We moved to the Dallas suburbs a decade ago when the sprawling metroplex boasted a single Ikea. The Swedish-based super retailer known for cheap furniture, white curtain panels and frozen meatballs sat squat and sprawling at the corner of two major toll roads only about ten minutes from our new home. I bought the curtains for our soon to be nursery and gave thanks for their cheap, white picture frames I used to adorn our mostly bare walls in our new little home. Their familiar primary blue and yellow rising alongside the interstate welcomed people from around the city and surrounding areas looking for furniture for dorms, first homes and other affordable needs.
“Maybe we can get together the next time we come out to Ikea.” friends from other parts of the metroplex would say when they heard we moved a mere ten minutes from Ikea. A vague promise of a someday connection.
Sometimes the promise would be more specific. “We really need to get a new TV console, maybe when we come to Ikea we can all grab lunch. We can meet the baby.”
One night after the baby had been put to bed, the dishes done and we had collapsed into bed ourselves, we laid there talking about all the friends we hadn’t seen in the past year. One time family friends living 30 or 45 minutes away. College roommates living in another sprawling suburb in the ever-expanding metroplex. Colleagues turned friends over the years of sharing work and life together. As we lamented the barrenness of community in this city that we had once called home that had yet to feel that way, we took stock of all the friends we’d struggled to reconnect with between new careers and new babies.
We longed for deeper community. Geography was a hinderance, but there was something else at play.
Finally, Tim said “they are Ikea friends.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, we are only good enough to make plans with if they also have an errand to run at Ikea. We are not strong enough friends to make plans with if there’s nothing to grab at Ikea.” His tone was one of frustration, but over the next decade we came to use the term “Ikea friends” to classify the kind of friends that we maintained through loose convenience. Ikea friends came to signify that outer orbit of friends we accumulated through kids activities and past affiliations that were more than the ambiguous ties of Facebook friendship but who were attached by loosely tied strings.
For two years our family and countless others spent time in tighter knit circles, carefully selected as part of our “pandemic bubble.” We did outdoor playdates and cookouts, laughing and sometimes crying at what it meant to pandemic parent as our kids gleefully played tag in the warm Texas sun. We compared newest pandemic data and weighted our choices together.
The spot that our Ikea friends once held felt meager and insufficient. What we wanted was people who were willing to go through the fire, or at the very least a global pandemic with us.
Ikea friends might see you if they had a convenient reason. An errand on your side of town or a sport tournament in the next suburb over might be cause for lunch or a quick drink. They wouldn’t visit you in the hospital or be the person you’d call sobbing from your hidden spot in the laundry room at 7pm because the day with two small kids ended in utter ruins.
However, Ikea friends hold value in the ecosystem of community and we are not better for loosing so many in the past few years. They may not be the friends that show up at the hospital but they are the friends that will drop a meal by the house or Venmo you money for takeout. They may only see you when they have a convenient reason, but they make the effort. Not every relationship serves the same purpose and Ikea friends are part of the outer webbing of our community ecosystem that hold it together when things spin out.
The flip side of loosing our outer orbit of friends is that we have stopped being the outer orbit in someone else’s community. We are not better for missing a chance to drop meals by the home of a new mother or slip a card in the mail to the newly widowed church person we barely know.
We need a variety of relationship that make up the full ecosystem of community. Friends that we see weekly and friends that we see annually, friends that hold history and friends who embrace making new memories are all part of how we create care, empathy and healing in the world.