The trouble with getting together
Making peace with uneasy communities
Briefly: Amsterdam’s Poet Laureate Marjolijn van Heemstra talking about stargazing on How We Live Now | Members can watch the replay of my wonderful hangout with Carissa Potter Carlson here | Edinburgh Festival appearances on 15th August with Sam Baker and 16th August with Kerri ní Dochartaigh
Last week saw Bert’s last day at junior school. There was a church service in the morning, and in the afternoon the children spilled out of class clutching their sports shirts, which were covered in the autographs of everyone they knew. After that, they had decided between themselves to head down to the beach and run into the sea with their uniforms on. We dutifully followed, clutching towels and snacks. Some of the parents had brought bottles of wine. I say that with no judgement whatsoever: this was a rite of passage for us too. We had got them to the end of the first phase of school. It was a moment that demanded to be marked somehow.
I admired the deftness with which the school handled this transition. None of the kids felt easy about it, but they were kept busy over the past month with preparations for a play. Their days were given over the rehearsals, and even at home there were lines to learn, songs to perfect and costumes to make. The whole experience allowed big emotions to be rehearsed too, especially at the final performance, where nerves dissolved into delight as we rose to our feet to give them a standing ovation. Gathered together, we could make the transition feel real, and acknowledge that it’s complicated.
It was a tricky week for me, though. Arriving at the play, I kept my head down and got into my seat as quickly as possible, studying the programme intently. It’s a familiar protocol for me, and one that’s saved me from countless embarrassments. Only once I was safely seated did I allow myself a furtive look around. After years of mixing with this group of people, standing alongside them in the school gates and greeting them at the door when they collected their children after parties and play dates, I didn’t recognise a single person there.
I’m not sure my faceblindness will ever stop being a source of shame to me, because it runs so contrary to my intentions. I wanted to be able to say a few words to the people who have featured in Bert’s life, but I couldn’t. Some of the people in that room were personal friends; I struggled to pick them out until they came to talk to me. I know from repeated feedback that this reads as aloof, but it’s actually me drawing a complete blank. I don’t blame the people who judge me, because it hurts to be ignored. My disability is invisible, and few of us are secure enough to not want to be known and greeted in a social gathering.
I wrote a little about the need to turn back towards community in Enchantment, and I’ve spoken about it even more since. It’s taken me most of my life to understand what an individualistic culture I grew up in, and to see how many different people this excludes from social life. We know exactly what this ostracism does to us: it leads to loneliness, depression and anxiety on a mass scale; it often makes domestic abuse invisible; it has terrible impacts on our physical health; it prevents elders from passing on hard-earned wisdom and young people from breathing change through stale belief systems.
But here’s the problem: for plenty of people, being in community leads to exactly the same problems. It’s one of the reasons that many of us have drifted away from more communitarian ways of living. We came to see those groups as oppressive, judgemental and monocultural. I have heard so many times that it takes a village to raise a child, but I grew up as a fat, autistic, dyspraxic child of a single mother in a village, and let me tell you that community, to me, meant judgement, disapproval, gossip and ostracism.
My community threw bricks through the window of the local shop when an Asian family took over the lease. My community sexually harassed my mother because she was alone, happily groping her while I was watching and carrying on with their heavy-breathing phone calls when I answered the phone instead of her. My community’s children bullied me when I went out to play in the local streets. All the “community” part meant was that you learned not to complain about your treatment, because it would only make things worse. The kind of community I knew did not reflect when their behaviour was challenged; they drew in closer.
My experience of living in a small community isn’t unique, and it isn’t even particularly bad. Communities are not inherently good. They encourage cohesion, but sometimes excessively and by force. They are not, in themselves, the answer to all our problems. And for me, even well-intended community initiatives are a minefield. They often involve many people gathered into one place, which means noise, physical closeness and that terrible pressure of recognition. I fail at communities all the time and while I need to say at this point that they’re not accessible to me, I also think it’s important to acknowledge how difficult it is for people with vulnerabilities of their own to organise to accommodate me. My dream of the whole world wearing a name badge is pretty hard to achieve in reality.
Despite all of that, I’m going to carry on waving my tiny, doubtful flag for all of us to find ways back into community. That’s partly because communities no longer have to look like my village. This chaotic and incomprehensible age offers us an extraordinary number of different ways to gather, and those spaces can teach us how to knit ourselves back together again. It’s interesting to see Elon Musk rebranding Twitter this week with “X”, which seems designed to dismantle the last vestiges of softness in the platform (I won’t bother to mention that it’s tacky edgelord bullshit; you already know). In its first decade, Twitter taught me everything about being part of a community, not just in terms of finding acceptance and fellowship, but also in the more complex meanings of community, such as being schooled on my misapprehensions and biases, learning from the example of my elders and finding ways to contribute and assist. It is the place that showed me that communities can be priceless, and also that people like me can find a place in them.
But Twitter is also the place that convinced me of the need to re-enter more traditional communities, too. My community - which others would call a bubble - became so safe and absolute that dissenting views, even if they were merely naive, became painful for me to hear. What’s more, with only 280 characters in play, the line between dissent and aggression eroded, because a certain directness was needed. Moments of conflict would flare up, and, rather than taking the debate any further, both parties would simply block each other. It began to strike me that, in physical space, I’d spent my whole life having political disagreements with other people, but the obligation to pass each other on the street or in a corridor the next day (even if I was unlikely to recognise them) meant that we stuck with it a bit longer, and often came to terms. Most of the time, we were capable of co-existing in our difference.
We will all grow old one day, we will all become sick, and we will all suffer from personal crises that mean we are in need of help. This is why physical communities matter: they normalise the flow of care between us, taking it outside of the realms of commerce and bureaucracy and into the hands of people who know each other, who share meals and cups of tea, who stop to chat in the street sometimes, and notice if someone hasn’t left their house for a few days. This is exactly what makes them so hard, because we are so visible within these spaces, and they are microcosms of the societal ills that trouble us all - the prejudices and discriminations that make many of us want to hide. No-one should have to go out and do battle with people who hate what they are.
I’m not here to argue for a return to the kind of communities that many of us worked hard to escape, and, honestly, I am a pretty inexperienced community member myself. I think it could be done better, and I would love to know what that looks like. I’m a poor poster girl for community, and I know it. But we deserve to find our way back in.
For me, that might look like checking in on neighbours via Whatsapp, even if I don’t always recognise them when we pass in the street. I make a habit now of telling every new person I meet that this might happen, and it helps. My street has yet to adopt the practice of wearing name badges, but maybe one day. We can all dream. I don’t go to community parties or carnivals, and I don’t join clubs, but I do make sure I donate some money to any causes when they’re fundraising. I’ve driven neighbours to hospital, fetched shopping, and checked in after operations; I’ve taken out bins, fed cats and salted icy paths. There are lots of different ways to help, and one of them is politely dissenting from gossip and prejudice. That’s the hardest bit, but I think it’s the right thing to do; I can do it on behalf of others, and I hope they’ll do it for me, too. If it all gets too much, I can scuttle back to my likeminded online communities and ask for advice. It makes a huge difference to be in both kinds of communities at once.
When I worry about my place in my local community, I think back to my grandmother, who had misanthropic tendencies that would put mine to shame. She loved her own company and detested any incursion into the perfect stillness of her house. I only ever saw her make polite conversation with the neighbours, before retreating again into her kitchen, usually grumbling. But when she died, the doorbell rang again and again, and I would open it to find complete strangers in tears for a kindness she’d once done them. They were only tiny things: usually the visits for which she’d have to steel herself, straightening her back and blowing her nose, tucking her purse under her arm to march out into the inhospitable world. But they were enough to make light bonds that spanned generations, and which came back to all of us when we most needed it.
If she can do it, then so can I. It doesn’t have to follow the model set by people with different minds to mine. It doesn’t have to be noisy and demonstrative. It doesn’t have to even be visible. It won’t be easy, or comfortable. But I do increasingly think that it’s a duty in a world that’s burning.
I hope everything is OK where you are. Take care.
What communities are you part of? How do you serve them? What do they do for you?
I’d love to read your responses in the comments.
Two How We Live Now podcast episodes you might enjoy:
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