As I arrived in San Francisco, looking to the outside world like a free-wheelin’ hippie-ish-stylin’ anti-war activist and revolutionary, the one important thing I had going for me was determination. I hoped to land in community. I started off with one friend — Melody, who I knew from my year in Chicago. We found an apartment in San Francisco and another roommate, Jeff. I worked in a hippie jewelry store on Haight St. Instead of going to the gym, we got our exercise in the streets demonstrating and spent endless hours in committee meetings. But things eventually fell apart, as people set off in different directions, joined “collectives” — food co-ops, documentary film-making (Newsreel), radical theatre (the Mime Troupe) etc etc. Eventually some people joined pre-party or party formations. (In my mind this meant people taking on “working class” jobs and endlessly debating the merits of Stalin vs Trotsky vs Mao — ideological distinctions I knew to be important, but that frankly bored me to smithereens, as did “working class” jobs, which I already had — from necessity, not politics). While some discussed the need for armed struggle. I had no inclination in that direction either. What kind of sorry revolutionary was I? An independent one, I decided. I continued to hold high anti-imperialist ideals, but I was losing myself and what direction my own life might take as parts of the Left took up “armed struggle”, and the other parts fractured a hundred ways to Sunday. One needed to be hardy to join the in-fighting. I wasn’t.
I bought a one-way ticket to Europe ($135), where my aloneness was not as painful. Where Marie-Helene invited me to live for awhile in her 7th floor, cold-water walk-up. Where Pierre took me on his motorcycle to the family farm in Evreux and to visit friends in tiny ancient villages south of Paris. Everything and everyone was foreign to me, as I was to them; I was enchanted, and there, it made sense that I didn’t understand much of anything. I tried to find community in Europe too, but after six months and a very wild ride (through England, France, Spain, Morocco, Italy, and Germany), not only hadn’t I found it, I was exhausted and broke. I returned to America, to my parents’ home to rest and recover (thank goodness for parents!) and make my next escape. As quickly as I could. Back to San Francisco,
I found a partner, who became a husband. We had a child. Our troika formed a tiny but extremely significant community for a time.
The partnership ended (in its marriage form) after 12 years (then endured as friendship & family), and the single child eventually moved far away across the country.
When she moved, I thought surely I would die of loneliness. There was good in my life, but I couldn’t feel it, and the loneliness and lack of a sense of community felt murderous.
Community is the one thing I think I have always longed for. Or maybe I am fooling myself. Maybe I have longed for the independence I have actually achieved. But I love the idea of community. I believe it takes a “village” to raise a child and a community for adults to thrive. It’s a belief arising from my intimacy with loneliness, not with an experience of the challenges of living with (or up against) someone else’s rules (except as a child). I pretty much make my own. So I’m not certain about my belief. Still. I hold it, and hold it dear.
The olden days of stable extended family, neighborhood, and church communities are mostly gone, for most of us. Also gone are the days of living in one community and having one job for a lifetime. Now, with great mobility and other factors, we leave communities and jobs with some frequency, and count ourselves lucky if we find the next one.
I’ve worked hard to find and create communities I could feel at home in. I don’t rest easy in these new-ish, somewhat untested forms. Still it is what I have been able to find, to make, to co-create.
I’ll start with my latest one. The Stonestown YMCA. I joined in January of this year on the advice of my nutritionist who said, Good! you’ve lost weight; bad! you’ve also lost muscle. Who said, You need to work out and build muscle.
At the Y, I see more people I know from more different disconnected parts of my life than in any other single place in San Francisco. While I do my thrice-weekly workout, I contemplate the community. The friendly, helpful staff. The people who work out. The old the young the super-able-bodied the post-stroke the developmentally-disabled the babies and toddlers in the nursery so-the-mom’s-can-work-out-as-part-of-their-membership the school-age children in groups from summer day camps the overweight the trim the muscled the many skin tones the languages the smiles the super old and healthy 80-and-90-something-year-olds.
Like Lucille. I love Lucille. She is my friend and fellow nurse Sasha’s mother-in-law. I didn’t know that when Lucille and I first met and became friends over neighboring machines. Lucille is 93, attractive, dresses well, and always has a super nifty pair of colorful knee socks on. She is always smiling, and always makes me feel I have just made her day. In fact, after our short conversations, she often tells me with a smile and sincerity I wouldn’t dare question — You have just made my day! I believe she means this because that’s how Lucille is. She lets the good in life make her day. I’ve no doubt a lot of Lucille’s day is made up of people “making her day”. She generously lets them know that, spreading and magnifying the joy. With Lucille in my community, I feel very open-hearted and connected.
I feel a sense of community growing in my women’s groups that have been meeting regularly for years.
I feel a sense of community with writers (mostly women, but a few men) I’ve been in writing workshops with. These relationships seem to survive short and long physical distances because we “hook up” on Facebook. Every now and then I’m met with the possibility of meeting up in person. Which totally makes my day.
Also on Facebook, I rely on my FB friends to turn me on to their thoughtful reflections, the best articles, videos, humor, beauty, vacation and family photos. I love my Facebook friends. Like Lucille says, they make my day. Pretty much every day. I take a break from my FB community at my own risk.
I feel some sense of community in my neighborhood, though it’s weak. I have great neighbors. Really, really nice people. At the same time, all of them are very busy. There’s little time to even run into each other on the street, let alone get together. I try to nurture this along by hosting occasional neighborhood get togethers (others occasionally do this too), but still, it is hard to build community if the ‘time” and “energies’ aren’t there. Maybe I need to be more like Lucille and tell them, whenever we’ve had a short conversation, how much they’ve “made my day”. It’s usually true, though I usually fail to say it out loud. Sometimes Andrea and Gigi (who live across the street) knock on my door. Even if I’m still in my pjs or had a notion of doing something else, I am Always, without exception, happy to see them. They are definitely part of my community and definitely make my day!
Gigi, her parents, Stephen & Andrea, and the Heart against Hate we all created last week on Ocean Beach.
The thing is this. A lot of us look for happiness from getting things checked off our bucket list. From acquiring a new big thing, or having a new big adventure. I promise you getting things only brings the most temporary happiness. No matter our degree of accomplishment or lostness (or sometimes paradoxically both at the same time), we all need community. Even if we don’t yet know we do. When we don’t have healthy ones, we eventually might hook up with unhealthy ones. Like teenagers sometimes do with gangs, like lonely and lacking-in-self-esteem white men might do with so-called “alt-right” affiliation.
Maybe if we were all more welcoming of each other into our lives and were able to build larger, more inclusive, more creative networks of community, there wouldn’t be so many lost and lonely humans falling into the depths of loneliness, or worse — into communities based in fear and hatred of the other.
I don’t know. Just wondering…
Here’s what the community of San Francisco looked like showing up to demonstrate against hate and white supremacy last weekend.