Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The 'third place'

Today, still reading the intriguing book about Starbucks and the Gospel, I came across the concept of the 'third place'. The idea, apparently is that the home is our 'first place', and those who live there are, I suppose, our first community. The workplace - if we have one - or, I suppose, school or college, if relevant, is our 'second place'. And then any other socialising or community gatherings happen in the 'third place' wherever that might be. The book, naturally, implied that Starbucks coffee houses are ideal 'third places'.

The main features of these 'third places', apparently, are that they should be open to anyone, with some regulars, but freely welcoming newcomers. They should be a place to relax, with a sense of fun, and where there's plenty of conversation.

I immediately thought of the traditional British country pubs, where farmers and other workers would congregate in evenings, not to get drunk but to share a few pints of beer, and perhaps have a sandwich, and talk about their days, and perhaps play a few games of darts. Women, traditionally, would have their coffee mornings and sewing circles and so on. Terribly sexist of course. But these did provide a sense of community, separate (for the men) from their workplace, and (for the women) from their home, where they also worked. British pubs still exist, usually with meals available, and attracting women as well as men these days. But so many women are in paid employment that there are considerably fewer women's gatherings during the week, in most circles.

The book suggested that churches used to provide a 'third place' for Christians. In some cases, they still do. Sometimes people arrive early for a Sunday gathering, to spend time catching up with their friends; there may be time to talk within the service - if, for instance, the Anglican 'passing of the peace' takes place - and there's almost certainly half an hour or more for coffee and chat afterwards. Perhaps the church community has Mums-and-Tots, Day Centres, Tea Dances, Youth Groups, Scouting organisations, Coffee mornings and more, providing opportunities for both regulars and visitors to drop in, and socialise, and relax.

Sadly (from my perspective) too many church services focus on music and 'teaching' (which fails to teach anything to the majority). Congregations increase in size, and many church buildings are not conducive to socialising. When people drive several miles for a Sunday morning service, they're unlikely to pop back during the week to catch up with their friends. So the Sunday service may provide something useful - a way of connecting, of worshipping God (for those who like to sing), of learning (for those who are auditory learners), and perhaps, for anyone, a time to be quiet and to listen to God in the company of others. But they don't provide the 'third place' in the sense used in the Starbucks book. Which, perhaps, explains why so many people hang out at coffee bars or restaurants, or on the beach, or anywhere else where they can hope to find a sense of community.

The Internet has become a 'third place' for many. The astounding success of sites like Facebook, and the continuation of online forums and chatrooms suggests that we all long for connection, even if we can't find it in 'real life'. When, on (thankfully rare) occasions our Internet connection is down, I feel almost bereft. But for me, at home most of the time, the Internet feels like my 'second place'. My work, such as it is, involves writing web pages, and researching, and emailing. I socialise there too, and play games (mainly Scrabble).

So I'm thankful for friends who invite us to their homes, or who come to ours, for informal 'cell groups' of Christians. For me, friends' home are my 'third place', whether we hang out and chat, or play a board game. Perhaps that's why I have little desire to visit a coffee house.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

The Gospel and... Starbucks?

Two or three years ago, my husband was given the book The Gospel According to Starbucks: Living with a Grande Passion by one of our sons. Interesting title. Interesting book, so my husband told me.

I only picked it up recently, intrigued by the title, and wanting something different to read.

I like post-modern books, in general. I like Christian books which offer a new perspective on faith. And I was curious to know how the author would approach his subject.

I haven't finished yet. When I do, I'll review it on my books blog. But the first few chapters have raised some interesting questions in my mind. The author talks about Jesus being radical, relational, exciting. About the Christian life being a great adventure, with multi-sensory thrills. I'm paraphrasing, but that's the idea. Fair enough. Too many people see the Christian life as boring or restrictive, God as some benign Santa character in the sky. Life with Jesus can and should be much more exciting than we often see it.

However... my problem with the book is that the author keeps comparing the Christian life with Starbucks. A coffee shop. Yes, a new idea in coffee shops when it started - offering easy chairs to lounge in, free wi-fi, books to browse, snacks to eat, and a large number of variations on the theme of coffee. I thought perhaps there might be fifty or sixty possible ways to drink coffee at Starbucks. According to this book, there are several thousand. Fair enough. One can customise one's drink, to a pretty cool degree. And, of course, pay through the nose.

But still... Starbucks is not actually different, in principle, from any other food chain. Yes, the first ones may have been radical. But the owners found a formula, it was popular, and so they started spreading around the world, training their staff to produce exactly the same drinks, to the same specifications, wherever they happened to be.

Isn't that pretty much what McDonald's did?

Except that McDonald's products are pretty inexpensive. Junk, to be sure. I suppose paying anything at all for fast 'food' is rather a waste of money, but it's popular, and cheap, and at least provides calories. The shops are clinical white, with fairly uncomfortable seats. I doubt if anyone lingers in McDonald's for longer than they have to.

Starbucks is the other extreme. Ridiculously expensive, comfortable seats, and they want people to hang around. On the face of it, the only thing it has in common with McDonald's (other than coming from the USA) is the enormous numbers of calories that can be consumed in a single portion.

So, the originators have made a fortune, the advertising worked, the product sells. Fair enough, that's how capitalism works. Nobody has to go to either of these chains if they don't want to.

But to compare Starbucks with the Gospel? Isn't that just a little sacrilegious? The uniqueness of each human being created by God is surely far more significant than umpteen thousand blends of coffee, identical whether ordered in Singapore or Switzerland or Spain. The artificiality of the comfort and supposed friendliness of the Starbucks baristas (carefully trained to give the required responses and make the exact drinks required) bears no resemblance at all to the reality of life with Jesus.

I guess it doesn't help that I'm not a huge fan of Starbucks coffee anyway. I like it - well, the two or three varieties I've tried, when nowhere else is available for wi-fi - but didn't find it as good as either Costa Coffee, or the Coffee Bean chain, popular in Asia.

And since nothing would convince me to buy Starbucks coffee first thing in the morning - I am plebeian enough to prefer my Maxwell House instant - many of the book's analogies rather leave me cold.

Perhaps this makes me rather a has-been, albeit a mostly post-modern one. Or is it just that I can see through the hype, and fail to see why an over-priced coffee shop should have my custom (other than those necessary occasions mentioned) merely because it has an internationally recognised image?

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Life stages and patterns

This has been something of a year of milestones, as I shall no doubt mention when we write our annual Christmas newsletter at some point in the next few weeks. I celebrated my 50th birthday. We celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary. In between those two events, our older son became engaged, planning to be married next year.

Thirty years. It feels like a lifetime, but then I still feel about 26 on the inside. How can I possibly have been married that many years? How can my sons, who were children for such a short time, now be young men with their own lives, separate from ours ? And most of all, how can I be fifty years old?

I'm not particularly worried about advancing chronology. I'm not embarrassed about my age, or the lines on my face, or the grey hairs slowly creeping in. I don't hide any of them - I don't see the point in pretending to be younger than I am. I am still in good health, for which I am thankful. And as I sit here in my jeans and a tee-shirt, I can't quite reconcile it with the way that people in their fifties seemed so elderly when I was in my teens. Even when I was in my twenties. I vaguely assumed that one day I'd start wanting to wear tweedy skirts and tights ('panty-hose' in the USA), and court shoes. But I, and other people my age, still dress the way we did when we were 20. Perhaps younger people see us as old-fashioned in our styles, but I like to be comfortable.

The scary thing about being 50 is that, most likely, I am now more than half-way through my life. At 45, I could say cheerfully that I was half-way to ninety. My grandmother started to seem old when she passed 90; that seemed about right to me. I'm from a fairly long-lived family, on the whole. Barring accidents, I probably have a good chance of living into my nineties. But very few people make it to 100. Would I even want to? I don't know. My grandmother didn't.

Of course, it feels like a very long time since my childhood. Another 50 years - even another 40 years while I still feel energetic - is also a long time. I feel the years spreading out around me; my schooldays passed, my early married life gone by; the children, born, grown, and moved out. Our 'nest' became empty nearly two-and-a-half years ago and I found it very upsetting at first. But we've grown accustomed to it; we welcome our sons home when they come to stay, but it's not likely that either of them will live here again. So the future seems calmer, more settled. Unlike many people my age, I have no hankering to take university courses, or study further. Living abroad, there's no real chance of getting a job, even if I were looking for one. I like to look after the house, and cook, and spend time with friends, and write emails and blogs, and run my websites.

Still, my main question remains: what will I, primarily, do for the next forty or so years?

The subsidiary question is: do I need to know? Or do I continue living one day at a time, doing what needs to be done today, and letting tomorrow take care of itself? It sounds like a Biblical way of living; the problems are (1) I don't necessarily know what needs to be done today (2) even if I do, I don't necessarily do it (3) If I'm to do something significant, such as write a book, or build a new website, I need to have the ideas, and spend many months working on them.

I'm not unhappy. I'm basically a contented person, thankful that there is no urgent need for me to find paid employment. But I do sometimes wonder what the pattern of the future will hold.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Procrastination. Big time.

I am a little startled to see that I have not updated this blog for almost two years. I've certainly thought about it, from time to time. I have updated my other blogs, periodically; I certainly haven't lost the random abstractions that swirl around my mind. But somehow, catching them and squashing them flat so that they can be put in words isn't always easy.

At least, that's my excuse. Procrastination is part of my nature; something I've had to learn to accept, and work through. I read an excellent book recently, 'Writing on Both Sides of the Brain', which inspired and enthused me more than any of the many other books I have read (and am still reading) about writing. It encouraged me to work out what I gain from procrastination, and to work through it. It gave exercises to enhance my creativity while quietening the internal critic/judge/editor, at least in the initial stage of writing. It gave techniques to help me tap into my creative side, and actually get some writing done....

... and within a couple of days of finishing the book, I'd forgotten most of them. Writing first thing in the morning before coffee was one of them. Before coffee?? I can barely hold a pen at all, let alone write before my first caffeine of the day. But yes, writing almost first thing can be energising and inspiring. As can just writing randomly rather than sitting staring at the paper. Or computer. But as soon as I'd put the book back on a shelf, and reviewed it, my enthusiasm waned away.

November is a month for writing. NaNoWriMo encourages people to write novels, 2000 words per day over the thirty days of the month. I tried it a few years ago, and got about a third of the way through. I thought about it this year, but am quite out of inspiration. Or maybe I'm just procrastinating still further. Those who can't quite bring themselves to writing a novel can, instead, join NaBloPoMo - the idea being to post every day on a blog. I've done that before on my Cyprus blog. I'm wondering if I can do it on my book reviews blog, which would, of course, also mean finishing reading one book every day in November - something that definitely sounds a good plan, although I would have to cheat slightly and read more children's books than normal.

And maybe, just maybe, I could start writing posts on this blog again too.