Saturday, December 29, 2012

Group vs. Community

"I love individuals. I hate groups of people. I hate... a group of people who have a common purpose. 'Cause pretty soon they little hats, y'know, and armbands and fight songs... and a list of people they're gonna visit at three a.m." -George Carlin

Of all Carlin's choice witticisms, these words speak most directly to my soul. Groups creep me out, whether they're organized religions, political parties or social clubs. Trust me, I've experimented with all of these things. But "getting involved" with a crowd of like-minded individuals inevitably leads to me becoming deeply self-conscious and saying something awkward. I do well with a couple or a a few other people, but conversing with a larger assenbly stresses me out. When my daughter was born, many cool, intelligent women would say, "You should join a mommy group," and I would say, "Oh, what a great idea," as I shuddered internally. I don't necessarily think all groups are inherently bad, they're just not for stalwart introverts like myself.

I recently wrote and performed a monologue about my experience being a polite northerner living in the south. I talked about feeling that I don't belong in either my native Michigan or here in Chattanooga and that I was starting to give up concept of belonging. I really meant those words when I said them, but then the next week came along...oh, brother, what a week. By the time it began, Michigan was suddenly on the verge of becoming a so-called "Right to Work" state. A few lame duck Republicans helped pass that and a slew of other conservative measures that wouldn't have passed in January. That knocked the wind out of me and many people I love. But as depressing as it was, I found the vehement response from Michigan workers just as moving. 12,000 people protested in Lansing that Tuesday. They made me proud to be from a place where people push back even when they know they won't win, because that's what you have to do. I followed the protest online, but I wished I could have been at the capitol with them.

The tragedy at Sandy Hook elementary school happened a few days later. There's too much to say about that. My words are insufficient at this moment. I feel a deep sense of mourning for the victims and also a need to evaluate my part of this American culture of violence. Many of the people I interact with online have expressed similar emotions, and that comforts me. Granted, some cope by way of their soapboxes, which can be annoying. But most of that indignation comes from a place of sensitivity. I'll take sensitivity over its alternative any day, but especially on that day and the many long ones that followed.

That gut-wrenching week also saw the sudden and too soon passing of a highly esteemed friend in Michigan, the patriarch of a wonderful family I first met twenty years ago. They're a very smart, funny, creative lot and seem to draw all sorts of interesting people into their circle. This was especially apparent from the outpouring of heartfelt condolences and sweet remembrances shared on Facebook alone. From my point of view here in Tennessee, that was FB's finest moment because it allowed me to be part of this beautiful, intricate tribute to a man so many people loved. It made me very sad, but (at the risk of being a bit too earnest) it also helped me find a space in my heart I didn't know existed.

In the midst of so much heartache, that experience made me realize that I do long for a community, something I don't currently have here in Chattanooga. And that makes me wonder, how do communities form? Why do some places work for me while others don't? I lived in Ann Arbor, MI for nine solid years but never felt at home there. Sure, I met some great people, made friends, had a couple cool jobs, lived in a student co-op. I belonged to several loose, unorganized crowds, usually comprised of transient individuals (students, mainly). But I didn't feel part of a rooted society. And that's very similar to the way I feel right now. Again, it makes me wonder if I'm just incapable of communal kinship.

But now that I have Michigan on my mind so much, I remember that I did feel a sense of community when I lived in Ypsilanti. Ypsi is Ann Arbor's smaller, humbler town next door. I adore it, as I have since the day I first moved there. Even now when I go back to Michigan and wonder, "What the hell did I miss aboout this place? The endless winter? The roads? Everyone being broke and depressed?", I'm always happy when I find myself back in Ypsi. That was the place where I actually got to know my neighbors. We'd run into each other while walking our dogs or at the food co-op. Sometimes we'd meet up for trivia or karaoke at the bar down the road. And when a bunch of them were unjustly fined for not shoveling their sidewalks (they had, by the way), I went to a city council meeting to support them. To me, that signifies community - giving up a Monday night at home in the middle of February to fight the man on behalf of your neighbors.

Like groups, I suppose that communities tend to form around shared passions and ideals. In Ypsi, my neighbors and I felt a common pride and affection for our sweet little underrated town. Now there's a nice, broad area of interest. It allows for a wide range of types, ages, backgrounds, styles. You don't have to spend a lot of money or dress a certain way to love a place like Ypsi. You don't have to believe in the same god as the next guy, or any god at all. You can be a loner and be a part of something bigger than yourself at the same time. I was able to do it there. I want that opportunity again.

I'm hopeful that it'll happen, maybe here, maybe somewhere else. I sometimes fantasize about moving back to Ypsi and reclaiming my battered home state, but life isn't likely to move us in that direction. And if it doesn't happen in Chattanooga, I won't take it personally. Maybe communities are like friends - you hit it off with some folks and not so much with others. It isn't that those non-friends are bad people. They're just not your people.

I'm grateful for at least knowing what I want. And until I find it, the internet is proving to be a surprisingly good proxy.


  1. I did get a lump in my throat reading this, about the Shovelgate remembrance and the incredible goodness of your support in that stinky room at City Hall! (Okay, maybe not stinky but drab!) And you know this already, but this belonging thing, is complicated--we don't quite belong here right w/o you four. But a bright spot this sunny, cold, snow-covered day: there are robins flying everywhere. And we WILL remove this stinky (aka drab!) governor at the next election. Maybe you'll be back in time to help. We LOVE you.

  2. Aww, love you guys, too! Ypsi's the best because of friends like you. Happy New Year : )