I didn’t really have much of a community growing up. I lived outside of a town, and there were people in that town of course, but my family was isolated from any real sense of connection to most people in it. In retrospect, I can see that neither of my parents really wanted to be in that small town we called home. Unhappy with each other, young and interested in the world of business and academia, our small-town community and any long-term connection with people around them did not hold their imagination. In fact, both my parents had come from small towns. In their 20’s, when I was a child, my parents seemed interested in putting distance between themselves and such things. That was so very typical of their generation and the generation of their parents; Boomers who eschewed farming and small towns for big cities in such great numbers that they completely altered the demographic map of the US in sixty years, pushing it from largely rural/agrarian to urban/business focused. With that change, the life-skills of thousands of generations died with them. They forgot farming and growing, canning and sewing, wild-crafting and hunting in such numbers that the children of Boomers and their children have almost no self-sufficiency skills, making them completely dependent on a system that is beginning to crumble. There is danger here.
This is true of the US population in general, but not of many many areas of the world. Obviously there are many who still retain agricultural roots and skills and are embedded deeply in their communities. We saw it all over wherever we traveled. But what is “it”? What is community?
Infamously hard to define, I can tell you what community is not and then, from there, try to define it by narrowing its parameter to something simple. It is not people living in close proximity to each other without contact. It is not people who gather together to co-consume (like to shop or eat together in public), although the latter can often be used to substitute for community. So what is it?
When we think of community in the US, often our minds go back to some idealized 1950’s image of small-town life like Mayberry, or to religious communities like the Amish. What do our images of Mayberry and the Amish have in common? First of all they are images that call to mind small numbers of people interacting with each other. When you think about Mayberry, you don’t think of it as a large metropolitan area, but rather a small town where each individual is known to each other individual in some way. Amish communities are also farmsteads built around small towns centered on their Church life, fellowships that have at most a few hundred people who would all be known to each other. So we have small numbers of individuals, not large urban centers. We also have people who know each other well; know each others’ families and stories, each others’ quirks and gifts. Large numbers of people can’t know all that information about each other. If there is too much complexity, we loose the deep connections to an individual’s story. It is clear to me that knowing the people around you well is one avenue toward community.
We also witness people helping each other. Mayberry was centered around a police force who did their best to help their community, despite their own quirks and the quirks of the people in the town. You see people working to help each other in times of need, in illness or death, when people were financially challenged. So too, our image of Amish life – of community – is centered on people helping people to get their needs met. Barn-raisings are just one example of such community activity. Collectively harvesting crops, selling things at market, sharing in times of need…these are staples of Amish life. So help, but help rooted in co-creating.
Well, for me, the image of people interacting one-on-one, in person, is important. Rather than emailing or calling each other on the phone, people in Amish communities and in the fictional Mayberry would drop by, talk to each other on the street, meet at others’ houses in times of celebration or in times of sorrow. There was no technological go-between. The connection was rooted in knowing the person by spending real-world time with them. This is an investment made in individuals and families.
So, let’s look at this definition: small, manageable numbers of people; people helping others as a way of life, and usually that help is in the form of co-creation; in-person interaction on a daily basis. When we traveled in Asia, we saw this kind of community everywhere. For instance, in Ladakh – as Chris and I were recovering from amoebic dysentery – we watched a large group of people harvesting a field of barley behind the small, family-run hotel we were staying in. Day after day, groups of people gathered to harvest, sing, laugh, eat together and bring in the grain. It was the community coming to each others’ aid, and when they left the harvesting of this field, done completely by hand and then threshed nearby, they would go to another ripe field and start the process over again until the harvest had been pulled in from all of the fields.
Often, community comes to play around architectural needs, and often this type of activity is a focus of a community for months, even years, and calls upon the gifts and ingenuity of everyone present. In Bhutan, we saw houses being built. In several places, communities gathered to erect temples or repair ones that had been destroyed (this kind of community work on destroyed temples was particular to Tibet.) In a few temples, we were able to partake in festival days, where whole communities (several hundred people) would gather together to tell stories, dance, make music, laugh, eat collectively cooked meals, listen to the teachings and philosophy of elders, and introduce children to their cultural heritage – well, children and tourists. While surely these gatherings had religious significance, it always struck me as most important as a display of gifts. The temple was scrubbed and freshly painted for the occasion; the dancers danced, the story-tellers amazed, the Rimpoches (teachers) gave teachings, the women in the town and monks made meals to feed hundreds of people, vying for who had the best chili-cheese dish. Chris learned the hard way about the Bhutanese saying, “Good chilis burn three times” at just such a festival.
Another way we experienced community while traveling was unexpected to us; we met other travelers and as we moved from place to place, we saw them over and over again. We got to know them well, sometimes shared accommodations and transport options, we laughed over drinks and shared “war” stories, learned from each other, supported each other. If someone needed some supplies, they were freely given from one to another, and when the time came to part, we all felt the loss of each other’s company. This temporary traveling community pops up everywhere you have long-term traveling and is an important part of the experience.
I watched this community exert peer-pressure on travelers who were behaving badly (public drug use, for instance); once on a bus in Laos, a drunk and belligerent French traveler lit up a joint on a public bus. He was roundly mocked by the other travelers present, his poor behavior shut down before he could offend even more of the locals than he had already. Another instance, an Israeli traveler decided that he should leave the care of our driver at Everest Base Camp in Tibet and walk, with no water or cold-weather gear, to Advanced Base Camp, about 10 miles at high altitude for the trip there and back. Our driver was frantic when he disappeared and Chinese authorities were called. The Israeli traveler returned after dark, cold, with no water (he had brought none), angry that our driver had take the rest of us back to the monastery where we were staying. He yelled at the Tibetan driver, but only got so far. All of the other travelers stepped in and let HIM have it, defended the driver, and let him know how terribly out of bounds his behavior was. So, here too, is another definition of community: it is a group of people who will hold a mirror to your face when you are behaving outside social norms and enforce generally recognized codes of behavior. In other countries, having other travelers to watch your back could actually save your life.
So to reiterate, we have small numbers of people who know each other well (know each others’ stories); who co-create together and depend on one another, sharing in each others gifts; who have direct interactions rather than intermediated interactions; who share a sense of purpose or objective, like traveling or cultural belonging in some way; and who uphold community standards of behavior (which are defined differently for every community.)
For many people today (as it was for me), I experience real community for the first time in college. I believe that the importance of college lies not in the academics (ironically enough) but in the sense of belonging that is fulfilled in people who are at a stage in life seeking connection and attachment, and often find it in college life. Sometimes this is for good; sometimes not.
College placed a seed of knowledge in me; I enjoyed a deep sense of belonging to a group of people. I had a very large group of friends in school, which disappeared little by little after we all left and began building our lives. That sense of belonging never left me, and I only found it again while traveling, feeling connected myself to other travelers, and watching the community of people all over the world who had villages and small towns that they called their own, proudly, and celebrated.
When we returned home after traveling we found isolation. It left us both depressed. Our first move was to a little town, with a center and some shops, hoping that there we would be able to build community. But what was community? I knew I needed to start with people I enjoyed, and had something in common with, so I started with parenting once my first child was born. Slowly I patched together a small band of women I enjoyed who had kids, introduced them to each other, and we slowly got to know each other face-to-face, every day, for months and then years. The small mom’s group led to a larger and larger group, which after a couple of years had over one hundred members and was a small non-profit that spanned the entire suburban Philadelphia area. We moved to a new town that had a larger group of like-minded souls, and here we began the plan to start an eco-village together as a very purposeful co-creation of community. We were all wanting community…all of us. Eleven families met every two weeks for two years, and in the end we decided to make our little town our eco-village, and disbanded the idea of building something new. We all took a pledge to become part of making the town better in some way: from starting a farmers’ market, to farming a CSA, to making films about sustainability issues, to working for the arts organization in town, to borough council, to running a homeschooling cooperative, to working on local currency and public banking initiatives, etc.
I have done a lot of thinking about what has helped build our community, mutable and ever-changing as it is? What is it that binds people together? I keep coming back to the same definition of community that I experienced traveling: a group of people on a small scale, that co-creates together (rather than co-consuming together), who knows each other’s stories, their personalities, their quirks and fallibilities, their gifts and strengths. It is people who depend on each other for the latter – the gifts and strengths, and are unapologetic about asking for help from people who can give it and returning that gift in turn. Community is supported and strengthened when there is a lessening of the idea that individuals need to be self-sufficient in all things; in community, we need to need each other. I also believe it helps to acknowledge your weaknesses and strengths within community, be up front about them, and accept them in yourself.
All of this is strengthened by being physically present with each other: dinners, potlucks, visits, talking on the street, helping neighbors with tasks, community celebrations that
focus on story-telling and art, music and laughter, play and work. Community is also strengthened when there is a cohesive focus that binds people, whether that be a belief system (a church, for instance), or a community identity (First Fair Trade Town! Transition Town!) or a group project, such as building or renovating architecture or landscape.
People all over the world are born into community, take it for granted…know nothing else. For me, as for so many in this country and in the west, we are having to rediscover it – having discounted its importance in our lives. But it is critically important to happiness. There is a wholeness that comes from living in community, even when that is hard or frustrating. It is not easy to rediscover community. It has taken me ten years to build one around myself; ten years of very hard work focused almost exclusively on building a community for me and my family. There are so many reasons why community has fled from our lives in the last fifty years, since Mayberry. It has nothing to do with a conscious decision, and everything to do with money and our extractive financial system. We have removed the community-based incentive to give our gifts in community by being able to purchase anything and everything from anywhere. The need we feel for each other has literally been removed, obliterated, forgotten. Temporarily forgotten. I say temporary, because people are beginning to remember again, and saying, “No more.”