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.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Third Confession

I gave a toast at my sister M and her wife E's wedding in October. For months, I was nervous about it. Being shy and introverted as I am, public speaking has always filled me with dread. But how could I turn down the opportunity to pay tribute to one of the most loving and enduring relationships I know? Preparing my little speech was a surprisingly fun writing activity because it involved telling true stories about people who are dear to me. It isn't so different from what I do here, really.

I was anxious until the moment I stood before that tent full of fancy dressed onlookers. But, oh my goodness, it went so well. My stories flowed. People laughed, people went "awww", people applauded in the middle of the toast! I felt so honored to be cheer leading M and E's union and so pleased to have worked up the crowd. But I won't lie, it was also a big ass ego boost for this quiet writer.

A couple weeks after the wedding, I received a Facebook invite for a local event called Wide Open Floor, which is a monthly open mic night at a small dance theater. Naturally, it often includes several dancers but also poets, musicians, comedians and storytellers. It's one of those Chattanooga arts things that I read about and think, "Oh, I should check that out," and never do. But I was still high on the wedding toast rush when it occurred me that I could tell stories at Wide Open Floor. Why not?

At the start of this year, I resolved to take my writing more seriously. Aside from just writing more, this has meant delving deeper into social media and its outlets for self-promotion, as well as submitting an essay to a literary journal. But until that moment, I'd never considered writing as performance. Maybe this was exactly what I needed to do. I don't appear to have many blog readers here in Chattanooga. One reason may be that people around here don't seem to spend as much time online (that's what I like to tell myself, anyway). Perhaps public storytelling would allow me to connect with another sort of audience. Maybe it would just be fun to try.

I missed early sign-up for the November WOF. While they allow space for last-minute contributions, I didn't feel quite ready for it anyway. I attended as an audience member instead and I have to say, the breadth and depth of talent was quite impressive. Sure, some acts were far more engaging than others, but I honestly admired every person who had the nerve to get up there. Their gumption inspired me and got me excited for my next chance.

I signed up for the December show with little idea what I would present. I considered reading some old material, perhaps one of my more story-ish blog posts. I've tried writing fiction, but my brain isn't much good at extrapolating upon past experience to create something new. I just find it easier to write honestly about my life and the things I know, which seems to work fairly well in this format. But unlike a work of fiction,  a spoken blog entry (one of mine, anyway)* is just plain awkward and I felt like doing something new. Ultimately, I pieced together a few old stories, all of which I'd related in past posts, and built a narrative around my experience being a polite northerner living in the south. I liked my piece. I rehearsed it. By mid-day Friday, I felt completely ready.

I performed on Friday night. It was one of the most horrifying moments of my life. When I got off stage and back to my seat, Dan said, "You did great!" I laughed. "No, I didn't." In hindsight, I don't think I did such a bad job, but it wasn't even the quality of my story or presentation that upset me. It was the spotlight. I couldn't see any of the audience members' faces, just dark fuzzy outlines of a too quiet crowd. I felt like I laughed at my own jokes more than they did. Granted, that's an almost daily occurrence in the life of Tara but not on that scale. I was never able to harness my voice, which trembled throughout my eight minute piece. Eight fucking minutes.

Though I'd hoped to go out for a celebratory drink after the show, various technical difficulties plus my late placement in the program meant that I got off stage at 10:40. Our babysitter expected us at 11:00. It was a pretty shitty night. I didn't feel like celebrating anyway. I just went home and cried.

Now I know why narcissists do so well in spotlights. It doesn't matter, because they can never see anyone else anyway. I, on the other hand, felt so awfully vulnerable. That sense of disconnection with a silent listener reminded me of one of the other most horrifying experiences of my life, the Catholic rite of confession. I only ever did it twice, in preparation for my first communion and my confirmation. The second time was the worst. Not only did I have to drag myself into that narrow, little booth and whisper all my sins through a screen to some faceless priest, I had to admit how long it had been since my last confession. I felt more guilty about that than anything else, especially every Sunday when I walked down the aisle for communion. "It's SO WRONG that I'm doing this because I haven't confessed my sins in YEARS but if I don't walk down the aisle, everyone will know that I'm a BAD PERSON." Oh, the layers of shame. I was about 14 years old and certain I was the only one who felt that way.

When I finally entered the confessional that second time, I had to tell the priest my dirtiest secret right off the bat. "Bless me father, for I have sinned. It's been six years since my last confession." He tsk tsked and said, "That's a very long time." Then I mentioned fighting with my brother and sister and being mean to some classmates. When that didn't seem bad enough, I added some blown up charges of swearing (which I'd done only once, in private, to see if god would strike me down). I think I got five Hail Marys and that was that. I felt relieved, but only because it was over. I didn't feel like a better person. And that was one of the early inklings, one of those nagging moments when I had to ask myself, does this belief system make any sense at all?

Within a year, I was faithless. I would still go to church because I didn't want to make waves, but my inner self was done with being Catholic. Around that time, my English Lit teacher, Mrs. P, read Frank O'Connor's short story "First Confession" to our class. It's a brilliant, hilarious tale, in which a little Irish boy dreads admitting to a priest that he wants to kill his crass, ill mannered grandmother. Most of the kids in my class were Muslim, so I don't think they necessarily appreciated it. I had tears and snot running down my face, it was so fucking funny.  But Mrs. P was also a gifted storyteller. She recited the whole story in a brogue. That still stands as the best reading I've ever attended. Come to think of it, I probably should have taken her forensics class. Maybe I'd be better at this public speaking stuff now.

I'm not positive that I won't do this Wide Open Floor thing again. I still stand by my story being good, even if the presentation was nerve-wracking. Maybe next time I'll talk about being terrified. Maybe I'll ask the tech guy to raise the house lights. Maybe I should have asked the priest to pull back the screen. I remember that being an option. It seemed like the craziest idea at the time, but I have this weird feeling it might have helped me quit being Catholic sooner. Maybe I would be less Catholic now.

*I tried doing this on a Youtube video when my friend G asked me to share my birth story with her Bradley Method class. After reading and recording both posts, I watched about thirty seconds and thought, “Well, this is terrible.” So I recorded myself talking through my story instead, and that turned out to be much better.