Category Archives: Community

She and a Loft blog post

She sits in her chair. Her puppy curls up at her feet. A mug of pumpkin spice tea steams to her left. It’s not pumpkin season, but the big canister of tea was on sale and she’s going to be drinking it for months. The warm drink is comforting on a rainy night, especially when it’s been raining for days and there’s no end in sight until the end of the week. The lack of school recess is showing in the kids’ loud, tumble-around behavior and she thinks that tomorrow she will send the kids out in the rain after school because, to borrow a phrase from her childhood, a little rain never hurt anyone.

She has a file open behind this file. She needs to finish it. Only 300-800 words, but the words are not syncing up today. She can write one word after another, but there’s no guarantee of making sense. It might end up bad, she thinks. But she doesn’t even mean bad, mostly she means not great, not amazing, not spectacular. How to defuse the anxiety of completely unnecessary and unattainable perfection? If she could answer that question, pigs might fly and unicorns might pop into existence.

She thinks on unicorns, then horses, then farm animals, then how her newly groomed dog looks exactly like a freshly shorn lamb, all leggy and cream-colored. She searches the web for the couple who sent her a wedding invitation today, but she doesn’t know them. Nope, not at all. The names don’t ring any bells; neither do their faces. They are young and beautiful. So much ahead of them. Where will they be in 14 years?

She fills in the RSVP card with her regrets. She wishes them joy and laughter and don’t worry too much about the wedding. That’s only the beginning after all.

****

P. S. She did finish that file and here it is at the Loft Writers’ Block and she thinks it turned out pretty good: https://writersblock.loft.org/2014/05/02/3195/motherhood_words

What isn’t necessary

What is community and how to build it are essential questions. So is asking what isn’t necessary for community to form. Sure, all the things I will mention can be helpful for building community, but I don’t consider them necessary.

Liking your neighbor is not necessary. Either the one who lives next door or the one on the other side of the world. Liking someone is a feeling, one that is deeply personal and subjective. It is difficult and a waste of time to try to wrangle ourselves into liking every person. Is it easier to act on behalf of someone we like? Of course. But to build a strong, thriving community, we must act on something deeper than our personal preferences.

Money is not necessary for community to form. A nod to a neighbor walking her dog, a kind word to a child, a smile at a barista brewing our coffee cost us nothing, but they go a long way toward building a sense of community. A lavish party or an evening at home playing board games with family? Community grows at both.

Proximity isn’t necessary. As I draw away from social media and focus on those around me, I’m inclined to say that being physically near someone is necessary, but I know it is not. A good friend of mine met her future husband online via blogs. I’ve participated in discussion boards with people from around the world and I felt more community there that at a dinner party. Reading books fosters a sense of community. Proximity is a huge part of community, but perhaps not necessary, at least not on the beginning.

Exhaustive details are not necessary for community. When did we start thinking that we have to know everything about everybody to consider them friends? If you asked me what I know about my Wednesday morning writing group, I would say I know their souls through their words, even though I don’t know their addresses, where they went to high school, or what they ate for supper.

If we don’t need any of the above to build strong, deep communities, what is essential?

One possibility: “…it is only kindness that makes sense anymore…” Naomi Shihab Nye, from her poem Kindness.

News coverage

I had other ideas for what to write today, but as I sat down at the coffee shop, I glanced at the movement to my right. Oh, the TV. The news was reporting about a girl killed by a gun. I look away. I look back. I angle my computer away from the TV.

I don’t watch much news. I scan headlines, read through my local paper, listen to the radio sometimes, but I do very little active news-watching. Am I shirking my duty as a citizen to be well-informed? Who determines what I need to know and how I will receive it?

After 9/11, I watched the news over and over, probably for hours that evening. As though watching the towers fall again and again would make it more real or maybe less real. Everyone else was watching it too, but that didn’t make me feel any closer to anyone, it just made me feel awful. After the Newtown tragedy, I heard the story and turned it off. I did not need to hear every speculation. But it felt like some sort of duty, something that everybody was listening/watching/talking about and that I should, too. Then I found this prayer from Brene Brown’s Ordinary Courage blog, “Lord, help me send love and light to those in pain. Let me stay calm and openhearted while I manage my own fear and anger. Help me remember that news coverage is traumatizing for me, not healing, and that my children need safety and information, not more fear. ” This was her response to the tragedy. I stayed away from the coverage. I played my flute for hours that weekend. This was my way of putting joy and goodness into the world.

Does the news build community? It’s purpose is ostensibly to inform, but how much information do we need and does the knowledge of what has happened many miles away serve to connect us?

Sometimes, it does. More and more often, I think that it does not. I think all the information that news organizations decide to share, that they decide is worthy, distracts us from those around us, from engaging with both the issues and the joys in our own homes, neighborhoods, and cities.

Am I saying we shouldn’t have news, shouldn’t know what is going on around the world? No. I love stories, I love knowing. But I feel like a more compassionate, connected human being when I don’t inundate myself, when I chose what is worthy, when I discover that my neighbor’s story is as much news as what’s on TV.

Online class

Have you ever taken an online class? Would you? Do you think it would be exciting, refreshing, frustrating, difficult, all of the above? How does a sense of community grow in an online class? Do you feel connected to the other students when you can’t see their expressions, hear their laughter, smell their coffee, or bump into them on the way to your seat? Does the subject matter matter? What’s it like for the teacher?

Seems that all I have are questions. Perhaps at the end of the next eight weeks, I’ll have a few answers. Tomorrow, I officially start my first online class, though I’ve already posted a pic, short intro and read others’ introductions. It’s a writing class with a teacher I’ve had before, which is probably what allowed me to take the leap to sign up for the class. I already know the sound of his voice and how he plots a story on the marker board. How does that help for an online class? Familiarity breeds comfort for me.

We have discussion boards, forums they’re called, and a weekly live chat. In a way, it makes a lot of sense to have an online writing class. We will be immersed in each other’s written words, not just the 10 pages we submit for critique, but in every post we write. We will be learning who we are almost solely through our writing. Will we pay closer attention to each other’s words when that’s all we see?

In one online discussion forum I used to frequent, several of the members had such strong (unique? clear? definite?) writing voices, that I would know their posts without needing to see their names or ever having seen their faces. At the time, that online community felt very close-knit. I’m sure that can happen in an online class also, but I’m at a loss to explain how it happens or how to make it happen.

I wonder what the next eight weeks will bring. Lots of reading and writing and maybe a even a little sense of community. I’m eager to find out. What are your experiences in online classes?

Community means…

com-mu-ni-ty

1. a. A group of people living in the same locality and under the same government. b. The district or locality in which such a group lives.
2. a. A group of people having common interests  b. A group viewed as forming a distinct segment of society
3. a. Similarity or identity: a community of interests. b. Sharing, participation, and fellowship: a sense of community.
4. Society as a whole; the public.
5. a. A group of organisms interacting with one another and with the environment in a specific region. b. The region occupied by a group of interacting organisms.

(according to the American Heritage Dictionary)

Ah, wonderful dictionaries! When I was younger, I looked up words. Then I looked up the words within those definitions ad infinitum. A circuitous adventure that could keep me busy for an afternoon, especially if I got a thesaurus involved. The reading was a little dry but filled with authority. A dictionary gave words meaning. The simultaneous ingestion of meaning and information was a rush. I now own a gigantic dictionary purchased for a whole three dollars at the library book sale. I couldn’t believe someone hadn’t snatched it up before me.

Dictionaries are reference books, starting points, foundations, but it is up to us to play with the words, discover what they mean to us, and imbue the words with meaning, extrapolating from denotation to connotation. Here’s my attempt to do so with the word community, just free writing from the phrase “Community means…”.

Community means those around us. It means support and encouragement and presence. Community means I help, assist, serve. It means knowing names and smiling and waving. Community means invitations to block parties, holiday parties, graduations. Community means I see you, I hear you. It means I know when you’re on vacation and I keep an eye on your house. It means I let you know when I’m on vacation and you keep an eye on my house. Community means I turn the pages of music while you play. Community means empathy, trust. Community means saying “I’m sorry” and “I forgive”. It means “I didn’t care for that comment and I might take offense, but first I’ll ask you to clarify and I’ll try not to take it personally.” Community means togetherness. Community is a phone call after dark to let us know our garage door is still open. Community is a hug when needed and space when that’s needed. Community means I will not bring my phone to the table. It means cooperation and sharing. Community means…what?

What does community mean to you?

At school

Yesterday, Amy, my daughter, had a doctor’s check-up in the morning, so I drove her to school afterwards. I could have dropped her off and returned home to edit a paper, but I decided to see if her first-grade teacher or my son’s third-grade teacher wanted any help. Previously, I’ve read books to their classes, sorted papers, cut paper for projects and chaperoned field trips, but this is the first time I’ve volunteered in their classrooms this year.

When we arrived on the elementary floor of the school, Alex, my son, dashed over to me. “Mama!” he squealed and leapt up to wrap his arms around my neck.  I’m guessing that’s not the usual greeting third graders give their parents, but nobody seemed to care. A few of the other students waved and smiled at me, then returned to their work. Alex went back to his classroom, so I could walk with Amy to her cubby. Amy, rather efficiently I noticed, emptied her pink backpack and hung up her outside clothing. Then she joined the circle of her classmates around her teacher. Since they were busy, I wandered back to Alex’s room, just two classes down.

Alex’s face lit up again when he saw me, but he stayed in his seat while I talked to his teacher.

“Hi, Ms. S. I have some time this morning. Anything I can do for you?”

“We’re about to start Read to Someone. Would you like to do that?”

I was paired with V, a petite girl with a sweet smile and cascades of dark, curly hair. She grabbed two cushions for us to sit on the floor. We settled at the back of a metal cabinet and she poured her books out. I closed my eyes while she shuffled them around, then I pointed. Junie B. Jones, it was. She was on chapter 2, but went back to chapter one, because she wanted me to know what was going on. For 15 minutes, she read to me. Throughout the classroom and spilling out into the open area, students sat in pairs reading to each other.

These classrooms only have three walls. The kindergarten classes are enclosed, but the six classes of first through third graders are along one wall with walls dividing them, but on the fourth side, they are open. And the cubbies are open. No doors constantly opening and closing, no slamming of lockers, no echoey, tiled, long hallways. The students know where they need to be, but move freely within that space. Students, teachers, and support staff walk past, but aren’t a distraction. There is a low hum of voices and movement, but it’s in the background. It’s the sound of children together and learning.

When the fifteen minutes are over, the third-graders return their cushions and book boxes. I sit next to Alex at his desk (he holds my hand), while Ms. S asks questions about the last chapter they read in Charlotte’s Web. Then its time to read the next chapter, so Alex, another student, and I alternate reading pages aloud. I’m amazed at how easily my presence is accepted by the other students. I don’t remember parents often in my classrooms growing up. I fit in here. I get to be a natural part of this.

After our chapter, I say good-bye to Alex and return to Amy’s room. The first graders are scattered throughout the room, attending to their morning work. Headphones on and looking at an Ipad, Amy sits at a table near the window working on her spelling words. I cross the room and get quiet waves from a couple of students.  I give Amy a hug and she says a quick bye and is back to her words. On my way out, Ms. B stops me.

“Are you staying?” she asks.

“I could. Do you have something that needs to get done?”

She points me to the bin for books that need to be shelved in the level library. It’s empty, but the bin next to it, labeled Book Hospital, is full and so is another Book Hospital bin I find in the library. I get some clear packing tape and pick a spot in the level library just a few steps from the classroom, so I can attend to my “patients” without disturbing the class’s spelling test. As the Book Doctor, I tape up torn covers. I suture in chunks of loose pages. Little House on the Prairie, Wolverine, Artemis Fowl, Water, Snakes, Amelia Bedelia. I return them all healthy back into circulation.

J, a boy who rides the bus with Alex and Amy, spots me in the library on his way back from the bathroom. He smiles shyly and shuffles close to me for a hug. I squeeze his shoulders and send him back to class. While taping up books, students entered quietly, browsed for new books, and returned to their classes.

There are a few remaining “limbs” in the Book Hospital. Perhaps their bodies will show up someday and I’ll put them back together. The first grade teachers are happy to have a Book Doctor they can contact when the Hospital is overflowing.

When it’s time for me to go, I know I won’t be gone so long again. This open, vibrant school has been a community for me and my children for four years. What a gift it is.

What are we building?

“What you do is more important than what you say
And what you build is more important than what you do
So what you gonna build today?”

-Guante, hip hop artist, two-time National Poetry Slam champion, social justice activist and educator

At the end of November, I sat on the floor in the back room at Common Roots Cafe for a reading sponsored by dislocate, the journal of the U of MN MFA program. Every seat was full, hence my sitting right up front cooking in my coat because there was no way to take it off while also sipping coffee and nibbling on a fudgey dessert surrounded by (most likely) grad students. We listened to Sarah Fox’s vibrant poetry, Kao Kalia Yang’s powerful memoir piece, and Kevin Fenton’s new novel in progress. All stunning. Absolutely worth driving through the crush of traffic to get there.

Then there was Guante, the speaker of the opening quote for this post. My first impression of him would have to be “shy.” Not the usual adjective for a hip hop artist. He pushed down his black hat onto his head with both hands. He fidgeted a little. He looked alternately at the audience and the floor. As he began his first piece, he transformed. He could barely be contained in the room. Powerful, magnetic, every word and movement filled with purpose. And the words he was speaking, no, performing, revealed a deep wisdom and empathy and urgency of social change. The above quote was only one of many that I connected to. So much so that I bought his album, my first rap/hip hop album ever, and listened to it on the way home.

Since then, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about what I build on a daily basis. What do I build with my children, my husband, my words? I like the word build. It speaks to creating, constructing, matching pieces, fitting, awareness of how things go together. I want to be a builder.

One of the most important “things” we need to build is community. How do we do that? What do I mean by community? Who are our community builders? These are the questions I plan to explore on this blog. Writing together is one of my main ways of building community and will be one aspect of this blog, but I want to venture into the myriad ways of creating community and also focus on those who are doing that important work. Info on Writing Parties can always be found here under the tab at the top. It would be an honor for me to write with you.

Welcome to Writing Together, a blog about building community.