My favourite friends in cyber-space are all mildly (or not so mildly) anti-social introverts. Not that different from my most beloved in-real-life friends. “I don’t think we set out to be misanthropes,” one told me a little while ago. “It’s just that there are so many idiots out there.” “It’s not that I hate most people,” another told me, without a hint of defensiveness, and really, without that much wine consumption in evidence. “I just don’t have enough time or energy to deal with their stupid shit.”
“Jesus,” my beloved partner said, listening in on the latter conversation. “Are you ever lucky you found each other. And also kind of amazing. How did you ever manage to become friends, actually? I mean, the first time you met, did you just glower at each other across the room in mutual hatred?”
Oh, lover, I’m so glad you asked. Not mutual hatred, exactly, but… see, the story of our introverted, mildly dysfunctional “come over for a playdate, but don’t expect me to talk to you the whole time you’re here, okay, cause I’m not really into that” friendship is actually a story of how you successfully build community.
Its central thesis is, really, that you don’t need to love thy neighbour to build community. To have a tribe. The gods know I don’t, and the tribe I have, baby―each of you should covet.
But I’m telling the story all wrong. Backwards. I think the story starts in 2002, when my son was born while all of my university-era friends were either childless, single or both. Plus, most of them were no longer living in the city I moved back to. You can tell where that plot line is going? New mother. Alone. Alienated. Whatever will she do?
She’s going to build a tribe. And I did. So, skip ahead with me 11 years, to YYC’s epic flood, and meet them.
I’d introduce you to each personally, but as you can see, there are fucking hundreds of them, and, honestly, I don’t even know most of their names. See that woman, over there, with a baby strapped to her back, pulling another kid and a cooler in a wagon? She came to save me on a Wednesday night when I was having a total breakdown and couldn’t cope with the idea of cleaning one more thing, putting one more thing away―making one more decision. And then offered me her house as a sanctuary to stay in for the upcoming few days, if things were getting too crowded at my parents house, where we were evacuated.
I had never met her before. Ever.
She showed up that Wednesday, because another woman texted her to let her know I needed help, now. I had never met that woman until Monday.
I met a dozen, more, of them for the first time that Monday, when they answered my call for help for my physical community, my beloved Sunnyhill. They came―to wield crowbars, shovels, buckets, wheelbarrows. To watch children. To pick up filthy, barely-salvageable clothes to wash. To bring food. To drop off their husbands:
“He’s a carpenter. He’ll be great at deconstruction. And make sure you call us when you’re ready to rebuild.”
“He’s got lots of experience in flood restoration. Use him!”
“He’s really annoying, but very strong.” (Ha, ha, ha. No, really, she really did say that. But why-ever would you immediately think I was talking about you?)
“He’s coming with our generator, pumps, fans, and pick-up truck. What else do you need?”
They came to do the hundred things that needed to be done. Later, when things calmed down, I saw on on-line fora how they were berating themselves that they didn’t do more, feeling guilty that they didn’t do enough. Jesus Christ. They fed us, watched our kids, cleaned our clothes, supplied us with pretty much everything we needed, from labour to bleach, de-moulder, and, at one point, two Bobcats (score!). The ones who couldn’t come or “do” kept the lines of communication flowing, monitoring Facebook, Twitter, texts and e-mail. I’d shout out on-line “We needed razor-blade scrapers, because that goddamn lino is not coming out!” and someone would arrive wielding one. Ditto face masks, work gloves, shovels, bleach, bleach, bleach, shop vacs, fans―everything and anything.
More? They totally and completely saved us. What more could they have done?
They even brought red wine and chocolate. (And beer. Copious amounts of beer.)
Here’s the first important take-away: I get how each individual might think she could have done more, but, see, as a community―they did everything that needed to be done. They saved us, all 41 of our flooded homes in Sunnyhill. (And then, they went on into other neighbourhoods…)
Here’s the second important take-away: this is WHY you need to get off your shy introverted ass and start building your tribe right now. Not because I’m predicting an epic natural disaster in your future.
But life throws tough times your way all the time. New baby. Sick child. Dying parent. Paralyzing illness. Job loss. Partner loss. Immense life complications. Emotional, physical pain. Getting through any of it, all of it, alone is impossible.
Your tribe gets you through it.
And you, my cynical cyber-friend, I see you rolling your eyes, and I see you want to say, “Fuck, chick, I have friends, you have friends, friends got our backs, I know this, what snake oil do you think you’re selling?”
This snake oil, friend: a tribe is not your friends. Friends are friends, and I know you’ve got them. A tribe―a community―is the people who are going to come help you when you need them even if they hate your fucking guts some―all―of the rest of the time.
No, really. Stay with me here, because this is what you need to know, to understand, to find your tribe and to build it. See, my beloved lonely heart, if you’ve been on the parenting or life journey for a while and you feel you’re walking it alone most of the time, you’re looking for the wrong thing. You say you’re looking for a tribe, community, connection.
But you’re probably looking for perfection. Unconditional, frictionless support. Perfect understanding. “A perfect fit.”
Not such thing, baby. Community―any real community has warts:
It’s full of assholes, bitches, mean girls and parasites. People who piss you off. People who take advantage of “the system,” whatever it is. People you dislike, and who dislike you right back. Community is messy: full of fights and hurt feelings and misunderstandings. Community is really, really―REALLY―hard work.
That’s your third take-away, baby: warts. Messy. Hard. A pain in the ass sometimes. Being part of a community is NOT being part of a circle of people just like you. (I’m not sure, but I think that might actually be the definition of a cult.)
Community includes people you don’t like. And also people you’ve never met, or will only meet in times of their great need―or yours.
Back to the end of the story: so these hero women ripping out drywall, insulation, floors and stairs in Sunnyhill, feeding us and our volunteers, running errands, and otherwise saving us? They were connected, in the main, by the attachment parenting community in Calgary. Which―to jump back to the beginning of my story―I found when, as a new mother, I was looking for other mothers, connections.
I think, back then, much like you, my lonely heart friend, I may have been looking for perfection. Because it took me a long, long time―years―to build the connections that, a few weeks ago, saved my home and my neighbourhood.
But here’s your fourth take away: building a tribe, community takes time. Years. You’re not going to find it the first day you stumble into a playground. The first time you share a meal. The first time you meet a group of other new parents at a zoo or park get-together. (Although, the first time you rip out a flooded-and-rotting-about-to-collapse-upon-your-heads shed together, you might well be buds for life.)
Building community takes years.
Especially if you’re the same sort of misanthrope with severe intimacy issues as I am.
Ready for the fifth one? You’ll love it, beloved introvert. The current main forum for the attachment parenting mamas in YYC has more than 600 members. That, beloved, is my definition of hell. Too crowded. Too many strangers. Too many fragile egos, too many unknowns for someone with my vaguely anti-social tendencies. I wasn’t even on the forum when these women decided to save Sunnyhill’s collective ass.
My connection to it was historic―and I was connected to people who were still active, who were connected to others, who were connected to others, who were connected to others, including three or four other families in Sunnyhill who at one time or another were active members of the community, who were connected to others, who were connected to…
Community isn’t my bond to 600 people. Community is the entire collection of bonds. You know all those cliches: “United we stand!” “Strong together!”
Yeah. Cliches are cliches because they’re usually true.
That’s your fifth take-away: Community is the entire collection of bonds among the individuals who are part of it. Who touch it. And so you see, to build your tribe―you don’t need 600 or 60 BFFs. You invest and foster the handful of relationships that really feed you. You benefit, ultimately, from all the others―indirectly most of the time, very directly, come something like an epic flood. And you do contribute to all the others as well, indirectly most of the time, directly when they need you.
Well, unless you’re a total parasite.
But then, community supports some parasites too.
So if you’re still with me, lonely heart, I suspect you are currently in the grip of this thought:
“Woman, if that’s your cynical view of community, why the hell did all those people come to help you? Cause you sure don’t sound like Princess Community Sunshine.”
I’m not. And you should take heart: self-avowed misanthrope here. With severe intimacy issues, did I mention that? (Ask my next door neighbour sometime how long it took me to connect with her.) And I have a tribe everyone should covet. So if I got this amazing thing going for me―you can do it too.
And, this is so important: my “cynical” view of community is why I have community. Multiple, overlapping communities. See, because I don’t expect perfection―in fact, because I know community is a warty, messy, hard pain in the ass―I don’t run from it crying when my feelings get hurt, when people tick me off.
And, most important of all: they didn’t come to help me. See? They didn’t come because they loved me. They came because this is what a tribe does. What a community does: whatever needs to be done. It saves your ass when it has to. Not because it loves you, or owes you, personally. But because―it is something bigger than you and your handful of personal relationships.
So, beloved. If you’re on your life or parenting journey and you don’t have this tribe―you don’t have a community that you know is going to save you when disaster, depression, life strikes―get off your lazy introverted ass and start building it right now. You’ve got to. Alone, you will not make it.
And as you build, remember this:
A community is that group around you that does what needs to be done. That’s its definition. Nothing more. Nothing less.
You need one. Don’t think you’re self-sufficient. Or that your nuclear family–or your extended family–is enough. It’s not.
Community is messy. Annoying. Full of assholes, bitches, mean girls and parasites. It’s worth it anyway.
Building community takes time. Years. Which is why you need to start NOW.
Finally: Community is the entire collection of bonds among the individuals who are part of it. It doesn’t mean having 6000, 600, 60 best friends. It doesn’t mean loving everyone within it.
It really just means recognizing that you are part of something greater, more important than yourself, your house, your nuclear family. And being part of it… in a way that works for you.
P.S. I chose to highlight the attachment parenting community of Calgary in this story both because of the sheer amount of physical and social labour its members committed to saving Sunnyhill and also for, frankly, story-telling effectiveness (writers manipulate. It’s what we’re paid to do. Keep that in mind every time you read an allegedly “objective” newspaper or magazine article). But there were multiple tribes saving Sunnyhill’s collective bohunkus as well as its individual homes. We were a community saved by a community of communities if you like. Among those of my own tribes that came to help us was the one I forged while at a university student paper―my former colleagues there came with spouses, friends, and members of their own other tribes. My entire extended family–my parents, brother and his wife, sister-in-law and her partner, my in-laws near and far… I tend to take their contribution to the disaster for granted, because, you know–family. That’s what they do. They save your ass, no questions asked. And my professional tribe too, editors I’ve both pleased and frustrated, interview subjects I’ve flattered and skewered, readers who’ve in the past sent me fan letters… and hate letters, too. I add this PS both to honour and thank them, and also, to reassure you with this: it is possible, that as you go along on the parenting journey, you don’t really connect with other people as parents. That you’ll never find a playgroup that results in meaningful connections.
“Fuck, Jane, this is how you reassure me? What’s wrong with you?”
“Shut up and let me get to the point, will you?”
That doesn’t mean you give up on community. Find it elsewhere: in your professional life. In the arts community, or another passion. In politics (um… well, maybe). It’s out there. And it starts with one relationship.
Just remember―it’s messy.
“This is brilliant!”
“Oh, thank you. Then you might really like this: After the Flood: Sunnyhill Clean Up Day 8. And you’ve read the epic flood story already, right? No? It’s here: unLessons from the Flood: We are Amazing.“