie Herb Society as both useful and delightful.

Sasha Johns is a wife, mom, artist, jelly maker, lover of the Magic City - Birmingham, Alabama - and isn't afraid to meet other Baptists in the liquor store. She is the Tuesday blogger for Middle Places and has her own blog where she fancies herself a food critic - but mostly of her own food. Find her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/TrueVineGifts.


Don't you love Sasha's story? What I wouldn't give for a savory buffet and a night out with wise women! Have you ever stumbled into a group hoping for one thing and discovered there was more there than you'd even imagined? Tell me (and Sasha!) more in the comments below.

Going First

Lindsey Smallwood

We moved to Boulder exactly 3 months and 2 days ago.  I knew when we got here that this season likely has an expiration date, due to the nature of my husband's job. Could be a few months, maybe a year or two, possibly longer - we just don't know yet, which is a story for another day.

But that was a hard truth that kept rattling around in my head while I was unpacking all those boxes. 

How long will my dishes get to sit on this shelf?

How long will my pictures get to hang on this wall?

How long will my heart get to feel at home here?

The temptation in times like this is to hunker down, to withdraw, to protect yourself. You know these seasons, like when you're moving on to a new job next month or when school is almost out. It's hard to put yourself out there, seems strange to try very hard, knowing that it'll be over soon.  

Investing in a community requires courage and effort and the possibility of failure.  It's hard work. But what's the alternative? Isolation? I know all too well that self protection only leads to loneliness and fear. 

Chris and I talked about this a lot in our early days here and decided that as much as it was possible, we wanted to go for it. We looked for any opportunity to create new relationships.

Mom's Playgroup? Check! 

Indian Color Festival in the Courtyard of our apartment? Why not? 

2 for 1 burrito night at Qdoba with our neighbors? Obviously!

You name it, we tried it.

In Berkeley, we didn't do a ton of entertaining because we lived in a tiny cottage and never felt like we had the room.  But our location has changed our perspective.  Even though our campus housing apartment is still pretty small, we've had dinner guests and playdates and even hosted a Valentine's Day pancake party.  

Because we're trying.  We're building.  We know we need to be known and loved so we're looking for ways to know and love everyone we meet.

Do we still miss our friends in Berkeley? You bet we do. 

And even though we've met some awesome people here and are in the process of growing new relationships, that takes time. Time to hear their stories and tell ours.  To share our real selves, to be known not for our introductory biographies, but for the flawed, messy, hopeful people we are.

So we're working on it.  

I read this great quote by Jennifer Dukes Lee yesterday:

Quote & image courtesy of  incourage.me

Quote & image courtesy of incourage.me

I love this! It's a succinct way to describe how to find community. 

Go first!  

Want to be in a book club? Start one!

Wish you would get invited out to coffee? Ask someone to join you!

Feel like you need someone to pray for you? Tell them!

It's better than feeling sorry for yourself at home.  It's even better than cloistering up with Mint Chip and your Netflix queue. I promise.  I've done that too.  

Like maybe yesterday.  

Because this whole thing is a process, finding your people, giving of yourself. And I'm so thankful in the midst of all of it for Jesus, the friend who never fails.

What about you? Is there a place where you need to go first? I'd love to hear about it.