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What Happens When a Community Works Together

[Editor's Note: Read more Gracy Olmstead's writing on her Substack, Granola. It is one of those rare places in the internet where, after I visit it, I feel calmer, wiser, and more sane. Go subscribe to it today; it is full of gems. Gracy has also written a very good "autobiography of place" called Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We've Left Behind.


A few months ago, several friends gathered at our house at 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning. They surprised my husband with a simple, yet powerful gift: they were here to help with a house project we had been unable to tackle on our own. Some brought quiche, cinnamon rolls, and coffee. Others offered to watch the kids while the rest of us worked. We managed to finish in two hours what would have otherwise taken my husband and me several weeks.

Only a few weeks later, a friend texted me. Her family owns a beautiful vineyard and winery; they needed help pruning the vines that weekend. Would we be interested in helping? We packed our girls into the car, and drove out to Maryland for the day. The format was remarkably similar to our earlier project: some adults offered to watch the kids, others prepared food, while the rest of us rolled up our sleeves and began pruning the vines. Again, we managed to finish in a few hours what would have otherwise taken my friend much longer to accomplish alone.

These days of work amidst friends revealed much; I discovered which friends sing, hum, or tell jokes while they work. I saw the hidden skills of the organizers, the delegators, the quick, the thorough. After the work was finished, we laughed and talked and feasted together. We watched our children play together, and noted (several times on both days) that this was what life together should look like. The work itself became a vehicle of blessing and love: we forged stronger ties with each other through this time, and in each case, walked away with a sense of excitement for the next opportunity. We were eager to sweat and work together—brainstorming ideas for fence-building, house-painting, garage-cleaning, and more.

"There is something important and vulnerable about asking for help—about admitting that we need something from our friends."

A lot of societies used to build friendship and community through shared work. Barn raising and hay making were common in agrarian communities, as were quilting bees and canning days. Communities worked together to accomplish large projects, because they knew the work was almost impossible in isolation—but also because they knew (better than us perhaps) that shared work would forge strong community bonds.

But today, it’s rather rare for us to work regularly with our friends. This is in part because we no longer have home economies, which tied our work to place and community. Knowledge economy work is much harder to share or trade than the older, more traditional sorts of manual, craft labor. But many of these manual jobs are also increasingly passed off to machines, or to paid workers who might complete the task for us. We don’t have barn raisings anymore. Many people are more than happy to hire a crew to reroof their home, rather than doing it themselves.

This is in many ways advantageous to the average American. But it means that many of our friendships start and end in the realm of the fun. We struggle to guide our friendships toward more difficult disciplines and practices. Movie and game nights, dinner parties, book clubs, and happy hours might be the primary practices of our relational existence.

There is something important and vulnerable, in contrast, about asking for help—about admitting that we need something from our friends. Our American bent toward independence and self-sufficiency makes us reluctant to ever admit our needs. But if you’ve ever babysat a friends’ kids when they needed a date night, cried with them over a lost loved one, or walked with them through seasons of depression or anxiety, then you know. It is this combined service and vulnerability that turn lighthearted acquaintanceships into real friendships.

I don’t think we work with our friends nearly enough. I’m not talking here of meeting at a coffee shop to work on our computers together. This, while fun, is another form of socialization. There’s something very different about actually working with each other: showing our friends and neighbors that we are willing to sweat and toil for them, willing even to get a few splinters or sore muscles for them. It is a tangible means to display love and support. It is also a matter of practical utility: working together allows us to accomplish difficult tasks cheaply, to spread a hard work across multiple backs. It helps us to forge strong memories, share hard-earned expertise, and even teach our children some important lessons about givenness, determination, and diligence.

Working together also helps us display the joy to be found in hard work. We are used to separating our “fun” time, our socializing time, from our labor. Much of modern life is thus segregated in various geographic and vocational ways. Working together serves to weave the whole tapestry back together—connecting humans to their bodies, their place, their community, and their food (or wine, in the case of our vineyard pruning).

Some of my friends have created a spreadsheet for 2020. In it, each of us has listed a project that needs doing, and the dates we’re available to work. Each month, one family will host the rest of us, and we aim to get their project finished. We will show up with food and drink, tools and working gloves, eager either to hold babies and watch toddlers, or to get our hands dirty working on a needed project.

Our hope is that by the end of this year, each of the families in our little group will have been blessed—and that all of us would have learned new skills and grown closer together through the process. In the future, I hope we might extend our labors to others in our community who need help—elderly neighbors in need of house improvements, for instance. As we build a habit of working together, I hope our eyes will be opened to see the needs around us. We will work together and feast together, joining the labor with laughter. I can't wait.


Read more from Gracy Olmstead on her Substack, Granola.

Gracy Olmstead is a journalist who focuses on farming, localism, and family. She is the author of Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We've Left Behind. Her writing has been published in The American Conservative, The Week, The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Review, The Wall Street Journal, and Christianity Today, among others. A native of rural Idaho, she now lives outside of Washington, DC, with her husband and three children.

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Photo by K Adams on Unsplash


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