June 15, 2011

Thoughts on Community.

Community. A simple word with a complex meaning.

I returned recently from Mountainfilm thinking a lot about this word, what it meant to me and what it meant to those around me. More importantly, the kind of change that could come if we all started thinking a little more seriously about it.

Whether it’s being reminded about the scientific reasons that we really are all connected, or thinking about the things that all of humanity can find solace in, throughout the weekend I kept thinking about the constant connections we have to the people around us and to the greater global community.

Terry Tempest Williams said something that stuck with me: “Change happens, I believe, through relationships.”

We don’t solve bigger problems on our own, we work together to find solutions. When there’s cause for celebration, we don’t rejoice alone, we rally those around us. Happiness, it turns out, is contagious. Every action we take, every emotion that we have, every choice we make, it all effects more than ourselves.

Mountainfilm in Telluride 2011

I grew up in a small community. The kind where you go to the local nursery to pick up a plant and get the latest town gossip. The kind of community where houses are far apart but doors are always open. The kind of community that when you’re younger, can feel suffocating, but as you grow older, wraps around you like a blanket, worn with time and memories.

I was reminded of this when I returned home for a memorial service to a member of our community.

A strong and opinionated women, she wasn’t part of my immediate family, or even my parents’ close circle of friends, but she was a member of the tight knit community that I grew up in and that meant that we had a connection. Our local head librarian, I remember being forced to write her a personal letter of apology when a book was discovered hidden in my bookshelf more than a few months overdue.

She knew my name. She knew my parents’ names. She would put books on hold for us that she thought we would like. Every time I came home from college I got a hug and a sincere stare into the eyes accompanied by a genuine “how are you?” This was the woman, I learned at her memorial service, that told her employees not to say “have a nice day” because she found it insincere, and that certainly was no way to run her community library.

She passed while I was at Mountainfilm. In the heart of my newfound community, my mother called to tell me that this woman, this ongoing presence, from my old community, had gone. I wasn’t immediately affected, but I took a moment to honor the emotional implications that this would have at home.

And so I went to the memorial service.

I sat in the great hall of the community center surrounded by a sea of people to which I in one way or another had a connection. Some connections were small; the mother to an old classmate, a woman I had once gone to yoga with. Some were more significant; close friends to my mother and father, many deemed my “extra parents.”

I felt emotional. Not necessarily from sadness at the passing of an individual, but from gratitude that I could call these people, and this place, my community. That I can continue to return to it. That I can call any one of those people in that room, from one, two or more timezones away and know that they will be willing to help whatever the problem.

So often we work to remove ourselves from the communities that have raised or sustained us. We seek to travel, push our boundaries, pursue unexplored paths. Change is good — often necessary — but we can’t let it distract our attention from the connections that keep us whole. Cutting relationships is a dangerous thing.

Celebrate your community. Make real connections. Talk to people. Take time to listen. And above all, be grateful for the connections that sustain you. It’s all part of creating change.

This all comes after spending a few weeks on the road with 23 Feet, a film that poignantly tackles the idea of community as it applies to those that seek a different path. In doing so, the filmmakers have created their own community; it may be mobile and look completely different in every town, but there is love and support everywhere they go. There are genuine connections. There are people looking out for each other no matter who they are. I’ve seen it and felt it.

We join together because we cannot do everything alone, be it a moment of celebration or of sadness. Even the most independent of us need time with friends. And no matter who we are, we can always use help, even when we’re not willing to ask for it. We don’t have to come from a solid community, we have the power to create our own. To cultivate our relationships so that they are dependable. But it takes time and effort.

Whether it’s global or personal change, we all need the support of our community, and we could all benefit from taking more time to create it and sustain it.

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