So here’s how it happened: I’m sitting on our beautiful unflooded Common* with some of my favourite people and wine is flowing and the fire is crackling and we’re talking about all the signs of “normal” that are returning to our lives: the police stopping speeders, peace officers handing out parking tickets, citizens complaining about “the City,” neighbours starting to rag on each other… And I start expounding, aided by the freely flowing wine, about how that’s THE thing about community that people just don’t get. That it’s messy and conflict-ridden and hard and…
… and I blather on, because this is a huge horse of mine in these post-flood days, and as I say, “And community IS full of assholes and parasites… and bitches and mean girls and…”—at that precise moment, I see the essay and I fall in love with it. Oh, yes. Community, such a fuzzy-wuzzy warm word, rose-coloured glasses and hugs and smiles and planting flowers and front porches and granola-making organic-gardening hippies—oh, yes. And the punchline of the piece—I love it, I feel my toes curl in anticipation of how I’m going to lead up to it—the punchline is going to be, “Community is full of assholes, bitches and mean girls. And parasites.” And I’m going to repeat it a couple of times in the piece, like a chorus, and I’m going to build it around the YYC Attachment Parenting Village, because oh-yes-oh-yes-the-contrast—the immediate association of baby-wearing-co-sleeping-gentle-discipline-mamas and the bitches and mean girls line, oh-yes…
So I write it, first in my head, and then on-line, and I touch a raw nerve, of course, but…
Not quite the one I intended.
Now, that doesn’t happen to me very often—because I am an extremely effective manipulator of feelings and reactions when I write, even on those rare occasions when I so fall in love with a phrase or a sentence that I build everything around that. But. Here, I own my failure. Clearly, if I feel so many of you—not so much those of you publicly commenting on the post on my blog, but those of you dissecting it in other fora and in particular those of you sending me emotive private messages about it—missed its key point, I’ve failed as a writer.
“Yo, Jane, first visit here. What the hell are you yammering on about?”
“Yo, welcome. This: Why you need to get off your shy, lazy introverted ass and start building your tribe RIGHT NOW. But you can finish reading this missive first before going back in time to misunderstand the first one… It mostly stands alone, after the next paragraph.”
So. I own my failure. Should have refined, revised. But. I think my failure is also part of this attachment to a utopian vision of community so many people buy into. D’you know what I mean? When I say tribe, community, you don’t think bitches, mean girls, assholes and parasites, do you? No. You think perfection, utopia, eternal friendship, unconditional love, and warm bowls of soup… and when you talk about building your tribe, finding your tribe you seek perfection and utopia—or at least a hell of a lot more of that than I do. And beloved, when you seek perfection in community, it will always, always, always disappoint you.
And I really, really, really want you to have a tribe. So I am now going to pick up a sledge hammer and whack your brain with it, very bluntly, three times. Ready? Three points. Hear them. Understand them. Or die alone.
Here we go:
1. Community is not selfless.
Community, tribe does not equal charity. Or unconditional help and support. Or love, peace and eternal grooviness. And, so, you see, community is not selfless. It does not act selflessly as an entity, nor do its members act selflessly as individuals. You get out of community what you put into it. But not in the way you think.
I’m not talking about quid-pro-quo/I scratch-your-back-your-scratch-mine kind of thing here. That, beloved, is called reciprocal altruism, and it’s an essential part of most social relationships. Social transactions in a community are more complex, and they work like this. Patty’s really sick, and so Anne watches her kids for weeks and Sarah pops in every few days with groceries. When Anne’s marriage starts to implode, Lucy steps in to watch her kids so Anne and her partner can go to counselling sessions. Sarah calls Anne every few days to check in on her. When Sarah has a new baby, Karen sets up a meal train for her… And so it goes.
That’s how community works. It’s a collection of bonds. See? That’s how you get out of a community what you put into it. Not necessarily—in fact, rarely—from the person you give it to.
Now… Sarah is not feeding Patty and checking in on Anne because she’s anticipating payback down the line when she needs it, of course not. She does all that because she’s just a good person, right? A good friend. She loves Patty. She wants to help Anne. But each of those acts builds her social capital. And when she needs it, the community will give it back to her. Patty may not help her out, because maybe when Sarah’s in need, Patty’s life will still be a mess. But someone will. Guaranteed. Because Sarah’s part of a community in which she’s invested.
But that community, it’s not selfless. Not at all. It only carries its parasites for a while. If Patty just keeps on collecting and never gives back—she starts getting less and less. And funny thing: it’s rarely a conscious, explicit decision. It’s not that the community gets together and says, “Patty’s a parasite and we’re done with her.” It’s more subtle. People notice, as individuals. And, as individuals, choose to send their energy and help elsewhere.
So, beloved. Don’t be a parasite. Give, contribute, build, help. When you can. Because you never know when life will force you to collect.
Reader freak-out: Are you calling me a parasite?
Jane: Maybe. Are you?
2. Community is supposed to ostracize.
Holy fuck, did you hear that? That was a thousand jaws dropping, rose-coloured glasses smashing into little pieces. And gentle readers unsubscribing en masse. But yes, beloved. You do not include without excluding. You do not define what something, some circle is without leaving someone outside it. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS AN ALL-INCLUSIVE COMMUNITY. Every community, as it defines itself, defines who it includes within its circle and who it places outside them. Every community has rules. Articulated rules. And unspoken rules. And it punishes the members who break them.
Once, someone asked me to write up a piece on their little sub-community, and she wanted the dominant image to be “a diverse group of like-minded people.” Ha. You can be a tribe/community that values diversity up-the-wazoo—there will still be some type-a-thing you’ll exclude. Want to run a puppy mill in Sunnyhill? Get the fuck out. Not gonna happen. Crackhouse next door? No. Not part of what I want my diverse community to be, sorry. Joining an AP support group and looking for validation of your choice to sleep train your three-month old? Sorry. Wrong forum. A Richard Dawkins-loving atheist looking for affirmation in a creationist book club? Why the hell would you do that to yourself?
Community excludes and ostracizes. Rejects as well as embraces. That’s part of what it does.
Reader freak-out: You’re supporting ostracization and shunning and cyber-bullying!
Jane: No, I’m not. More on that in a future post. In the meantime, read the above paragraph again. Think about your tribes, communities and what defines them. What makes them what they are? Do their definitions truly exclude NO ONE? Really? Because I can give you a list of six people immediately that you would want to exclude out of your community, no matter how inclusive you claim it is. Community excludes. There’s no getting around that.
It totally sucks to be on the receiving end of that. Totally. Which brings us to sledge hammer point three:
3. It’s okay to leave.
We live in a really amazing, unprecedented world right now. For the first time ever, many of us get to choose our tribe, our community. We’re not stuck with the one we’re born into. We can work to change our community… or we can choose to leave. Find a new one. Start a new one.
This is an amazing, awesome and absolutely revolutionary idea. And it’s not true for all of humanity, and certainly not all of North Americans. But it’s true for me. All of my tribes, bar my extended family, are tribes of my choosing and creating. And I know it’s true for many of you. If you’re privileged enough to have access to the Internet and free time enough to surf and blog, you’re free enough to choose your tribe(s), your communities.
So. You can choose. You can leave.
As a new mother, I went through three different playgroups before I found one in which there was enough commonality between myself and the other women that I chose to stay and get to know them. As an adult looking for a “home,” I had two horrible misfires before finding my piece of beloved flood plane. As a fledging homeschooler, I’ve lost count of the number of on-line fora I’ve stumbled through before finding a couple that worked for me for a while… and then, decided to leave all those and start another that did what I needed such a forum to do… and no more.
You can choose. You can leave.
But… community is messy. And it takes time. And every, every, EVERY community has its assholes, bitches, mean girls, and parasites. So if you’re leaving all the time—if every time you encounter a community’s wart, conflict, friction, pain or dark side, you immediately run… oh, beloved. You will die alone and unhappy.
You will never find a tribe that works for you, my serial communist. Because… messy. Hard.
Reader freak out: Did you just call me a communist?
Jane: A serial communist, no less. What? You’ve got a problem with that?
* What is this Common about which you keep blathering? The common green space onto which many of the units at our housing co-op back onto. My extended backyard. My world. The reason I can raise and homeschool three children in 1000 square feet of badly designed space. Where I meet my neighbours and entertain my friends. The most important physical space in my life. Do you have a Common? Get one. Make one. Turn your backyard into one by inviting friends over to hang and drop in—all the time. Take over a public park with friends—preferably at the same time each week, each day. Spread the word. That piece of green space in your neighbourhood no one uses it? Make it your own. Make it your Common. Community needs common spaces, and it needs them to be used. Loved.
PS Worth reading: The talented Katia Bishop, who usually blogs at I Am The Milk, had an article last week on MamaPop that really resonated with me: 7-Year-Old Girl Sent Home From School For Having The Wrong Hairstyle. Have a read… And a think. And if you haven’t yet read The AP Hair Style: I don’t brush my children’s hair. It’s a massive philosophical thing, really–well. Have a peak there too. But read Katia’s post first.