What makes for community?

•April 3, 2014 • Leave a Comment

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes community, and what doesn’t. Here’s the best definition of community I can come up with: a group of people who care about each other, look out for each other, and are capable of and committed to finding ways of working through disagreements.

Based on this definition, I have come to the conclusion that online forums are rarely if ever communities. Maybe this is obvious to some people, but it’s a new revelation for me. Revelation and resignation, because for many years I have tried to seek community in online forums as well as in real life.

I didn’t wind up seeking community online because I like beating my head against the wall. I did it because in the 90’s I sought community through punk rock culture and zines, which eventually gave way to blogs. Blogs eventually gave way to Facebook.

Kaphine thinks we found community in Livejournal for a period of time, and it’s true I did form some genuine friendships there, but I’m not sure whether it ever felt like a community in and of itself. My theory is that the anonymity of the internet – that is, how easy it is for people to write whatever hurtful, false, or ridiculous thing they want without being held accountable – my theory is that this is fundamentally at odds with creating community. Maybe this is mitigated in a forum where people already know each other offline – for example, a private group blog I created for the other women who participated in a poetry workshop with Marge Piercy with me.

But mostly, I think Internet forums should be viewed as listservs. Useful ways to share information, perhaps have limited intellectual discussion, but not really a place to expect community to develop, because that usually just leads to disappointment and sometimes drama.

What do other people thinK? Do you think it’s possible to form a genuine, healthy community in an online forum? Have you experienced this? Comment and let me know. You know, like in a community.

In which a white woman fumbles her way through understanding the meaning of Kwanzaa, to honor her son’s heritage

•January 17, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Note: I originally wrote this piece for Mutha Magazine, but they aren’t going to publish it there until Kwanzaa of 2014.   Michelle Tea, the editor of that awesome site, assures me she doesn’t care if I preview it here.  So here you go. 

I’ve never really thought about Kwanzaa much before.  But this year, as the queer white mother of a twenty month old African-American boy, I’ve found myself seeking out information.  I want not to appropriate a holiday which was not mine growing up, but learn about a holiday designed to celebrate people who look like my son, who have my son’s ethnic heritage.  It’s a fine line, and I’m doing my best not to cross it.

The first principle of Kwanzaa is “umoja” which means “unity.”  Immediately my first thought was of my union organizing days, Unity is another word for solidarity, the idea that we are all stronger when we stand together.  But how do we stand with people who want to push us away?   What if we need to stand with them, or near them at least, even if they reject us?  I’m thinking about this as I look at the flyer for Kwanzaa events in my town, and one the last night, the only day with a time that is good for toddlers, says “all Afrikan/people of color space.”  Obviously our toddler can’t go alone, so I guess we’ll go another night. Will he want to go to such spaces without us when he’s older? I need to be a part of the African-American community for his sake, but in some ways I never will be.

The second principle of Kwanzaa is Kujichagulia, or “self-determination.” According to Nguzo Saba, this is defined as the ability “to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves and speak for ourselves.”  Man, this is this an important one in ways I can only imagine now, but will become more and more real for my son as he moves through the world.  What will it mean for him to have two moms, two white parents, to be adopted? There’s so much the world is already projecting onto him as a man, as a black boy, as an adoptee, as a southerner by birth, as the child of queers.  I want to shield him from it and tell the world to fuck off, he will be who he wants to be and name himself as he chooses, if he chooses, when he’s ready.  But there’s a great line of advice in the kids’ book I picks up recently called Only One You: “Blend in when you need to, but stand out when you have the chance.”  Both are equally important and valid.

The third principle of Kwanzaa is Ujima, which means “collective work and responsibility.”  One blogger I found pointed out that “collective responsibility works only when each member of the collective assumes responsibility as individuals. Only then will the community benefit from the efforts of all.”  And there’s the problem.  This is beautiful principle but is it ever even remotely attainable?  Or do some people just continue to shoulder the load while others take advantage of them?  My cynical side wants to say that this is counter to human nature,  but the rest of me is constantly wanting to tell the cynical side of me to shut up.

The fourth principle for Kwanzaa is Ujamaa, or “cooperative economics.”  What’s amazing about this is that Kwanzaa was founded in 1966 by Maulana Karenga.  I’m not sure most contemporary white folk had ever heard of the idea of cooperative economics before Mohammad Yunus and Kiva.   Of course, there’s an important difference – Ujamaa emphasizes the importance of having black-owned businesses,  whereas Kiva is international.  But the way I use Kiva is to support woman-owned businesses, so that’s the feminist equivalent of Ujamaa.   And Mohammad Yunus originally conceived of his cooperative economics as a way to lift his nation of Bangladesh.  As a white parent of a black son, this reminds me to expose my son to black-owned businesses and black-made products, and encouraged the innovator and entrepreneur inside him as he gets older.

The fifth principle of Kwanzaa is Nia, or “purpose.” This word means so many things, especially in this context, but as a white parent of and adoptive child, I am mostly aware of what it doesn’t mean: my family’s purpose doesn’t mean we’ve rescued or saved our son.  It doesn’t mean we can afford to be colorblind because we’ve adopted transracially.  And just because he will grow up with some of the privileges of having white, middle class parents doesn’t mean that as soon as he is out there in the world as an adult, without us around, he won’t be perceived as a young black man, just like Barack Obama or Trayvon Martin.

The sixth principle of Kwanzaa is Kuumba, or “creativity.” As a poet, fiction writer, and playwright, as well as an expressive arts therapist by profession, this is a concept near and dear to my heart.  But the direct meaning and interpretation of creativity in the context of Kwanzaa is also very much in line with my beliefs: making the world more beautiful and more liveable through art and other creative acts. It’s why I love murals, graffiti, and other public art so much.

The seventh principle of Kwanzaa is Imani, or “faith.”   For our family, this is grounded in the Jewish faith.  And I’ll leave you with an anecdote about being a transracial, queer Jewish family – a few Friday afternoons ago, my not-yet-Jewish spouse (that’s another story entirely) was picking up challah at the Orthodox-owned bakery.  My son walks in and sees all the challah loaves and starts saying excitedly “Challah! Challah!”  It took the staff by surprise, but there was no denying it – despite your preconceived assumptions about what Jews look like, he’s a Jewish kid.  And he’s got faith in challah.  What do I have faith in?  On my good days, the process.  As in, trusting the process, trusting that if I keep making the best decisions I can, one step at a time, things will turn out OK.  But some days,  it’s easier to have faith in challah, which when you think about it, is kind of the point of religious ritual.

Why South Park is funny

•January 16, 2014 • Leave a Comment

South Park is funny because we are South Park.

I’m pretty behind on South Park, like about seven seasons. But I watch it when I can (Jet Blue flights, Netflix, people’s houses) and always like it when I do. Last night, we randomly picked the Guitar Hero episode to watch, and it was no exception. The premise is that Kyle and Stan become Guitar Hero masters and learn the meaning of choosing friendship over money and fame. It’s less heartwarming than it sounds, thank G-d. In usual South Park form, there’s a throwaway line at the beginning that kind of nails the whole episode (and usually some aspect of American culture) on the head in a brilliant way. This episode, it was Stan’s mom telling Stan’s dad “if they spent half the time they did learning that game they would actually know how to play musical instruments.”

But what occurred to me in general about South Park is that it is funny because it is us. We are a nation of eight year old boys, often jumpy and xenophobic, obsessed with fart jokes and Jesus, and utterly sexually clueless.

Friendships and parenting

•January 16, 2014 • 1 Comment

So, in addition to all the drama a couple weeks ago involving one friend who decided to act like a controlling nutjob (thankfully that seems to have died down, but I know she’s been stalking my blog.  (Sidebar: Why are you here, if you want nothing to do with me?  Get a life) — we’ve had another growing friend situation that has been making me weary and sad.

This one isn’t really dramatic.  It isn’t dramatic at all. It may be a boring, sad story about friends growing apart.  But because those friends were ones I had hoped could be a part of our lives, and our kid’s life, for a long time, it makes me particularly sad.

Is there anything in the world that people have less opinions about than parenting?  Whether they are parents, or aren’t, whether they subscribe to a particular philosophy, or not.  There’s no shortage of ways in which parents can be made to feel not “good enough” no matter what you do.  Should you let your kid fall and get back up, or prevent her from falling?  Should you let her sleep in your bed, or let him cry it out in his crib? Should you send her to public school, or send him to a private school?  Should you wean off the bottle or nipple before a certain age?  Should you avoid letting him eat peanuts or give small tastes and see how it goes? On and on and on.

And then there’s the differences that come up because of adoption. Recently, a FB group I belong to erupted into hurtful remarks and several members leaving – including the friends we may have grown apart from – over private adoption versus foster-adoption.  I mean, talk about a small minority turning on each other!  We’re all there because we’re transracially adopted families, people with whom I feel desperate to connect – and we can’t keep from turning on each other because some people think private adoption is elitist and some people think the foster system is fucked up.  They’re both right, by the way. Both systems are fucked up and need reform.  But there’s decent good people in both systems and kids who need homes and who find good homes in both. Surely there’s a way we can support each other despite making different parenting choices.  Right?

One day a couple weeks ago, as an art therapy exercise for myself, I made a social atom of the people in my life. I needed to take inventory of who I have and who I can still count on.  It just seems like there’s so many ways we humans push each other away, it’s amazing we ever build communities.  But the good news is, I still had a very full social atom with lots of people who love and support me and my family. And that’s who I need to focus my time and energy on.

Weary

•January 2, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Wise words from a true friend: “These things don’t die until somebody starves them of attention.”

I won’t be bullied out of my blog. I won’t be bullied out of anything, or into doing anything. But there’s also a time for disengaging, because continuing to engage only gives the bully what they want.

True story: When I was in second form (A.k.a. Seventh grade) and living in London for the semester, I was bullied every day for weeks on the bus by some bloke. I diligently practiced ignoring for weeks and weeks, and then one day I had had enough and without any planning or forethought I turned around and punched him. He never bullied me again after that.

Resolution

•December 27, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Here’s the resolution I’ve come to over the friend drama: To quote Dan Savage, “Bitch be crazy.” 

This is my new mantra.  Because it sums it up perfectly.   You can’t reason crazy out of crazy. And you can’t do anything with crazy except evict it from your life. Does it make sense that crazy is coming out now, when crazy just had you over to their house for Thanksgiving and acted like everything was fine?  Does it make sense that crazy seemed to be fine but then decides to block you for no reason, weeks later, and then calls you “mentally unbalanced” for having an emotional reaction?  No, none of this makes sense. 

But that’s just it. Bitch be crazy.  Ain’t never going to make sense, and in the long run, we’re better off without it in our life. 

Facebook and friend drama

•December 26, 2013 • 3 Comments

In the past few weeks I’ve had way too much friend drama. I abhor friend drama. Not only does it exhaust me (and as the mother of a toddler I’m already exhausted) but it takes me right back to junior high school where I instantly feel not good enough, not cool enough, not in on all the jokes and “right” things to say.

Two mutual friends had a falling out with each other after a party at our house. Now they refuse to attend anything else the other one is at. Two more friends have stopped returning our calls or our emails since shortly after having a child, and they won’t tell us why. A member of our congregation dropped me on Facebook because I said “ugh” in response to a political candidate he was supporting. Now one of the two friends in the first scenario and her husband have dropped us on Facebook, for unknown reasons. WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON PEOPLE?

My first instinct is to run away from all of it. We’ve been on the fence for years about Boston versus Portland, maybe we should just run away back to Portland. But we do still have some very dear (and non-drama prone) friends out here, so it’s not that simple.

My second instinct is to run away and live in the woods and never talk to anyone else. Of course, I’d take my spouse and son, but surely we could live off the land and never talk to anyone else, right? Um, maybe. But we’d probably go crazy and/or drive each other nuts. Hmmm.

My third instinct is to crawl into bed and never come out. What the fuck is wrong with us, people? This shit seriously makes me despair for the human race. I try to live my life as lovingly, as openly, and as warmly as possible. I know I fail plenty of times, but isn’t it the effort that counts? Should I just stop trying if everyone else is going to behave like this?

My fourth instinct is to descend into self-loathing. Surely, if all these generally good, decent people in recent weeks have had some drama at me or near me, I must be a terrible human being who doesn’t deserve to live. Maybe my bullies in elementary school and middle school were right. I am a piece of shit.

And here’s where I get stuck. Which is why I impulsively decided to drop off of Facebook for an indefinite period of time and meditate on this issue. I’m returning to blogging, because blogging is how I got sucked into Facebook in the first place, but unlike Facebook it allowed for some meaningful, in depth conversation at times. I got sucked into Facebook because I was seeking connection, but the connection I’ve found – lately, anyway – has proved to be more exhausting than meaningful.

Of course, I’ve been away from blogging so long I don’t know if anyone’s still reading this. If you’re reading this, and you have any thoughts or advice for me, I’d love to hear it.

 
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