Now take away any of them that were closed to the public.
What’s left? Church? The library? The post office? The hardware store? The local theater or community center or both?
I wouldn’t be surprised. These were the places your mom bumped into friends on the way in and out the door, and you stood there with them in the parking lot, a little bored, but feeling the comfort of safety because you knew you belonged somewhere in the world. You were home.
Have you ever been to Greece? Have you ever been to Ephesus, where the biblical book of Ephesians took place? If you have, you get a pretty strong sense of how civilization hasn’t changed much. What’s left is a temple, a library, a theater, a road. Lone columns and marble shrapnel from a time of greatness long gone. It makes you look at your town differently when you stand among those ruins. It makes you think about what lasts. Where the spirit of the place lives.
This morning, I heard that the Gorton Community Center in Lake Forest, my hometown, may have to shut its doors. If it doesn’t meet with an immediate $250,000 it may meet instead with the wrecking ball. Turns out that its community relevance is in question. It took my breath away. How could this be so? Since 1901 this building has meant so much to so many.
Memories flickered fiercely through my head as I sat staring at this email bearing this impossible news. My sister went to kindergarten there. I spent my summers doing Group For children’s theater there. I heard my first live “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on that stage, flung from a seven year old’s mouth and thought it was as good as Judy Garland herself. I remember crying and thinking, “One day, I’m going to stand on a stage and be somebody.” We bought our Christmas tree in that lot—an annual hockey league fund-raiser, my mom and dad looking for just the right Balsam fir. My grandmother took art classes there in her 80s when it served as a senior citizen center. My mother wraps presents there at Christmas-time—a service for local children who can’t yet wrap, and as a young woman, she attended bridge and dress-smocking classes at Gorton. Over the years my parents attended jazz concerts and plays and author readings there.
When I was in Lake Forest on my book tour this April, I was sad to miss the full circle opportunity to have my reading at Gorton, as it was booked that day. It would have been so personally meaningful to stand on that stage in my little girl’s footprints– a forty year old reading from her memoir where her third grade self said, “I’ll get you Dorothy, and your little dog too!” Still, I smiled as I passed Gorton on the way to my reading at the college, which was lovely, thanks to the Lake Forest Bookstore for putting together the event, and all who attended. It was my favorite of the tour. Because, I was “home.” Home begins inside a person, and spreads out to the people we know and love and to the places that contain those memories and beyond. In my heart of hearts, I wanted to have that place be Gorton. To look into that audience and see not just the many friends sitting there in support, but the ghosts of my childhood, smiling and clapping too. Call me a sentimental hometown girl. And it would be true.
A lot of what makes a community building matter is that full circle experience. From young to old, sitting in that space, feeding the senses with your community around you. Applauding great performances. Feeling pride in what your town can do to marry heart to mind to talent. Who it can inspire to stop on their way through your geographic area, connecting you to other audiences in other community centers in other towns across America. How it stitches us together.
I wish I had the money to personally come up with that $250,000. But what I do have is a love of the arts and community gathering spaces, and a belief that Lake Forest can honor the ancient and universal need for just this—community sacred space. That my hometown can advocate for community and especially for the arts, and for the future Lake Foresters who will bring that inspiration out into the world. And come home, full circle one day, proud.