Third Places

As I write we are on our way to the beach for our summer vacation, passing through Atlanta, specifically Marietta, and I am struck by a wave of memories.

When I was a child my father was a chaplain in the Air Guard and one weekend a month plus two weeks a year he would report to Dobbins Air Force Base for duty.  It seemed that most months we all went as a family.  Sometimes we would stay on base and sometimes I would go with him by myself, just Dad and me.  I would stay at that little Air Force Base hotel with its long hallways, twin beds and scratchy military blankets and be in a completely different world, a world that started on Friday night and ended on Sunday afternoon.  I knew the way from Cleveland to Marietta and back again like some children knew the route to grandmother’s house.  Over the river (actually the golf course in Waterville), through the woods (the town of Dalton), to Atlanta we would go.  It seems that Redbud was about half way.  I knew we were close when the cement partitions dividing the two ways of the interstate would appear.  30 more minutes.

My dad would go to his office at the Air Force chapel on Saturday mornings, leaving before the sun rose and before I stretched out of bed.  I would stay behind, sleeping in, eating powdered donuts we had bought for my breakfast, and trying to find something to watch on Georgia Public television after the Saturday morning cartoons had gone off.  After lunch, when my dad came to see me, I sometimes would go with him to play in the wooden pews of the old white Air Force Base chapel or stay behind to run in the field by the hotel where I would try to catch butterflies.  When I got older, my dad would drop me off at the base park where I could hit tennis balls against a wall or practice my serve for hours.

Other weekends, most weekends, we would all go together as a family.  We had adventurous family weekends filled with shopping, swimming, and the yearly Air Force family weekend that had the air show and chili cook off where my dad was always a judge.  Many, many times on these family trip weekends the base hotel was full and so we would get bumped off base.  I loved getting bumped off base because that meant we would get to stay at the Marriott down the road in Marietta with the gift shop full of soft stuffed animals and an indoor pool that connected to the outdoor pool if you were brave enough to swim under the glass paned window separating the two.  After cartoons on those weekends, my mom would sit by the pool while I hoped to make a friend to play mermaids with at the pool stairs in the shallow end.  One side of the railing was my mermaid home. The other side of the railing was my new friend’s mermaid home.  We would have under water tea parties and see how long we could hold our breath, these nameless weekend friends and me.  I loved the chlorine smell, the tile covering the floor, and the way the voices were muffled and echoed as though we were in a cave.  I pretended the attendants at the hotel knew me by name and I was somewhat like Eloise at the Plaza because we stayed there so often.

Atlanta became a second home to us in a big way and that Marriott hotel felt like ours.  My brother, when he was still small, thought the Marriott WAS Atlanta.  To say we were going to Atlanta was to say we were going to the hotel with the pool. He would get so upset if I argued otherwise, which, of course, I did…because I was his big sister.  Today I hear myself when I listen to Eloise trying to explain to Lillian that Alabama is “not a COUNTRY…our cousins do not live in another COUNTRY.  They live in another STATE and the CITY is BIRMINGHAM.”  Lillian listens, and with what seems to be more patience than my little brother had and maybe with a twinkle in her eye, she simply nods with acquiesces.  I know that a few weeks later she will ask again: “Which country do our cousins live in?”  “ARGHHH!” Eloise will growl, then sigh and go through the entire thing again.

Now, as a parent, I realize that the older might be getting played as much as the younger one is getting bossed.

Sometimes when we got “bumped” we would even get to stay in a hotel further into Atlanta and that felt incredibly ritzy to me.  I pretended I was the daughter in a wealthy family who took extravagant weekend trips to the big city.  But, at least by American standards, we were a very normal, middle class family who got a stipend to spend on a hotel because my dad was in the Air Force and had been bumped off base.

Atlanta became my other place.  I felt free, like I didn’t have to be a self that had been constructed in the context of my hometown.  No matter what was going on in my other world, I was ok in Atlanta, with my family or on quiet weekends, Dad and me.

I learned through trips to Atlanta and other family adventures that life is not all about my hometown and school.  There is another world out there and I can be ok in it.  Life does not begin and end in such small places.

You can find many sociologists, human development experts, and even theologians who talk about the vital importance of the “third place” to a child’s development and to an adult’s well being.  Joseph R. Myers wrote a little book called The Search to Belong, where he details the different spaces a person needs.  Sociologist Ray Oldenburg talks about the importance of the “third place” to a person’s well being in the midst of our fast paced society.

Third place: a space other than home or work where a person can feel part of a community.

I am stricken with a combined sense of grief and fear when I work with a budding adolescent, sitting next to him or her, and hear how home is not safe and neither is school.  At home parents are fighting and at school the child is being bullied.  There is no place to go, no place to feel belonging and safety.  It is a dangerous situation for everyone involved.  He or she can feel stuck… hopeless, helpless…trapped: where do I go?  What can I do?

My first line of activism for this child is certainly to help him or her report the bullying in a safe, non-threatening way.  It cannot stop there.  Solving the parents’ problems is not likely.  However, if I can urge the construction of a third place, a place where he or she feels a sense of rightness and okayness…then, we are carving out a foundation for a future for him or her…a future where new relationships can be built, new experiences can be lived…new dreams can be dreamed and even attained.

The child or teenager can begin to learn that life is not all about home and school.  There is another world out there and I can be ok in it.  Life does not begin and end in such small spaces.

Church can be this place for many people and you can read in books and online how many church leaders are contending with Starbucks as the third place.  However, this is when I suggest it is not just a third place that we need, but a fourth place, too.  Whether it is because church can be work for many people or because church can be so closely tied to home for a child (and adults), I think that one more place is a good idea.  A sport, a hobby, girl scouts, boy scouts.  Some people say that children need at least five healthy adult relationships for healthy development.  It is in these third and fourth place spheres that these relationships can be built.

I think adults need these spaces, too.  I think adults can start to feel stuck…hopeless and helpless…trapped: where do I go?  What can I do?

I had a colleague one time tell me about a book, whose title I cannot remember, that talked about how ONE healthy relationship can break the cycle of poverty in a person’s life.  One relationship.  You see, poverty is a disease of isolation.  Those who suffer from it have very little connection with people at all, much less healthy connections and the isolation only serves to worsen the disease.

As adults, we might not be in poverty monetarily (or maybe you are), but we have too many adults and children in poverty relationally and spiritually.

We need relationships.  We need to construct our own third and fourth places where these relationships can break the poverty.  We, just as much as children, need a future where new relationships can be built, new experiences can be lived…new dreams can be dreamed and even attained.

As I finish writing this post that I started on our way to the beach with our family a few weeks ago, I am sitting in a mountain lodge with my husband.  We left the kids for one solitary night (I’ll take what I can get!) to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary.  He is in a corner reading, sitting in a striped armchair with his feet propped up against a stuffed black bear that serves as an ottoman.  Nickelcreek is playing faintly in the speakers.  I am sunk down in a leather couch in front of a mountain view.  For one night I will go through a mini “mommy detox”.  I will be set loose from any social constructs or constraints I feel or think my community holds to me.  I will be able to breathe.  Jon and I will dream dreams and make plans that just don’t get made when we are operating in the spaces of home and work.

And, next week I will get ready to go to my book club that I started and I will say like I do every month…I don’t have time for it this week!  And, I will also know that I do not have time NOT to go…not to spend some time in this third place I have constructed for myself.

These small adventures and third places will help me remember that there is a bigger world out there.  Life does not begin and end in my hometown and work.  Life does not begin and end in such small spaces.

Third and fourth places are about people, adventures, relationships, expanding your mind, and remembering that the opinion of your co-worker or even the friend from church is not the final word on your life.

God is…the final Word

…and He has entrusted you with the potential for dreams, for adventures, for life changing relationships.

Sometimes those third and fourth spaces, whether it is a book club or a yearly trip to the beach, clears all the clutter and chattering of voices we hear every day…clears a space for God’s voice speaking to us…speaking to us through our dreaming, our hoping…through new relationships and adventures.

So, join the Y, start a cooking club, get out of here.  Life is bigger than your little town and the people in it.  As wonderful and important as these people and those relationships are, THEY are not the final word on your life.  When you are feeling trapped and down and stuck, go away…to the beach or to the lake a few miles down the road.  Make room for dreaming and listening and seeing.

Find your own third place for that little kid inside who still wants to be someone and do something in this great big world.  Remind him or her just how big the world really is …and get unstuck.