The Clerestory Podcast S1 E25

The Oklahoma Tenant Farmer and Me
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Alone, Together

I stand alone by the lakeside, music spilling out of my headphones into my ears and out across the water, the notes rolling through the air like wisps of smoke dancing from the tip of a newly extinguished matchstick. I watch the ripples of water being pushed and pulled by the wind, a plane gliding seemingly silently overhead before it vanishes behind the treetops, the remains of the dried winter leaves swirling in the breeze before landing amongst the shimmering light on the surface of the water. I feel so much stillness and peace in this moment looking over God’s beautiful, intricate creations, the introvert in me recharging at a blistering pace. My gaze slowly rises upwards, where I notice three other people, also alone, and also stood still looking out over the ripples on the water. I don’t know their story, or why they are here. Perhaps, like me, they are on their way to the post office or running another errand in the middle of their day, stopping without really realising to take in this beautifully simple moment in nature. Perhaps they are taking a well-earned break from an extroverted life, one surrounded by friends, full of activity, a moment to themselves. Or perhaps it’s because they don’t have anyone else to share the moment with, so what else are they to do? Regardless of the reasons, regardless of what stories my imagination dreams up about my three new friends across the water, it doesn’t really matter. For one reason or another, in this moment, we each find ourselves alone. But on looking up, we find we ourselves alone, together.

We can find and feel community in the most unexpected places. Our individual experiences of community have been forced to change over the past year – not being able to see our friends in person, crossing the street to allow a fellow pedestrian to pass with enough distance from us, forgetting what it’s like to greet a new friend with a hug or handshake. We have all been knocked down, we have been challenged, we have been torn away from the people that we love in one way or another, all because of the same global pandemic. In my own darkest times of feeling the isolation or solitariness building up with local COVID restrictions, I also found comfort in knowing that I was experiencing this feeling of isolation with the rest of the world, all living some form of ‘limited’ life. And whilst living through a pandemic may be new to us, finding community in unexpected places is not – we just have to get better at looking for those moments and appreciating them.

In those every day moments – the ones that I often find to be the most beautiful when we allow ourselves to notice them – we are more often than not experiencing some sort of collective community, even if it looks or feels like we are alone. This, like a lot of things, is heightened in large cities. When I first moved to New York City from England, I didn’t know anyone nor have any form of community. Whilst I went on to find a wonderful “community” here, as well as my now wife and some of my best and closest friends, I didn’t have what one would think of as “community” at first. However, on my first weekend here alone, watching the sun set behind the silhouette of lower Manhattan from Dumbo, soaking in the excitement of the city, I was part of something bigger – I was a New Yorker. I may not have been able to claim the official title of a New Yorker having just arrived, but I was most definitely part of the New York City community. I had the same daily struggles that this city brings the other nine- or-so million people. I lugged my laundry down from my five-story walkup and dragged it six blocks just to have clean clothes, I dodged the rats that jumped out of the bin (translation: “trash can”) outside my building coming back home late at night, I was yelled at, I was honked at, I saw many more cockroaches than I’d ever choose to, I was quite literally shoved into the chicken pen that we call the subway on my morning commute – and whilst I was doing this “alone” at the start, I was most definitely doing it alone, together.

The realisation that you are one of many millions in a city – or even the world – can be, and should be, a very humbling thought. But it can very easily make you feel lonely, too. New York City especially can be a very easy place to feel lonely – I am not trying to diminish that very common but sad reality where many people find themselves. But in exploring the city yet again behind my lens to take the photos below, you notice just how many people there are, all doing the same thing, all alone, but therefore together. These photos capture people alone, living in their ordinary but spectacular day to day. As a Christian, I believe we are all brothers and sisters, we are all children of God, and we are all living out this short journey on Earth together. I want to challenge you as well as myself to cherish those everyday moments, those menial tasks, and look up every now and then to appreciate all those who we are walking with on this journey without even realising – the person at the checkout in the grocery store, the bus driver, the colleague you occasionally talk to – as well as those you’d call your family and friends. You don’t know how beautiful those moments might be when you are: Alone, Together.

Jonny Ryley is an Architectural Designer and Photographer based in New York City, and recently completed his Masters in Architecture at the Royal College of Art in London. He was born and raised in a Christian family the U.K. and was baptised in 2017. He worked at COOKFOX Architects before his Masters, and has just relocated back to New York City. He is now exploring new ways to combine architecture and his faith in his work. Instagram: @Jonny_Ryley

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