On seeking joy through community
When I was young, my parents built a community. We were strangers in a strange land, seeking a sense of belonging. They found others, from the same cultural background, with similar stories of feeling adrift in a new place, missing families and familiarities. They banded together.
Being around each other, speaking our language, sharing our food, brought an enormous sense of relief. Here, at last, we could let down our guard, commiserate over common experiences, bemoan the paucity of rice and spices, be most ourselves.
We were still ourselves when we went out into the wider society, but we were a more curated form of ourselves. We tucked language carefully behind accents, left pungent spices at home, and stopped oiling our hair. We folded saris and mundus, stored them at the backs of wardrobes, put pottus on mirrors in bathrooms instead of foreheads, and blended in about as well as the nuns at the casino in Sister Act.
When we were together, though, the air trilled with the sound of language and laughter and song. We teased, we confided, we guided.
It was not a utopia. There were fights and gossip and blame. There were dark acts and secrets, too. Like the girl with a curl in the middle of her forehead, this microcosm of society was very very good when it was good, and when it was bad, it was horrid.
In my teens I pulled away from this community. It felt restrictive, confining, its rules too unbendable, too unforgiving. I wanted freedom, though I couldn’t define what that meant at the time. I was at high school, steeping in a society that valued individual freedoms, that peddled the primacy of individual choice, and I bought into it wholesale. I rapaciously consumed notions of rebellion, of personal freedoms, and romantic love from TV, movies, magazines, music and novels. I was a material girl, living in a material world, and I just wanted to have fun. Thanks, Madonna and Cyndi Lauper.
My relationship with the community of my childhood grew fractious. We grew apart. We stopped texting. Interactions became awkward and stilted. And less frequent. But we had been too close, too entwined to be truly separated. The people I was closest to, the friendships that stood in for siblings and cousins went beyond those early years of seeking common ground and shared experiences. We were in it for life. When I got married, when my father was diagnosed with cancer, later when he died, and when I had children, this community showed up and showed out. They folded me into their bosom and consoled or celebrated as befitted the occasion.
Later, when I left the city, and again when I left the country, I found myself adrift in the same way my parents had all those years ago. I had children in an unfamiliar new place with no family, no support structures, and no idea what I was doing. I was overwhelmed and lonely. I found myself building my own community, just as my parents had done.
First those communities were centred around study and work — both in-person and online. Social media has been part of my life since the days of listservs (I really am that old. I was on linguistics listservs back when I was doing an undergrad degree).
After I had children, communities grew up around their activities; playgroup and dance classes, gymnastics and sport, school and playdates. As children grew, and schools politely shooed parents away from classrooms, my communities morphed back to largely online ones.
Far from home, often isolated and desperately lonely, those internet connections were a lifeline. They were a reminder that others had trod the path before me, or were treading beside me. They were a chance to connect, to seek help, to offer solace, to commiserate and celebrate. They were also, like all communities, places where fights broke out, jealousies were aired, tempers were tested, and people came and went.
Now, as the global pandemic nestles in for its third year, as we throw around variant names like confetti, the need for community feels more important and urgent than ever before. Even for an introvert who needs recovery days after social interactions.
There’s nothing quite like babies and dogs to start a conversation with strangers, and my dogs, with their enormous personalities and tiny bodies, have been the catalyst for connecting with community.
Twice a day (at least), I walk my dogs around the neighbourhood. It’s good for them — they can sniff and pee, run and jump, socialise with other dogs and people, and get the lay of the land. It’s good for me too — it gets me out of the house, I can listen to music, podcasts or books, talk to other dog owners and neighbours, orient myself geographically, and watch new beauties emerge from surrounding gardens with the changing seasons.
Because of them, I’ve gotten to know my neighbours (and scored some of the most delicate, delicious Italian biscuits). Because of them, I’ve connected with other dog owners, stopping to chat as we walk the footpaths, or watching adoringly at the local park or school oval as our charges romp and bark and chase each other around. I’ve met people whose names I’ve never learnt in five years, and others who’ve introduced themselves and their children immediately. There are wave-to people (you know, the people you wave to from a distance but never actually strike up a conversation with) I recognise largely because their dog plays with mine, and others who’ve given me solid tips on which pet insurance is better than the rest.
The size and shape of community has changed over the years. So has the number of communities I’m part of. Many, topic-specific communities have bloomed where only one cultural community existed. Some communities are dog-shaped, others are word-shaped, some are school or university-shaped, a few are work-shaped, and yet others take the form of long-standing friendships that grew from those early cultural connections. Some of them are points of daily (or more frequent) connection, others are weekly or monthly, others are irregular and rare. All of them require tending and curation, all of them challenge me and push me forward in unexpected ways, all of them ground me. All of them are sources of joy.
Featured image: six forearms photographed from above, interlinked, each hand grasping a neighbouring wrist to form a circle. Two of the hands have gold wedding bands on them. The background is green grass.