By Heidi Shott
A few days ago my 14 year-old son Colin and I were walking down Main Street past Reny’s Department Store when a woman I’ve known for years flagged us down. I’ll call her Jenny. I’ll call her Jenny because Jenny is – well -- her name. That’s the kind of town Damariscotta, Maine, is. It’s a town where you call people by their real names because sooner or later everyone’s real name will end up in the police blotter of The Lincoln County News. As in “Heidi Shott, 45, of Newcastle, dog-at-large, $100 fine.” I don’t have a dog, but I was once busted for having improper life vests in my dingy and, boy, did I hear about it.
But back to Jenny.
“I have a funny story to tell you,” she said, walking up to us on the sidewalk. “Last year at the hospital league rummage sale, I bought a little roller L.L. Bean suitcase for Sarah for 50 cents to take to Camp Bishopswood. As I was packing, I realized I didn’t have the ‘what to bring’ checklist. Where could I find the ‘what to bring’ checklist at the last minute?”
Perhaps at www.bishopswood.org? the diocesan communicator in me wanted to suggest, but I realized it would impede the flow of her funny story which she was telling me solely because of our Episcopal Church connection.
“So,” she continued, “I was cleaning out the suitcase and found a Bishopswood ‘what to bring’ checklist inside one of the pockets with ‘Colin’ written on it.”
That got my attention. “Was the suitcase green and maroon?” I asked.
“That was Colin’s suitcase we donated to the rummage sale,” I said, letting a loud Hillary-laugh escape me to the stares of passers-by.
“And it had the ‘what to bring” checklist at the very moment I needed it!” Jenny repeated, still in wonder.
“It’s great!” Jenny said as she waved and ducked into Reny’s.
“That is crazy, Mom,” said Colin, my loving little Deist, walking along to the coffee place. “But don’t get any ideas, it’s not a God thing. It’s just a coincidence.”
Frankly, I’m with Colin on that. While I don’t want to put God in a box, surely the God of the Universe has better things to attend to than orchestrating the whereabouts of camp packing lists. But something is at work in my encounter with Jenny, and I think it has something to with Facebook.
I’ve been wondering for a few months about why the people I’ve become friends with on the social networking site Facebook are the types of people who faithfully post status updates. For non-Facebook people, status updates are one sentence descriptions of what you’re doing, thinking, feeling at the moment you post them. When you sign-on to Facebook and click “Friends,” you instantly see what your friends have posted.
Here are the five latest postings by my friends.
V is wondering where the photos I uploaded have disappeared to....radda radda radda.
W immediately needs a sharp stick.
X is writing on his back porch under a perfect blue Maine fall sky.
Y says "buy, baby, buy!"
Z is, arrrghhh....anxiously awaitin' for Talk Like a Pirate Day, ye scurvy dog!
Thirty-five of my 100 or so friends have posted a status update in the past 24 hours. They hail from 20 states and represent a broad definition of the word friend. There’s Nora, a Silicon Valley mega-executive who sat next to me in seventh grade homeroom and math class. She was paying attention in math while I daydreamed. There’s a very interesting grad student from Chicago, Agnieszka, introduced to me by an acquaintance who thought we’d like each other because we both have pet rabbits and a sense of humor. And he was right, at least that we’d like each other.
While there’s a disproportionate number of Episcopalians, there’s also my niece Mary, a special ed. teacher in California whom I hardly ever get to see. The beauty of the Facebook status updates is when I fire up my laptop and check, I suddenly know that “Mary is sitting on her deck in the sunshine eating cold pizza.” How else would I know that? What a lovely mental picture of my delightful niece and how I wish I were with her at that moment!
A few weeks ago I posted this status update: “Heidi finds it curious that when she visits other people's profiles not as many of their friends post status updates. Is she a SU magnet? Theories welcome.” Here’s another interesting component to status updates: You can comment on your friends’ updates.
Peter, a high school chaplain from Richmond whom I’ve never met, replied that high school kids think status updating is uncool.
Susie, an editor friend from New York, added, “I think we update our statuses (statii?) more often because we have the kind of friendships that -- even though our work lives make it hard to physically get together often enough, or even have time to pick up the phone or write a mid-length e-mail (much less a LETTER!) -- we want to be able to keep in touch and up-to-date in microbursts.”
Scott, an association executive and college friend, wrote from Columbus, “high school kids don't need to update their status. Their worlds are small enough that they see each other all the time!”
Jim, an interesting diocesan communicator from Florida who doesn’t do status updates commented, “I’m just not that interesting.”
To which Phil, a photographer from Georgia who was my much beloved partner at a newspaper 20 years ago, responded, “I’m sorry, what was the question?”
Jim and Phil would really get along, but they’ll probably never meet. And with Facebook that’s okay.
Seven or eight years ago I wrote a column titled, “The Kingdom of Heaven is where the Fed-Ex lady tracks you down.” It was about how when our local Fed-Ex lady, Sue, couldn’t find my husband at his office, she would look for his car downtown then stop in where he was eating lunch to deliver the package. That’s the kind of town Damariscotta, Maine, is. That’s the kind of connection people thirst for in the world. What I’m observing as a member of Facebook is that with people from all points of my life’s compass there is an intersection of knowing and being known that is delicious, addictive and immediate.
For all the anonymity of the big box stores and sprawling suburbs, we yearn for connection, to be recognized, to delight and be delighted in. Just yesterday afternoon, Susan, a friend and colleague from Washington, D.C., called to say she and her husband Lance were in Maine staying with a couple who, just last spring, moved from D.C. to our little town. I invited the four of them over for drinks, and we had a short but lovely visit. This morning, I stopped for coffee downtown and was heading back to my car when I bumped into Susan’s friend who’s new to the community. We stopped in the parking lot and chatted for a few minutes. We wouldn’t have recognized one another had she not been to my house the previous evening, but now, suddenly, instead of passing one another by in our busyness, there’s a new connection, a new friend.
I wonder about the role of the Church in this. What Facebookian structures could we create in our institutions to give us permission to befriend one another in our daily real lives? On the road from Emmaus, Jesus struck up a conversation with his fellow travelers that was life-transforming. Of course, Jesus was kind of exceptional, but doesn’t Paul remind us of the “Christ in you, the hope of glory?” Isn’t the ability to reach out hardwired into us by the Spirit, available to us through Him, our friend, who loves us? Isn’t knowing and being known rather glorious?
One last story: A year ago, on our way to pick up our sons from Camp Bishopswood, my husband Scott and I stopped for breakfast at Moody’s Diner, a Maine institution. It was crowded and the only two seats were at the counter. I struck up a conversation with an older gentleman to my left whose wife, it turned out, was sitting four places down from us. Over the course of the conversation we discovered two astounding things from this couple visiting Maine from Tampa: first that their daughter-in-law went to high school with Scott in Bluefield, West Virginia, and her father played golf with Scott’s father for 30 years, and second that their daughter and I had gone to college together and were in the same German class for two years.
“That’s crazy!” Scott and I said to each other, walking out of Moody’s on our way to gather our sons from Bishopswood – where at that very moment a crumpled “what to bring” list was getting stuffed deep into a suitcase pocket.
Heidi Shott is Canon for Communications and Social Justice in the Episcopal Diocese of Maine.