On Community, Colonization, and Shifting Connections

The elder poet swiveled her head around the room: an assembly of ten women, at various stages of our writing careers, gathered for a second annual weeklong poetry retreat on an enchanted island in northern Minnesota. 

That evening we were supposed to be reading one another’s tarot, but she and I had (somewhat quickly) arrived at the edges of our interest in said endeavor, so returned instead to the subject of writing: I sought her advice on how to put together my first poetry manuscript–or rather, for whom: should I be thinking of the potential judges whose reign over first-book prizes is my most likely path to publication? Or (that hypothetical handful of) readers who might, eventually, hopefully, one day enjoy it?

Her assessment was to favor the latter. “You really just have to be true to yourself,” she said. “I mean, odds are that none of us are going to make it to the pinnacle of success. This, though…” She turned towards the women, huddled in pairs on the floor of a dim-lit log-beam cabin with high ceilings and old books. This is what it’s really about.” 

This, as in, being together with one another. This, as in the singular kinship found among women writers. This, as in–for the week, at least–our community.

*

A couple months ago, I attended a racial justice conference on the theme, “Decolonizing our Minds.” It was magic. We spent the bulk of the day at round tables, sharing and listening.

First prompt: who are your people? 

The question has been reverberating since.

As I shared that day with my tablemates, I’ve always longed to have one intimate, cohesive, close community. Also, I’ve never had that.

“It kind of seems like you set it up that way,” my friend R once commented, on an evening walk around a Minneapolis lake. “Like you enjoy having a lot of different groups you shift between; like that’s what you want.”

In fact, as my tablemates and (and other conversation partners since) have affirmed, my experience is common, perhaps even typical: even for those who hang onto groups of friends from childhood or college, people tend to acquire additional groups through work or neighborhoods, hangouts or hobbies.

And of course, there are ways in which I do appreciate having different sets of people: my college crew, assorted groups of writer friends–people I teach in prison with, have one writing group with, another writing group with, teach college with, went through a mentor program or residency with, etc. etc. I wouldn’t want to part with any.

But I also find myself envious of those like my oldest brother, who has maintained the same friend group since growing up in Brooklyn in the 80s: now in their late 40s, they still gather for regular dinners and weekends and parties, share childcare. They have other friends, but there’s no question that the group is core to all their lives.

I find myself longing, in other words, for the firm, intimate connection of a single, secure, close-knit community–a single, secure source of belonging.

This longing–I was recently affirmed (as I often am) by a Tara Brach podcast–is extremely human.

“Humans are built to belong,” she says. While mindfulness and other self-help-ish dogma can counsel that the most important love is for and within ourselves, she reminds us that we’re programmed with the biological need to connect with others.

It makes sense, then, to desire that firm belonging in the form of a connection to a solid community.

It also makes sense that our cultural landscape, how we live now–often, apart from family, without the traditional rooting structures of village or faith–makes most of our connections increasingly diffuse. And that, as a result, we place more pressure on individual partnerships.

I’ve been thinking about this, lately, too.

When I answered the question, who are your people, I didn’t, at first, think of Rob. I named, vaguely, New York Jews and fellow writers and South Minneapolis neighborhood friends. But as I’ve reflected since, I’ve thought about how, more and more, my partner has become my people.

He is, after all, the person who drives me to the airport at 7 am. To whom I reach out when a class goes awry or meeting I’ve facilitated turns into painful satire. He’s who I think to share with when I encounter a noteworthy article, poem or person. He, without doubt, fills the most space in my life and thoughts.

This (mostly…no relationship is perfect) feels like a great gift.

Also: extremely terrifying.

I’ve made sure not to let go of friendships; it is among my greatest fears (others: dehydration, losing hunger) to get swallowed up by a relationship, and while this one has swallowed me perhaps more than others, I (think that least that I’ve) prevented it from swallowing me completely.

Still, Rob and I spend a lot of time with just each other. We enjoy that. We have our outside connections, and some that are shared. For the most part, though, our relationship exists on its own, without strong attachment to a group.

And while it must always feel scary to have so much of oneself invested in a single person, that fear grows especially acute when there isn’t the net of a strong community beneath us.

I’d guess we’re not alone in that predicament. And I’d guess I’m not alone in feeling that such pressure isn’t healthy–puts too much stress on a pair of busy, flawed, complex humans.

*

One of the who are your people conversations was among a group of educators; in response to one teacher sharing that they had worked at the same school for twenty-five years, I shared the frustration of my teaching work being–like my social network– spread out, in this case among different institutions.

“Oh that sounds fabulous!” the teacher exclaimed. “What an opportunity!”

In other words: while I might not have the security and rootedness that he has in a single place, I have the chance to learn with and from numerous different folks.

*

A big part of the discussion at that conference was around how the legacy of colonization represents its own obstacle to community: how it fractures us (via, among other things, racism) not only from one another, but from our own histories.

Our consumerist, capitalist, white supremacist dominant culture elevates the individual and the present over the collective and our future or past. (How differently would we behave, Rob and I recently pondered, if we felt more accountable to those who will come after us, or those who have come before? Answer: probably, quite.)

Why would we want to connect with the truth of our histories, after all, when those histories involve so much blood? And while we might strive for more than self-love, don’t we need an authentic connection with ourselves in order to make meaningful connections with others–how is that even possible when so many of us are so cut off from even our recent ancestral past?
I’m not sure what to do with these questions, or what it means for seeking meaning and community. (Baby attempt: “Maybe I should get in touch with my Jewish roots and become a rabbi! Wait, I haven’t even read the Bible..”)
What I do know: on the island retreat, colonization’s legacy felt especially vivid. I was there with a group that is almost entirely white; as was the man who owned it, whose foundation currently runs and operates programming there: it was gifted him by a company who had acquired it from someone who stole it from Native Americans. 

Being there, knowing that, didn’t feel right.

Of course, it isn’t right. For what it’s worth: the foundation that runs the island is making increasing efforts to empower Anishenabe people in their organization; my hope is that they will ultimately hand over full control.

But there I was; there we were. And like many white Americans, I am practiced at pushing aside the problematic sources of my privilege.

And it is with a good deal of shame and discomfort that I tell you I was able to set down those concerns for much of the week, and enjoy the island’s many gifts: the wild blueberries and clear lake and collection of books and nooks for reading them.

And, perhaps above all: the living in community. 

For those six days, we all had a simplified answer to that question: separated, both physically and digitally, from the rest of our lives–we were each other’s people.

Most of us hardly see one another during the year. But for this one week, we become family: cook and care for each other, make one another coffee, review one another’s work, play silly games and support one another when hard emotions or fears surface.

I do feel some sadness that we don’t see more of each other off the island. (We’re working on it.)

But it also occurs to me to use that teacher’s lens instead: to see our sometime community as something beautiful, as evidence of our natural human ability to forge–quickly and powerfully–intimate connection.
It occurs to me, in other words, to value the notion that, while those connections most valuable to us may not be consistent, they arise when and how they must. 
Like everything in life, connections are fluid, uncertain, often impermanent. What’s constant is our collective need.

This helps in terms of my partnership: I know that if and when I lose Rob I will feel a great absence in my life; I also know that I don’t (can’t!) know what web of connections will help fill that space, and that I can pretty comfortably trust that some will.

It also helps in thinking about my place in community: both real and imagined. How, just as my relationships with those around me may shift and change their place in my life and impact on my thinking, so may my connection to my ancestors and descendents–be they religious, literary or familial; I may not be quite ready for rabbinical school, but perhaps exploring different aspects of my heritage will lead to a kind of growth I can’t yet know.

I may never arrive at a concise answer to the question of who my people are. But maybe I can move toward seeing that less as a problem, and more as a gift.

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