2020 started off like an ordinary year. I was four months postpartum and was feeling the itch to return to more of a “normal” existence.
I had my word for the year “community.”
January to March felt on point. I was continuing conversations at the school district around diversity, equity and inclusion. I joined something called the civil rights self-evaluation committee in hopes to improve the schools. I was looking forward to getting to know other parents in my daughters kindergarten class. I intended to continue to get to know my neighbors. I found an amazing practitioner who I wanted to mentor me. I was organizing a local green living fair.
Life was really swimming along.
And then we went on lockdown.
All thoughts of community flew out the window as my family had to adjust to whole new ways of working, schooling, shopping and all aspects of living. We were in survival mode for a while trying to regain our footing and navigating a new norm. Zoom calls seemed to be the only way we were going to see our friends and family.
As we continued quarantine with no end in sight, I couldn’t help but question my word choice.How was I supposed to focus on community and connect with new people during this time when I can’t actually be in the presence of other people? Maybe I had chosen the wrong word (or the wrong one chose me). Maybe I should change it?
No new word came to me and so, I continued on with community in the back of my mind.
As the flowers started popping out of the ground in the Northeast, we were getting the hang of this new, strange way of living. Then, updated guidelines informed us how to have safe outdoor interactions. With that news, I could see all of these weathered souls appearing on the streets – eyes blinking as the sun reminded them of life outside the confines of their homes. Conversations started happening 6 feet apart, maybe some a bit more awkwardly at first as we had to re-socialize ourselves but we were finally able to be in the presence of others.
What I found interesting was that conversations were kind of easier. Because we were all sharing the same experience – unified more than ever through this pandemic, we already had so much in common and didn’t have to grasp for topics to talk about.
It turns out that common and community share the same word origin.
This should have been quite obvious to me as the definition of community is “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests and goals” (Oxford Languages).
I was never able to verbalize it but pre-pandemic, a common experience was actually hard to triangulate. Or at least those common experiences were hidden from view. I would spend the first few moments of a conversation getting the bearings on where the other person was and what I could talk to them about. The reality is, we don’t know each others’ stories. We only know what the other person is putting out there and these days, that is the highlight reel of their lives known as Instagram and Facebook. It’s hard to base conversations when the majority of what we know about someone’s life is through social media.
During one of my social distanced meet-up’s, I was chatting with a friend and I shared how my daughter was having a very difficult time adjusting to the new norms and the various ways she was acting out. My friend actually thanked me for sharing with her because she thought her daughter was the only one. I know she has other friends with similar aged kids and I can’t imagine they were all coping fine under these conditions.
It made me realize how few real conversations we have with one another.
I consider myself a real conversation holder. Small talk doesn’t quite do it for me. I have thought a lot about what has stopped me from having real conversations when I wanted to dive in deeper with the other person. Partly because I don’t have a lot of time with other people that aren’t interrupted (hello all you moms of toddlers!). Deep conversations take time. Partly because I don’t want to burden the other person with my trials and tribulations without a mutual understanding that they will share theirs. Sharing takes vulnerability. And partly because it seems like the other person has their life so put together (thanks social media!). But time and time again, I have learned that isn’t true!
I knew that to create that community that I want, I had to start those types of conversations with others.
Learning #1 – to build community, have more real conversations. Check.
In May, George Floyd was murdered. Because of the pandemic, no one could ignore what has long been evident to the Black community – that Black lives are not treated equally. Here was another common experience for our collective.
Eyes and hearts were opened. Belief systems were shattered. Folks were enraged. Others were bewildered.
More people were having conversations, real conversations, around social justice than ever before.
A group of my friends, who have previously met about equity and inclusion issues in town, re-collected ourselves. We came together and decided that we could no longer sit on the sidelines. It was time to take action.
We created a group to identify and address the systems of inequity in our town. We invited other residents of the town to join our efforts and over a hundred people have joined! I shared with the other members of the Steering Committee that they are my sisters in this effort. I have known some of them for a couple of years and others I had just met but it didn’t matter, being together in creating this social change united us in a palpable way.
Since our formation, we have had some tough situations that led to real conversations. Ultimately, it has made us stronger and I feel in true community with them – accepted for my strengths and weaknesses and with a trust that their intentions are good while knowing they will humbly own their impact.
Learning #2 – to build community, join others in standing for a cause. Check.
Choosing the word “community” is rooted in my postpartum period last year. I had an experience that got me questioning about what community is and how to truly build it.
As you may know, after the birth of each of my kids, I practiced confinement, a Chinese tradition where the new mom does not do anything for 30 days and is supported by her mom or mother-in-law (yes, it is as glorious as it sounds).
This was my first baby in the suburbs, and one aspect of it was completely different from my other confinements – I had many friends offer to bring me food.
My gut reaction was that it was completely unnecessary because I already had so much help! With this last confinement, I was lucky that both my mom and mother-in-law were here to help out.
And so, as with many thoughts of mine, I took a step back to examine where it came from and I realized – this thought is steeped in guilt. I knew I had way more help than many other moms receive their first year postpartum, much less their first month. Did I really deserve to have my friends take time to cook for me? It hit me that, traditionally, new moms have whole villages behind them but nowadays, it is quite different.
If I want to create a village in my life, I have to
bring people – no, LET people in.
And so, I accepted every single offer. Were they dishes I would have made myself? No. Were they dishes that my kids ended up eating? Not always. Were they cooked with the exact ingredients that I would have chosen? Probably not. But that’s not the point of the offers. (Note: every morsel of food was eaten up by me or a family member.)
The point of the offer is the act of giving and sharing of my friends. And ultimately, it is the undeniable generosity.
But the big a-ha is not that community is about giving.
In actuality, it is about receiving. It is about seeing the goodness in the other person and being vulnerable enough to say, “Yes, I could use your help. Thank you for seeing that in me.”
The phrase “give and take” comes to mind when I think about receiving a gift. I asked, “What if, in taking this offer, I am expected to give back?” A little voice in my head then popped up and said, “The only reason they are giving is so I owe them.” Eek!
Once I realized that was a little gremlin in my head talking and not me, my higher self said, “Of course I am supposed to give back because that is the fabric of community.”
That’s how this whole thing works.
Community is not about receiving. It is about both giving and receiving and the interdependent cycle of the two.
Then I identified the third area, that level where you get bonus points, in building that fabric of community – asking.
Gremlin: But to ask is to be needy. No one likes anyone who is needy.
Me: What’s wrong with asking? And what’s wrong with being needy? We are humans. Humans have needs.
Gremlin: No one wants to help someone in need. No one wants someone who is just going to ask and then take take take from them. Don’t be stupid!
Me: This is not about taking. It is about the generosity in showing all of me, in being vulnerable enough to say I need help and trusting enough to believe that someone will.
Gremlin: [shrivels up after hearing the words generosity, vulnerable and trusting.]
On November 4th, I wanted a Kit Kat. I don’t think I’ve had one in at least 5 years until this Halloween, when I snuck a few from my daughter’s Halloween treats. I was hitting a wall with work and election limbo and wanted Kit Kat’s but I didn’t want to go out. I thought – my friends probably have a bunch of Kit Kat’s lying around after Halloween that they’d be happy to share. I hesitated but I typed and hit SEND.
As a result of this text, one of my neighbor’s daughters left a paper bag marked “brussel sprouts” in my mailbox that contained a half dozen or so fun size bars. And then an anonymous donor dropped off a box of 36 FULL SIZE bars in my mailbox.
The best part of my text request is not that I received way more Kit Kat’s than I can physically eat.
The best part was the text conversation that happened between a bunch of tired moms that included learning candy preferences and habits (Twix is the big winner), an offer of an unused quesadilla maker that ended up being an anniversary present to a deserving husband, and lots of witty banter in between. In other words, it was a real conversation with genuine connection, learning about one another and another offer to give and a response to receive.
A couple of moms who were reading the thread after the fact said how the text chain was the highlight after a chaotic day. All because I shut down that gremlin who said it would be a dumb idea to ask for Kit Kat’s.
Community is like a beautiful stained glass window.
The giving, receiving and asking are the framework and structural elements. They are what keep the community together. And the exchange of real conversations and unity over causes are the beautiful colors of our lives. The glorious light shining through that illuminates cathedrals and captures our breath is the true essence of community – generosity, vulnerability and trust.
When I received that 36 pack of Kit Kat’s, I saw my word for the year manifested.