Posts Tagged ‘community’

when we were on fire synchroblog

That may as well be the subtitle of Addie Zierman’s memoir, When We Were on Fire, out tomorrow from Convergent Books.

I’ve never met Addie, except via blogland, but we were born in the same year (albeit in different regions of the country) and we spent our teenage years immersed in the same strange, insular, oddly intense subculture of Christianity. We both went to small Christian colleges where we met the men we married, and we have both spent a large part of our post-college years trying to hang onto our faith while having to unlearn a lot of things we thought we knew.

To celebrate her book’s publication, Addie has invited fellow bloggers to share their experiences with the evangelical subculture and the subsequent impact on their – our – faith.

The evangelical subculture, with its rah-rah zeal and catchy T-shirts and tidy, well-reasoned arguments in favor of faith, left me with some baggage, for sure. There wasn’t much room in it for doubts or questions, for the messier, blurrier side of faith or relationships. But for a few years, that didn’t matter, because it provided me with what all teenagers need: a safe place.

I grew up in a tightly knit, loving, Christian family and I had a group of close friends at school, most of whom went to church with their parents but sort of rolled their eyes at my Jesus-freak-ness. But at youth group and the Bible studies I attended, my devotion was normal, even encouraged. I could hang out with other kids who loved Jesus as much as I did, who were trying to figure out how to be good and faithful people as they navigated the halls of high school. And for six years, those other Jesus-freak teenagers were my people.

I sang with the worship band and led prayers at youth group. I worked diligently through the homework questions before Teen CBS each week. I had a black WWJD bracelet and a whole drawerful of Christian-themed T-shirts. (I still have a couple of them somewhere.)

When I was a sophomore in high school, a handsome senior (whom I later dated) asked me to sing with the praise band at a new lunchtime club called the Fellowship of Christian Musicians. The audience was mostly our fellow band nerds, and they mostly came for the free food and the fun of singing songs with goofy motions. There was never any preaching or theological debate at FCM; it was simply a loud, friendly, loosely connected community, fueled by trays of Bagel Bites and taquitos pulled warm from the oven by a few dedicated parents.

And here is what it took me a long time to understand: that was enough.

I grew up in a denomination that prizes words, specifically the words of the Bible (usually interpreted a certain way) and the words of respected theologians. It also prizes testimony, the retelling of one’s own faith story, even one as quiet and nondramatic as mine. Salvation, according to a lot of its pastors, depends on a specific set of words (the Sinner’s Prayer). Baptism (adult baptism, by immersion) is accompanied by a public “confession of faith.” Rhetorical arguments for faith – even when one is literally preaching to the choir – are encouraged.

As a lifelong bookworm, I felt right at home among all those words. But I sometimes became uneasy when participating in a faith activity that didn’t involve preaching or praying, that lacked a neat rhetorical way of tying it all together.

On a September day during my senior year of high school, I learned, along with the rest of the country, about the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and into a field in Pennsylvania. Because it was a Tuesday, I headed to Bible study with my parents and sister that night, craving the comfort of normalcy and community (and freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies) after a day of strained expressions from my teachers and friends, and increasingly horrifying news coverage.

After eating dinner, I slipped into a metal folding chair next to my friend Adam, who looked as exhausted as I felt. One of our leaders got up on stage for the weekly welcome and greeting, which was somber, matching the tone of the room. As the worship band began to play, Adam reached over and slipped his hand into mine. We sat, silent, not even singing, in the darkened room, as Russ and the band played songs of quiet comfort. For almost the first time in my life, I had no words – only mute grief, and the solid presence of a community around me.

And here is what I began to understand that night: it was enough.

I am a long way from those Jesus-freak days, far from those lunchtimes when I led the FCM crowd in yet another rendition of “Sanctuary” or “Peace Like a River.” I still know all the words to those songs and many others; after years of repetition, they have made their way deep into my bones. But the words, then used so often to argue and convince and persuade, have settled into something quieter and gentler now: a background hum, steady as the blood pumping through my veins. They are no longer rhetorical weapons, polished and honed to perfection. Instead, they are part of my makeup, like my mother’s green eyes and the freckles on my nose.

These days, I am less interested in the old rhetoric of “saving souls” than I am in living a steady, quiet life of grace and peace. I refuse to be drawn into battles where people use “the sword of the Spirit” to stab each other. I have my beliefs, and they are deeply held, but I am not interested in arguing with anyone about them.

Instead, I want relationship, community. I want to offer my own presence and take comfort in the presence of other people, through times of joy and grief and through the long, everyday stretches in between.

And here is what I began learning in the evangelical subculture, and have continued to learn long after I left it: presence and community, even in the absence of so many words, are enough.

I’d love to hear about your own experiences with faith in the comments, and I’d encourage you to pick up Addie’s book – it is sensitive, honest, well-crafted and beautifully told.

(I received a free copy of When We Were on Fire in exchange for an honest review, but all opinions, experiences, etc., are my own.)

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the bookstore lenox ma

Despite my deep and copiously documented love of reading, I’ve not had very good luck with book clubs.

I joined one – a group of smart, compassionate women – when I still lived in west Texas, but I ended up moving away a few months later when my husband landed his job in Boston. A couple of years ago, two Boston girlfriends and I launched a book club, and we read some great books – Unbroken, Jane Eyre, The Weird Sisters, The Night Circus, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.  But we lost a few members due to busy schedules and other commitments, and the group eventually petered out.

But this summer, at the behest of my friend Hannah, I joined what we call the “occasional book club,” made up of 10 or so women scattered around New England, from Boston to Hartford to Rhode Island. (Hannah lives in the Boston area, but is from Rhode Island, and she is the common link between us: all the other members know her somehow.)

We meet every couple of months to discuss a book and munch on delicious food. This summer, on a sweltering July night, the menu consisted largely of ice cream. (Not that I’m complaining!) At our most recent meeting, a brilliant and wide-ranging discussion of Gaudy Night, the spread ranged from wine and candied nuts to squares of sea-salt dark chocolate, to crisp slices of bell pepper and apples dipped in hummus and caramel dip, respectively.

On the surface, we have relatively little in common except our ages (and our various connections to Hannah). We are artists, writers, librarians, office workers, therapists, stay-at-home mothers. Most of us claim some kind of Christian faith, though our backgrounds and current practices vary widely. But we all love to read and talk about books. Both meetings I’ve attended have sparked deep, thought-provoking discussions, ranging from questions of style and structure to the larger issues at the heart of the books we read.

It’s often difficult to pinpoint what makes a group work, or causes it to fall apart. In this case, the low-pressure nature of these meetings is definitely a plus: no one has to scramble to read a new book and make fresh travel plans every month. The occasional nature of the club means it feels like a treat when we do get together, and our diverse backgrounds and viewpoints make for fascinating discussion.

So many of the connections I’ve made here in Boston are different than I’d envisioned: looser, perhaps, but also rich in unexpected ways. This book club definitely fits both descriptors.

Are you part of a book club? I’m always keen to hear others’ experiences.

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Walking into the light

Harvard Yard is a different place in the early morning.

Clear, lucid sunlight falls in patches through the leaves of trees still lush with summer green. Colorful chairs lie scattered across the lawn, angled limbs akimbo, facing every which way like the passersby on the street, everyone intent on his or her own errand.

Later, the Yard will hum with students hurrying to class and tourists snapping photos with the bronze statue of John Harvard, placing their hands on his buckled shoe, rubbed gold by generations of pilgrims seeking luck. But now, in the early morning sunshine, all is quiet.

memorial church tower harvard yard

The spire of Memorial Church stretches tall and white into the sky, framed by red-brick buildings and wrought-iron gas lamps, cutouts of blue visible in its bell tower. Inside, white box pews trimmed with varnished wood march two by two up to the dark, carved pews of Appleton Chapel, the whole scene illuminated by shafts of light in the window above the altar.

memorial church interior harvard yard

We file in quietly, alone or in pairs: bleary-eyed students, grave faculty members, the occasional staff member like me. We find our places in the pews, the slim black psalters and crimson-covered hymnals sedate in their racks. The choir, a dozen or so undergraduates in long black robes with crimson yokes, processes in to the sound of the organist’s voluntary. And we begin.

I got into the habit of sleeping in this summer, hitting the snooze button a few times as the sunlight drifted in the window, rolling over for an extra cuddle with my husband. But as the new school year begins, we are getting up earlier: he to head to the gym, me to get into the shower and start my morning so I can get out the door in time for Morning Prayers.

Since we moved to Boston, J and I have been increasingly involved in the life of our little church, where he leads worship (which we often plan) nearly every Sunday. I read Scripture aloud and fill communion cups, send out the weekly email update, wash the coffeepot, write down prayer requests. We both plan and attend events, and generally help keep things humming.

We love this community, and we would not be content simply to sit on the sidelines, especially in a small place where all hands are needed. But at Morning Prayers, I have no responsibilities, no public part to play. I can come, sit, listen, and be.

We stand and reach for the black psalters, repeating familiar words of comfort, protection and grace. We sit and listen to the anthem, sung a cappella by the choir, delicate harmonies lingering on the air. We listen to a brief address by a member of the Harvard community, carefully considered words of welcome, challenge or wisdom. We bow our heads in our pews, and repeat the Lord’s Prayer together.

And then we stand, reach for our hymnals, and our voices swell with the organ in a final, soaring hymn. During the first week of school, we sang two of my favorites: “We Gather Together” and “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” The minister raises his hand and gives a benediction: “Go in peace.” He reminds us what the Lord requires of us: “to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God.”

We walk out silently, behind the choir, after the final Amen. The notes of the organ follow us out, and we scatter in all directions, to our offices and classrooms, to the work we have been given to do. This morning ritual grounds us, gives us space to begin again, to reflect on what it is to do justly and love mercy. It is a brief window, before the rush of our busy days, a chance to glimpse again the life of grace and peace we are all pursuing.


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summer small group backyard

Several times a month, year-round, a group of us gather at Ryan and Amy’s on Sunday nights. We bring a potluck dinner, the dishes sometimes loosely coordinated at church that morning or via text message the day before, sometimes utterly spontaneous (or dependent on what we all have in the fridge and the pantry).

We arrange our dishes on the long wooden sideboard, and Amy pulls out the basket of plastic utensils and paper napkins. Sophie, the gray cat, hops up in the bay window to investigate the drink options, and cranes her neck toward the sideboard, sniffing at the tempting food, till someone shoos her away.

Abi and I rummage through drawers and cabinets for serving spoons and ladles and big salad bowls. We chop and stir and heat dishes on the stove, bumping into each other, making a mess, laughing.

Michael, age seven, begs Jeremiah to join him in a game of football or soccer, baseball or (occasionally) video games on the Wii. Sophie and Jai, the black cat, wind around our legs, and Telly, the dog, pads from person to person, nosing our hands, seeking affection. We join hands around the long table and say a brief prayer. And then we pile our plates with food, pull up mismatched chairs, and dig in.

In the summer, we gather even more eagerly, because the food, and the action, shifts outside.

abi table food

The round grill in the center of the backyard plays host to bratwurst or hot dogs or chicken and vegetables on skewers. Abi stirs up a pitcher of sweet iced tea, often flavored with blackberry or mint. Michael and Jeremiah toss a baseball back and forth, all around the yard, sometimes scaring a stray bird or rabbit into the woodpile. Telly sprawls out on the flagstone patio, gnawing a bone, sated with sun and content to be among all his favorite people.

telly dog

We spread tables with colorful checked or flowered cloths. We light citronella candles, make dozens of trips to the kitchen and back, hauling out napkins and paper plates, fresh fruit and potato salad, bags of chips or raw veggies, the latter sometimes fresh from Ryan and Amy’s garden. We join hands and give thanks, and dig in.

We sit outside until the light fails, soaking up the golden alchemy that transforms summer evenings in New England, stretching the hours out like taffy. We head inside reluctantly, when the mosquitoes start to bite and the shadows start to fall, carting dishes and food and stacks of dirty plates. We divide them among the counters and the dishwasher and the trash can, and then we pull the same mismatched chairs into a circle in the living room. Sierra, age seven, passes out the heavy old hymnals and the lighter, spiral-bound new songbooks, and we riffle through the pages, and choose a song to sing.

Even though it’s long past dark by the time we leave, even though the golden light has faded from the sky, these evenings linger sun-washed in my memory, filled with herb-flecked salads and fresh, tart fruits and the smoky taste of meat from the grill. We bring food to nourish ourselves and each other, but what really nourishes us is being together, outside under the wide summer sky.

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“I’m a bread person,” Shauna Niequist confesses in the introduction to her new memoir-cum-recipe collection, Bread & Wine. “Crusty, golden baguette; hearty, grainy, seeded loaves; thin, crispy pizza crust – all of it. Flaky, buttery croissants; chewy pita; tortillas, warm and fragrant, blistered by heat.”

A few lines later, she adds, “And I am a wine person – the blood-red and liquid gold, the clink and glamour of tall-stemmed glasses, and the musty, rich, almost mushroom-y smell.”

Like Shauna, I am a bread person. I am not quite as much a wine person, but also like Shauna, I am a bread-and-wine person, which is to say, a Christian. I believe in the mystery and the power of bread and wine together, the body and the blood of Christ, broken and shed for us. And I am a table person. I believe in the life and community that happens around the table.


I’ve read and deeply enjoyed Shauna’s first two books of essays, Bittersweet (published second, but I read it first), and Cold Tangerines. She writes with warmth, lyricism and honesty about family and friendship, about incandescent moments of joy and the sharp pain of losses that come suddenly and bruise your heart.

In this third book, she turns her attention to life around the table: to beloved recipes from childhood, monthly gatherings with a cooking club of friends, meals shared with family and strangers, recipes she has tweaked and modified and made over and over again. Each recipe comes with a story (though not all the stories have recipes), and each chapter feels like a glimpse into Shauna’s (often messy) kitchen, her real (complicated, joyful) life.

I’ve written before about how my family believes food is love, how my mom made it her mission to have all four of us around the table, eating dinner together, as many nights a week as possible. I’ve written about how, when I lived in Oxford and shared several kitchens with various groups of British and American students, the best stories and conversation happened in those kitchens. I’ve written about the liturgy of dinnertime at our house, and the fun we have when we invite friends over, and how everyone ends up either in the kitchen or around the table, talking and telling stories and laughing.

This book made me want to open up my home more often, to welcome the people I love to share their stories around my table. And it made me want to get into the kitchen and start cooking – which I did. I’ve already made Shauna’s hearty, spicy white chicken chili, her delicious mango chicken curry and her mom’s blueberry crisp. All three were hits, and will definitely be making repeat appearances. There are a dozen more recipes I can’t wait to try, and at least a dozen people I can’t wait to share them with.

If you love books about food and friends and family, I think you’ll love Bread & Wine.

I received a free advance copy of this book for review; opinions are my own. I’ll also be reviewing it for Shelf Awareness closer to its publication date, April 9. This post contains IndieBound affiliate links.

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More than that, actually. My mom’s birthday is today, my sister’s is next week, and nearly every day I get a birthday notification or two on Facebook. But on Friday night, we gathered to celebrate these four ladies:

Jan bdays 005

Jan bdays 008

Gerilyn, Abigail, Katie and Kelsey (from left to right above) all have birthdays this month. When we discovered this fact at our New Year’s party, we decided to have one big birthday bash. And it was a hit, if I do say so myself. (Birthday crowns courtesy of Abi’s class of preschoolers.)

There were two kinds of enchiladas, spicy tortilla soup, pulled pork, a big bowl of guacamole, three different birthday desserts, a pot of mulled cider, and plenty of tea. There were hilariously awful first-date stories and flickering candles (birthday and otherwise). Later, there was a truly incredible game of charades. And all night long, there was so much laughter.

Since moving up here two and a half years ago, J and I have often felt isolated, lonely and far from home. We miss our families, and the community of friends we built in West Texas. (We are ever more thankful that Abi and her husband Nate, old and dear friends, ended up here with us.) We are working to build new friendships, but it is often a slow process. Forging community takes time and effort, and it’s difficult in a city where many people don’t stay long.

But on Friday night, our apartment rang with voices and footsteps and shouted guesses during our charades game. We hugged and snapped photos and sang “Happy Birthday” and told stories and laughed and laughed some more. And when we fell into bed after midnight, exhausted but happy, J and I agreed: it’s wonderful to have friends in our home. It’s wonderful to have community here. Our circle is small, but precious. And we are grateful.

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flowers church advent light

Last Monday night, J and I drove across town to the home of our friends Chris and Hannah, for their annual Advent readings. Every year, they make a pot of mulled cider, buy some festive goodies, and invite friends to join them as they light their Advent wreath and read from the week’s lectionary, and from the beautiful book God With Us.

This was our first time attending their readings, but as I listened to the words of Isaiah and Luke (and Scott Cairns), cradling a mug of cider in my hands, it struck me anew: during Advent, we wait together.

Sometimes the spiritual life seems like a solitary journey, a long, solo trek down a road that’s often dark, as you stumble your way forward, talking to a God who never does answer in the way you want him to. The tradition I grew up in emphasized a “personal relationship” with Christ, which is a valid and beautiful thing. But when I struggle, or feel joyful, or have questions, I also work through those times with my community.

After two years at our wee church in Boston, J and I are part of the team of people who make things happen. We helped decorate the church for Advent, with wreaths and candles, and flowers on the windowsills. We help plan services, choose songs, print bulletins. We answer questions and make announcements and wash dishes after the monthly potluck. Sometimes it feels like a lot of responsibility. But we are never alone, even in our small congregation. We sing and pray, grieve and rejoice, live and love, together.

My memories of Christmas, whether musical or literary or simply nostalgic, are filled with the faces of those I love: my parents and sister, my husband, my extended family, my friends, my fellow expats in Oxford. And as I continue to practice Advent (a relatively new tradition for me), I practice it in community.

We light the candles on the wreath; we read Zechariah’s song and Mary’s Magnificat and Simeon’s strange, exhilarating words. We sing all the Christmas carols we can, and we start every service with “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” And we wait for God to come, both as the baby in the manger and as the triumphant King. We wait for his justice and love to break through in our lives.

We wait together. And that is true comfort, and true joy.

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My stack of signed books is growing. Rapidly.

Prior to moving from West Texas to Boston, I had only a few signed books in my collection, mostly inscribed by Christian authors (Lauren Winner, Donald Miller, Kathleen Norris) who braved the heat and dust to come and speak on my college campus. I love Abilene, but neither it nor my hometown (even farther west) appear on most people’s book tour itineraries, and I never could convince myself to drive six hours, round trip, to Dallas (often on a weeknight) to hear even my favorite authors speak.

However. I may have mentioned (once or twice) that some of my favorite Boston-area bookstores – notably Brookline Booksmith, the Harvard Book Store, the Concord Bookshop and Porter Square Books – regularly hold readings and signings featuring authors I love. (I must also mention the Boston Public Library‘s fabulous author series.) Nearly every week, one or more of their event schedules and/or e-newsletters offers a tempting event or two that gets me thinking about how to rearrange my schedule, talk my husband or a friend into coming with me, and/or juggle my book budget to accommodate the purchase of one (or more) signed books.

siobhan fallon author reading

Siobhan Fallon reads at Porter Square Books

I don’t go just for the signed books, though I am fan-girlishly thrilled to meet these authors and tell them how to spell my name so they can personalize the inscription. I don’t go for the treats (though Deborah Copaken Kogan bribed her audience with mini cupcakes from Sweet last week, handing one to each person who asked a question). I go for that moment of connection, for the chance to hear these authors’ work read in their own voices, for the Q&As and brief snippets of conversation, for that brief glimpse into their writing process and how their books and characters came to be.

Sometimes I can only stammer and tell them how much I enjoy their work (as when I met Anne Lamott and the Yarn Harlot, Marisa de los Santos and Jacqueline Winspear and Alexander McCall Smith). Sometimes I can explain that I’m a writer too (as when I met Rebecca Makkai or Molly Birnbaum), or a reviewer (as when Niall Ferguson realized he was signing my ARC of his new book). Sometimes I bond with writers who live or have lived in Texas, like the darling Sarah McCoy and the vivacious Siobhan Fallon. And sometimes I throw my arms around Twitter pals like Rachel Bertsche, Laura Harrington and Erin Blakemore, as glad to see them as any longtime friend.

rachel bertsche reading mwf seeking bff

Rachel Bertsche reads at Brookline Booksmith

The authors I’ve met are, without exception, gracious, kind, brilliant and poised, always willing to answer questions or personalize books or listen to their fans’ stories. They love words and books and the creative process as much as I do. They are often introverts who struggle to muster the energy to speak in public (and hug strangers), but they do it because they believe in the power of stories to shape lives.

I treasure that growing stack of signed books. But I treasure these moments – these connections with my people – even more.

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I’ve taken half a dozen online classes in the past two years. And I’ve finally learned: they don’t usually work for me.

More specifically: it is difficult for me to invest in an online course (or any course) with little accountability, little or no face time, and the feeling that I’m just one person in a sea of faceless class members.

The fault doesn’t lie with the course content or the instructors – I’ve enjoyed some of the lessons on writing or photography, scrapbooking or yoga, from women like Jen and Andrea, Marianne, Jennifer and Ali. I am in no way criticizing these women or the content of their courses. In fact, I’d heartily recommend all of them. The problem is mine.

Sometimes the problem is my motivation for signing up. I’ve signed up for several online courses run by bloggers whose work I enjoy, because I didn’t want to “miss out” – because I was, in effect, trying to “keep up” with others in the blogosphere. And, tellingly, even with access to deep stories and thought-provoking questions, or useful yoga poses or photo techniques, I ended up disengaging within days.

Sometimes I simply wanted the course to do something it couldn’t do (similar to the root of the gift-giving anxiety I struggle with around the holidays). I am always – and especially since I moved to Boston – searching for connection and real community. It’s hard for me to get that in a big, anonymous-feeling online forum (though it often comes easier via blog comments, tweets and one-to-one emails). And when I start to feel anonymous and/or ignored, I shut down and withdraw. (This is true – oh so true – in my offline life, too.)

Let this be a lesson to me: there are some ways to connect online that really work for me – and I’m grateful for the community I’ve found in those places. But there are some ways that don’t suit me as well. And next time I’m tempted by an online course, I’ll think long and hard before clicking the “Register” button.

Have you taken any online courses? What has been your experience? I’d love to know.

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Recently, when I gushed about Castle (which I’m still loving – I haven’t been this obsessed with a show in a long while), I noted that while I prefer strong protagonists in books, I love ensemble casts in TV shows. Ever since then, I’ve been wondering why – and eventually I came up with two reasons.

One has to do with the nature of both media. Books, by definition, are a solitary experience. I know books grew out of a long tradition of oral history (and I grew up listening to my parents read aloud), but when I read now, I’m usually curled up on the couch or standing on the T, or I’ve retreated to a cafe or a park bench, seeking a little solitude in the midst of the madding crowd. My favorite protagonists’ voices (I prefer first person or third-person limited) pull you into their heads, their hearts, their worlds. I like to feel like it’s just me and them.

But TV shows – especially my favorite ones – are meant to be watched together. Television is a communal medium for a communal world – we’re all about connecting, or at least we claim we are, and we do love to huddle around the TV set and laugh or cry or gasp in amazement together. When I watch TV it’s nearly always with someone else – usually my husband – and the company enhances the experience. And lines from my favorite shows become part of my vernacular with my friends who love them too. (We have a growing list of favorite Castle lines at our house, and it’s actually embarrassing how often my husband and I quote Friends.)

The second reason is this: I sort of envision my life as a TV show with an ensemble cast – with co-stars, sitcom moments and even a soundtrack. (Please tell me you do this too. I can’t be the only geek here.) As much as I love the solitary, immersive experiences of my favorite books, my life doesn’t always look like that. I am the leading lady in my own story, of course, but I share the stage with an ensemble cast: my husband, my dear friends, my co-workers, my family – and a whole lot of extras.

In some ways, ironically, my Boston life can feel more solitary than communal: our friends here are scattered across the city, and our other dear ones live much farther away. My social circles are much smaller, and I no longer have an equivalent of Monica and Rachel’s apartment (which I had in college at a place we called House 9), or Monica and Chandler’s place (which I had in my post-college Abilene life, at Nate and Abi’s house). But my life still has an ensemble cast – and since moving cross-country, I cherish my “co-stars” more than ever.

Do you prefer strong protagonists or ensemble casts – in TV, books or other media? And the kicker: why?

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