15 Years in This Place Called Saxapahaw

15 Years in This Place Called Saxapahaw

While we rely on the welcoming hand of living Saxapahaw inhabitants and the spiritual grace of all the generations who stewarded this place before us, Jeff and I looked up from a busy spring season this year to realize we’ve been running the General Store in Saxapahaw for fifteen years, this June – which, though not a lifetime yet, represents for us the better part of our working lives. We’ve raised our family and made our home here, and we’ve been at least partially forgiven by the lifetime residents for barging in so unceremoniously and disrupting the established order of things right in the middle of the 2008 recession.

This milestone – a generation (maybe three generations in the average life of a small business) – has given way to some stock-taking, and too much gratitude, for the journey so far. Saxapahaw’s recent history has already been recounted with some frequency by folks curious about the ways in which this place is emblematic of recent interest in repurposing spaces originally built to house a group of people for commercial purposes. Anyone who has moved here or started a business is fortunate enough to benefit from the investments of landowners with the foresight to preserve the space for a new, more intentional community. Many of us work, live, and go to school in a space where we have the privilege of making meaning of our lives among familiar faces – ones who can support, challenge, and engage with us. We have music; we have shared meals; we have relationships with the land.

Now, almost 30 years after the mill looms stopped spinning, several of Saxapahaw’s “new” small businesses have been around a decade or more – long enough to cause us to wonder how we can all remain relevant to another generation in a society with exponentiating technologies and a growing crisis of meaning. We came in on a wave of interest in bringing awareness to our foodways, to artistic creation, and to our land, amid the homogenizing influences of a one-sidedly corporatized society. We took risks to develop businesses that did not rely on the convention of “best practices,” but which innovated by collaborating with farmers, preparing real food, and making real music, making space for people to connect freely. We founded businesses in the hope that generating the energy of the third place – an ephemeral, elusive current through which relationships are built and nourished– would be enough to sustain us.

For the General Store, the details of that pursuit have been devilish. Even amid our idealism, conflicts have been brutal, and broken relationships devastating; business mistakes have once or twice brought us right up to the edge of catastrophe; our own personal failures made us wonder whether we were cut out to succeed, after all; hurricanes and other forces of nature have seemed unnaturally cruel. Often it was nearly impossible to get outside of our own struggles; small business ownership in the twenty-first century can make one feel alone in a sea of other humans. We risked myopic isolation as an ultimate failure in our quest to help foster community.

But there is a metaphysics to a community whose alchemical properties can metabolize these shortfalls in individuals. It’s at least akin to the Christ principle: where two or more are gathered with an interest in that which is outside ourselves, there also is a presence whose grace fills in the spaces left when we fall short of our own ideals. I think such a gathering place also has to be near to a river – a body whose transformative properties can wash over that which needs to be healed, and forgiven. It is perhaps because of this metaphysics that the General Store, along with the other social and economic efforts happening in Saxapahaw now, has succeeded inasmuch as it has found stable cultural and financial ground. When I go into the store today – almost inexplicably to me – I find that the persons there leading its daily operations are remarkable in ways that I certainly did not cause and that I cannot say I deserve due to any action I have taken. Here I realize I run the risk of overmuch deprecation; I am a contributor, among others, to our business and I have used my strengths and talents well, in my best moments, over the years to benefit the business and our place. But this does not explain the phenomenon of collective space; there is, amid all our flaws, a magnetic property to a place where people make themselves available to one another. The process of community is not linear, not causally explainable.

Now – this phenomenon is not always comfortable, or pleasant. We have experienced an intensity of tension in moments that prompts the most idealistic among us to wonder what we’ve done. Community does not just mean comradery. But in a society that deeply needs to be healed, how could it? We are, I believe, coming into a period of great opportunity. We have the chance to repair deep and multi-generational pain. If we continue to do our work, over the next fifteen years our land and our community will shift again, as we invite voices to speak who have messages that will be hard but important for us to hear. It’s a razor’s edge, just as before; now, we need to use our collective consciousness to ensure that we understand our own humanity as we learn how to engage in healthy ways with technologies that both attest to the brilliance of the human mind and could lead to greater isolation in the social landscape. And we must do that while transforming our powers of perception so that we can truly see one another – not, as we have been taught to do, merely our external identities.

I believe that if Saxapahaw is distinct and relevant in fifteen years, it will be because we have managed to make inroads on that path. We will have recognized the gifts we’ve been offered here, and we will have gathered at the river – to sing, eat, and learn from one another. I hope that we’re up for that task, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to help to host this community at the General Store. May we continue to improve at earning this incredible privilege and at perceiving the myriad ways individuals bring their gifts to this place.