For almost as long as I can remember, living in communities has bedeviled me.
Family forms our first community, of course, and mine had more than its share of troubles, some of our own making, some imposed, and some such a tightly wrapped product of those two causes that untangling the strands of their origin is proving to be a lifelong task. Let me summarize the problems as drinking, depression, sex, stubbornness, violence, sibling rivalry, love, anger, abandonment, racism, Army life, sexism, stifled opportunity, colonialism, the lack of money, war, and an almost pathological inability to release the past, either in its beauty or its ugliness.
From this primary and most intense community, I fled to two others for respite: school and the Roman Catholic Church. And in large part, they saved my life. In school, I was singled out as smart, well-mannered, socially adept, not the physically weak, near-sighted, often teased, easily angered, highly emotional boy my siblings saw. School was the first place I felt competent and valued. Likewise, I embraced the soothing regularity of Catholic Mass and the message of universal spiritual equality. I also had the magical good fortune to come of age in the open air that Pope John XXIII had breathed in the church by convening the Second Vatican Council. I had the image of priests and nuns who advocated for peace and social justice as well as spiritual salvation, religious people who, in fact, linked the two; through my adolescence, I made those values my own.
But over time, the colder of side of community became more insistent. In the small city Catholic parish and school where we landed around the time of my father’s retirement from the Army, I came into contact more and more with direct racism and a lack of interest both in learning and the suffering of others. And even after I left and went on to college, my faith in communities began to wane. Those qualities that I thought existed only in bad communities became more apparent to me in all the communities I encountered. Narrow-minded academics, judgmental and even bigoted people of faith disillusioned me.
As writing became the central activity my life and work, even those communities disappointed me. My experience in a creative writing program—the competitiveness, pettiness, narrow-mindedness, and lack of generosity helped me realize that the love of art was no inoculation against meanness of spirit.
So for most of my adult life, I’ve drifted in and out of community life. At various times, I’ve tested the communal waters of spirituality, of higher education, and of the creative life and general come away thirstier than before. Rather than a community, I decided, I wanted the company of a few like-minded friends.
But my experience during the end of last month has opened the door again. A ten-day writing workshop facilitated by this writer, and suggested by this blog (which has become something of a touchstone for me) allowed me to explore community again, and I’m glad I did. In the reflective writing exercises, I learned more about myself than I had expected, and the validation I encountered encouraged me to recommit myself to the central work of my life: creating experiences in written language.
Most of all, it reminded me that even an imperfect community, as all communities are, can promote growth. I don’t have to agree with everyone in the community, nor they with me, to be confirmed and strengthened in my resolve. Not only does the contrast of ideas expose me to ways of being I hadn’t considered, or had considered but dismissed. In the tension between myself and others, I rediscover the roots from which my creative efforts grow. And I am reminded to nourish them.
So I find myself, somewhat surprisingly, in active search for a writing community again. I don’t expect it to be ideal, or it might be more accurate to say I’ve changed my idea of what an ideal community looks like. I want one that respects and celebrates different perspectives and approaches, one in which care for one another underlies our interactions, and one in which, even in the midst of disputes, we can see the elements of ourselves in those with whom we disagree.