The Bookends of Community

The Bookends of Community

Author: Elizabeth Barrette
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #157

Endings and beginnings are like bookends: they mark where things start and stop, and thereby hold together everything that lies between them. By making a clear demarcation of these points, we strengthen the boundaries so that things don’t just dribble off into nowhere, like books tumbling off the open end of a shelf. These boundaries then give structure to our individual lives and to the communities we create.

What To Mark

The first consideration is what to mark. Not everyone cares about the same kinds of events. So different people choose different ones as significant. The type of beginnings and endings you recognize will affect the shape of your personal life and the mood of your community.

For example, some people easily start loads of new projects, but rarely finish them—like always reading a bunch of books at the same time. There wouldn’t be much point to recognizing the beginnings, except for truly momentous ones. What they need to recognize is the ending, because this encourages progress toward the finished product. Conversely, some people have a hard time getting started—they’re readily daunted by a blank page—but they complete almost everything once they do get started. So they need support at the front end.

Most people also like to celebrate life passages such as marriage, childbirth, divorce, and death. These may be beginnings or endings, but often include aspects of both. Then there are important aspects of life that often don’t get celebrated—reaching puberty, buying a house, entering or leaving a job, retiring, etc. Community can provide social support for those occasions, too, if you want it to do so.

In community, the things you recognize collectively in some way gain importance from that recognition. Make sure that what you choose to recognize aligns with ideals you uphold or goals you desire to achieve. These choices help distinguish different communities from each other, making it easier for seekers to find the right place to settle. Many communities mark the beginning and end of major construction projects, when someone joins or leaves the community, the turning of the year, and so forth.

Then there are more distinctive choices. A community interested in activism might open and close support for causes such as a proposed law or a social project. An ecovillage might recognize planting a tree, breaking ground for a new garden, undertaking or completing study of a green building technique, or finishing a compost pile that’s ready to be spread. A community focused on health might honor someone for going vegetarian or completing their marathon training, and celebrate the establishment of a new hiking trail or the ceremonial disposal of a distracting television set.

All of this makes a good topic for a community meeting. Get together and talk about your favorite bookends. What beginnings and endings have you celebrated in your personal lives? What events does your current community customarily mark? What things have you seen other people celebrating? What marks have you missed, that you would like to celebrate? What is your community known for? What are some of your major themes and goals? Jot down ideas and see if any of that suggests bookends that you might want to acknowledge in the future.

How To Mark It

To mark beginnings and endings, you need an application of time and attention. This can be something relatively simple, or more elaborate, as you prefer. Consider the nature of the event at hand; small things require less acknowledgment than big things. Events that repeat or progress may benefit from a minor mark after each phase, and a major one at the ultimate conclusion. Events that happen only once deserve a bigger celebration.

Compare different forms of recognition. A logbook is a great method for things that involve a bunch of people over time: marking the beginning and end of visits, miles clocked on a jogging trail, fruits or vegetables currently in season. These help us mark the passing of time as well as specific accomplishments or opportunities. Public acclaim, such as an announcement with applause, is a good component for service done or goals met. This is especially apt if what the person did benefits the community. Awards, plaques, ribbons, etc. are well known as end markers; but there are also “participant” badges or tokens given at the start of projects, which help foster a collective identity and investment in the process. For ongoing projects, you may want a progress meter with clear start and end points. A communal feast, game, or other festive activity gives a sense of release and reward, encouraging people to relax after their hard work.

Think about how many people you want to involve. Very personal, private matters should be handled in a low-key way with no more than a few people. Personal but public things draw in a substantial number of friends and family members. Topics of interest to a subset of your community will attract their core participants, but if you make them open to other community members, then you may get new participants to join. Topics that affect the whole community should be designed with everyone in mind, aimed for a time and place where as many people as possible can attend.

A ceremony can be simple or complex, spiritual or secular. Draw on your community’s theme and traditions for inspiration in this regard. The more you can weave those into your events, the more you manifest your ideals. You may also find inspiration in the “Spirituality” issue of Communities magazine (#154).

Pay attention to these things and try out different ways of acknowledging the beginnings and endings in your community. Discuss what seems to work for you and what doesn’t. The traditions unique from your community will evolve naturally as you repeat the most effective ones, leaving you with a stable set of bookends supporting your life together.

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