This was the Fireside Conference, three days in northern Ontario, with the most fun, smart, eclectic group I’ve ever met. I miss that!
By Caitlin Kelly
Many people opine now about how lonely we are, staring into our screens alone at home instead of bowling with friends or joining a choir or a knitting club or…
I grew up in a Toronto boarding school, ages eight to 13, which was, technically, a community in one respect but I rarely felt welcomed and was often in trouble and shunned accordingly. Finally in Grade Nine, I was told not to return.
Ages 8 to 16, I attended three summer camps, the last one being perhaps the closest to my ideal community, combining a lot of personal freedom to explore, to test my athletic and artistic limits (and thrive in both), to make deep friendships, some of them still strong today, and to feel completely valued even though I was a quirky little thing.
The nostalgic scent of sun-dried pine needles, the typical smell of camp, to this day soothes me deeply.
Today, finding mid-life face-to-face community feels elusive. I attended little formal education in the U.S. (a few years part-time at design school) so I have no alumni networks. We have no kids.
My right knee is now bone-on-bone, so I’ve been forbidden to jump or run, (foregoing my coed softball team of 15 years.)
I can’t read music so unable to join a choir. (Yes, I could learn.)
My passions are specific and nerdy — like antique textiles — so other than online, where to find fellow enthusiasts? I am completely enjoying my Instagram feed, where I follow textile designers, collectors and dealers, learning a great deal from each of them.
I belong to at least a dozen online writers’ groups, but none offer what I deeply crave — really smart high-level discussions of craft, great ideas, inspiration. It’s often a moan-fest/brag-fest, and too many are just too young and inexperienced.
Church? Not really. I love the physical space (our church was built in 1853), but I’m not a good fit within a wealthy, clique-y crowd.
Politics? Journalists are professionally expected to stay out of politics.
Neighbors? We live in an apartment building where (I counted!) I know almost half of our residents, by face or name (there are 100 apartments) but socially…No. Most are in their 70s, 80s and 90s, many quite ill and frail.
The rest, as is everyone here, obsessed with work and family.
I’m very grateful for a husband who is excellent company, but he’s not my everything, nor should he be!
So it’s a challenge…
Oddly, or not, the closest I’ve got is my three-times-week spin class, where I’ve made a good friend and know I am welcome and known. I like our town very much, and I “know” many locals by sight, (and vice versa), certainly independent businesses like the third-generation-owned hardware store and a few local restaurants. But to me, that’s not the same.
Where do you find true, lively, inspiring community?
For Jews and Christians, this is an important time of year — Passover begins March 30 and, for Christians, this is Holy Week, culminating April 1 this year with Easter.
Jose and I were back in church this week for Palm Sunday, our first visit since Christmas Eve. It was good to see old friends, although painful to realize, in their faces and their stooped postures, the passing years.
One man, a tall, imposing former schoolteacher, now bends almost double, accompanied by his nurse. A white-haired woman sits alone, now widowed. Once-tiny children are now in their 20s, married or engaged or living far away.
There are few places in life, beyond one’s own family, to intimately witness others’ lives firsthand, sharing the joy of baptisms and marriages or the sudden appearance of someone’s name on a prayer list.
No matter how little we may have in common outside the building, we’re community within it.
I rarely address questions here of faith, religion or spirituality.
This amazing image was across the hall from my hotel room in Rovinj, Croatia, an 18th century building that was the town’s former bishops’ residence
Not because it’s not a matter of interest or reflection for me, but out of respect for Broadside’s many readers who are agnostic, atheist and those who may have suffered brutal treatment within a religious tradition.
And some of you once followed a belief system and chose to leave it.
I’m not a “cradle Christian” — i.e. someone born into a deeply religious church-going family. Quite the opposite. My father is avowedly atheist and my mother became a devout Catholic when I was 12.
But I attended an Anglican (Episcopal) boarding school that subjected us to Sunday nights of prayers and slide shows by visiting missionaries, and put me right off religion for years. We sang hymns, some of which (All Things Bright and Beautiful!) I still love deeply.
I chose to be baptized when I was 13, in Toronto.
But my relationship with church has been intermittent.
I first came to St. Barnabas, a lovely small stone church in Irvington, New York, (the Hudson river town just south of ours), in a moment of panic and crisis, late on Christmas Eve of 1996. My mother had flown in from Canada, arriving drunk. The evening didn’t improve from there., I dropped her at a local hotel and, suddenly totally alone for the holidays, had no idea where to go or what to do.
I slipped into one of the dark wooden pews at St. B’s, deeply grateful for its welcome.
I’ve been attending services there, off and on, since then. It’s felt, at times, like a poor fit for me, someone who isn’t — like many of its members — a perky stay-at-home mother or a corporate warrior working on Wall Street or at a major law firm. I’ve made a few friends there, but it’s not a group into which I naturally fit in easily.
In some ways, though, I think that’s important.
One value of religious or spiritual community is its shared yet sometimes invisible yearning for wisdom and tradition, for evidence of faith and hope — not the usual pattern-matching that leads us to spend time only with others who look and sound just like us. (Don’t get me wrong — if a place feels genuinely unwelcoming, fleeing can be a wise choice.)
In American culture, so devoted to the pursuit of temporal and visible wealth and power, I increasingly crave a place of spiritual rest and respite. It’s helpful to be reminded of deeper values.
To sit in those polished pews — where worshipers have been gathering since 1853 — connects me to a larger world and its history.
I also treasure the esthetic experience of our church’s stained glass windows, its lovely organ, (donated in 2000 by one member), its mosaic altar, its physical intimacy.
I enjoy the familiar liturgy. One of its traditions is the Peace — greeting one another with a hug or handshake — offering our wishes for the peace of the Lord to each other. It’s one of my favorite moments.
My husband Jose, is a devout Buddhist, in the Dzogchen tradition, but accompanies me to services. I’ve met his lama, Surya Das, and spent a week with them in a silent Buddhist retreat in the summer of 2011 before Jose and I married.
He’s also a PK, a preacher’s kid, whose father was a Southern Baptist minister in Santa Fe, New Mexico, so he is blessedly at home in many spaces of quiet contemplation.
I’ve lived in five countries and seven cities and towns in my life. That’s a lot for some, and nothing for people like TCK’s, third culture kids who move a lot around the world, with parents in the media, military or missionaries, to name only three.
It’s when, how and and where you find a sense of community, of truly belonging to a tribe of like-minded people, that intrigues me.
For some of us — like you, here! — it’s on-line. A place, 24/7, we know we’ll find some other fun, cool people who share our beliefs or concerns. It might be a widows’ support group or gamers or people coping with a chronic illness.
Real-life community interests me the most because that’s where, you should pardon the phrase, shit gets real. On-line people can quickly block, unfriend or delete posts they dislike or disagree with.
Face to face? Meeting people of different religions, politics, races and nationalities is what makes community vibrant, in my view. It’s where we hear different perspectives and learn (or practice!) our social skills. It’s where we see the value, at best, in one another and our individual and shared experiences.
It’s where diplomacy, tact, civility keep us from utter mayhem.
On a good day.
I belong to several communities, each of which nurture me in different ways:
— a local Episcopal church. I attend infrequently, usually every 4 to 6 weeks or so. I’ve been attending there since 1998, though, so am known and know others to some degree. The people there are generally my age or older, many of them far wealthier and more politically conservative. No one seems to really understand what I do for a living or why. But I also think it valuable for us to be there for that reason, to meet “the other.”
— a co-ed softball team. We’ve been playing together for 15 years. In a place like New York City, where work and family always trump anything else, that’s pretty amazing. I love these people. We range in age from 20s to 60s, from lawyers and doctors to a retired ironworker, editors, schoolteachers. When one of our members recently died, more than a dozen of us drove hours to his memorial service to show our love and respect for him and his widow. Here’s an essay I wrote about them for The New York Times.
— several writers’ groups, both on-line and off-line. As someone who’s been earning her living as a journalist for decades, I need to know my industry intimately and hear what others are up to. I offer advice and support, as others do for me.
— my dance classes. I’ve been studying ballet and jazz for decades and take a jazz dance class every Monday and Friday (when I am being consistent!) I’ve gotten to know my teachers personally and really value the camaraderie they create in their classrooms. My fellow students live in my town and I run into them at the grocery store, concerts, on the street. I like that.
— our apartment building. It’s hard for me to even believe it, but I’ve lived in the same apartment for more than 20 years. So I’ve gotten to know some of my neighbors quite well as it’s the sort of place people like to stay, often moving into in their 70s and beyond. I’ve watched people’s children grow up and go to and graduate from college. As someone without children or close relative with children, it’s a way to mark the passage of time.
So I’m a member of an on-line women/writers’ group, now my go-to site, a place I waste spend wayyyyyy too much time.
It’s a place where women across the U.S. and Canada, from the UAE to India, multi-racial, multi-ethnic, with varying views on sexual preference, ranging in age from 20s to 50s (very few of us!) rant, rave, laugh, weep, share, support and are forging some powerful emotional bonds.
There are women with multiple tattoos (I have none); women in graduate school and women teaching college; women working on some of the biggest television shows out there (!), those happily pregnant and those who never want to have children, and women frustratedly un or under-employed.
In American culture, at least, it’s rare to find a group of women who both raucously and respectfully disagree, let alone share stories and support that are not exclusively focused on one issue.
We talk about everything: work, men, women, family, drunken misadventures, marriage/divorce/dating, how to navigate new situations…Interestingly, we rarely talk about the mechanics of work. We have plenty of other places to do that.
Some of us finally met face to face last week. What a joy!
It was such a pleasure to just sit for hours and get to better know an eclectic, smart, funny, passionate group of women.
The one thing I’ve always craved, sought and struggled with is a sense of community.
Most people think of a geographic location when they use that word, but today, thanks to social media, we’re often much more connected — emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, professionally — to people we have yet to meet IRL (in real life), yet who passionately share our convictions, values and/or interests.
As I’ve written here before, I live in a place — the wealthy suburbs north of New York City — where I typically fail to connect meaningfully with many people. Women my age are corporate warriors with high six-figure salaries and husbands to match or stay-at-home mothers in enormous mansions grooming perfect children.
I don’t have children and we are not wealthy.
Not my crowd, for sure!
I began attending a local church in 1998 that Jose and I still visit every few weeks or so. But it, too, is too safe, white, wealthy and non-political for my tastes.
I also have been working alone at home, with kids or pets, since 2006. That solitude and isolation can start to feel claustrophobic without the company of others.
So community matters deeply to me.
I also left behind my country, culture and friends when I moved to New York in 1989. As a professional writer, I belong to several groups, on and off-line, that revolve around our work. But they are often simply transactional — Who’s the editor? What do they pay? — not social.
I recently began teaching at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and have already attended a four-hour orientation session, where I met a fellow instructor, a lively, friendly young woman. The school’s president invites us all to his home in mid-September for a reception, and I attended a celebration of their new MFA program, a two-hour affair (after four hours of class that day!)
It feels good to be welcomed, even as an adjunct, into a new, thriving and creative community.
Where, when and how do you find or build a sense of community?
I’ve been spoiled here at Broadside by readers who are — thank you! — a lively, funny, smart group, from Danielle and Matthew and Cecile in New Zealand to Leah in Iowa to Rami in Ohio to Maddy in Lusaka to David and Elizabeth in England.
I’d name more, but there are (!) so many of you, which is unlikely but also lovely.
I want to pause our regularly scheduled programming to go a little meta for a moment.
The whole point of blogging, which I do in addition to writing for a living full-time, is to create a community where we can talk to one another frankly about the stuff that matters to us: work, love, the challenge of making a decent living while living our values, friends, family, heath, feminism, public policy, art, creativity, beauty, travel, home, design, ethics, writing, journalism — frankly, whatever seems interesting.
If it’s not fun, why bother?
Every day, five to 10 new people sign up to follow Broadside, which is crazy but flattering; we’re now at 4,600+ readers worldwide, of all ages and nationalities, from Haiti to Ghana to Malaysia to India to rural Australia.
So I was a little shaken recently to get a comment, which I trashed, (which I’ve done maybe twice in almost four years of blogging three times a week.)
I debated whether or not to trash it, or reply publicly or reply to them privately.
But I did trash it. Life is too short to argue with or absorb toxicity from people I don’t know, and for whom I work without a paycheck.
The commenter called me “weak” and a “fucking hypocrite.”
Everyone is entitled an opinion and I want to hear yours.
I’ve been called on the carpet a few times here by readers, for my short-sighted or stupid or unkind thinking. It’s useful and interesting, as long as everyone remains civil and respectful, even in the middle of a hotly contested argument.
But no one is entitled to ad hominem attacks here, on me or on anyone else who makes the time to come here, read and comment.
So I welcome your ideas and insights, your advice and stories. I am very eager to hear comments, especially from more of you.
But nasty behavior not only scares and annoys me, it creates a tone I don’t want here and inhibits others from speaking out.
This whole talking-to-total-strangers thing requires a level of trust and candor that is highly counter-intuitive, to me anyway.
When I write journalism, the comments flooding in to The New York Times in reply to my stories there,(258 came in worldwide on one recent story about workers over 50), are very rarely directed at me personally. I’m shielded both by the nature of those stories — far less personal than these posts — and by the institution that chooses to publish my work. Nor am I required, (as a freelancer), to reply to anyone.
I did read every single of those 258 NYT comments, in full. But the rules of engagement here are very different. I do answer almost every comment here.
So I get this email a while back from Elizabeth Harper, an American from Atlanta who fell in love with an Englishman and now lives in Cornwall, and who writes the lovely blog, Gifts of the Journey: “I saw something that made me think of you and I’ve mailed it.”
I wondered what it might possibly be, while touched and grateful that a woman I’ve yet to meet or even speak to was kind enough to think of me and send me a present.
A pub bar towel. Thanks, Elizabeth! So fun!
The other night, barely minutes after I posted, I got an email from Michelle in Minneapolis, pointing out (thank you!) a typo I’d missed. How unlikely, and helpful, to have a sharp-eyed volunteer copy-editor a few time zones in the other direction.
She and I had breakfast there in October 2012 when I went out to give a speech at the University of Minnesota. We had a blast. It’s the oddest moment, these blogging blind dates, when you finally put a voice, face and body to the person whose writing you’ve been reading for months, maybe years. She writes The Green Study, in a voice that’s consistently clear, crisp and no-nonsense.
Plus, the woman served in the military as a Russian linguist!
Depending what you write about, a fellow blogger may come to know you quite well indeed, and vice versa. I felt immediately at ease with Michelle, and we quickly fell into deep conversation.
My first blog blind date was with Lorna, a young woman in Edinburgh who writes the blog Gin & Lemonade. I met her and her fiance, then beau, at a Manhattan bar.
On our recent vacation, we had a sudden family crisis to deal with and I knew, of all people, Elizabeth would know how to cope. It felt bizarre to fire a panicked email across the Atlantic, but she quickly wrote back a long and compassionate reply — a measure of her great kindness, as she and John had just survived a truly terrifying experience, a head-on collision. Here’s her post about it, with photos.
A few months ago, I needed a new assistant, someone really smart to represent me and my business interests. I need a challenging mix of charm and utter tenacity and wondered if she might be the one, and now she is. Thanks to her candid, tart blog posts, I knew we shared a love, and experience of, world travel and ex-pat life, and a stiff upper lip in the face of unpleasantness, personal or professional. You can’t intuit that from a resume!
Have you met or worked with any of your blog pals?
This past weekend, shaken by the hurricane and our renewed sense of vulnerability — knowing the next power outage is inevitable — Jose and I instinctively went to be, in person and face to face, hug to reaffirming hug, with two of our long-time communities.
They are certainly distinctly American: softball and church.
I started playing co-ed softball about a decade ago, on a suburban park field in Hastings-on-Hudson, NY, joining a group of men and women, ranging from their 20s to over 70. It was founded by Jon, who then worked for the commuter railroad, and who soon adopted two small children, a Chinese girl and a tow-headed boy named Dakota, who used to sit in their strollers behind the batting cage.
The years since then have been a parade of deepening friendships. When Ed’s Dad died, we drove into the city to attend his wake, much of it in Spanish. When CJ fell and shattered his leg, Marty, an orthopedic surgeon who also plays with us, was able to do a quick, if sobering on-field diagnosis. When I went onto the DL list in November 2009, unable to play for the next three years with a damaged left hip (fully replaced Feb. 6, 2012), I kept coming out for after-game lunches to stay in touch with this group I love so well.
At lunch last week, as one of only two women among 20+ men, I felt — as I always do — completely at home, teasing Sky, the handsome young man sitting to my left who’s become a personal trainer, with his Mom, a newly retired teacher, sitting to my right. We now feel like family, laughing and teasing and hugging. Ed, a tall, thin lawyer my age, has the same last name as Jose, so I call him “el otro Lopez.”
In an era of almost constant job and financial insecurity, some of us shifting careers in our 50s or beyond, having a group of people who love you, sweaty and dirty, injured or healthy, employed or not, is a wonderful thing.
One unspoken rule of Softball Lite is that men don’t help the women — who usually make up roughly a third of about 20 players each time — or tell them what to do. We know what to do, and after a few games, our teammates know and trust our skills as well. If we goof up, well, it’s not fatal and we’re quite aware that we goofed. I usually play second base, and I didn’t appreciate one new male player who marked a spot in the dust and told me where to stand.
Off the field, too, we cherish our longstanding ties. When one player had a multiple organ transplant and spent many long months in the hospital, teammates went to visit. (He’s now back to running the bases full tilt.) We’ve attended friends’ parents’ wakes, celebrated their engagements and weddings, applauded their concerts.
And, after every game, a group heads to a cafe where — like some sweaty version of Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party” — we gather green metal tables in the shade of a spreading tree, with stunning views of the Hudson River, and settle in for lunch.
We’ve watched Jon’s kids grow from toddlers to grade schoolers and cheered when Joe’s author made the best-seller list.
Jobs and homes and friendships have come and gone.
It’s said that diamonds are a girl’s best friend. This dusty little one is mine.
I rarely blog about religion because it can be such a divisive issue; I’m Episcopalian (Anglican) but not super-religious, another reason I don’t blog about it. I began going there in 1998 after I became the unwitting victim of a con artist, a man I dated, a convicted felon whose predatory behavior terrified me.
His ability to so effectively dominate me psychologically proved to me how terribly lonely, isolated and lacking in self-confidence I had become, allowing him access to me, my home and my property. He stole a credit card of mine, forged my signature and committed other crimes — but the police and district attorney were derisive and dismissive, making me feel even more alone and scared.
I needed to repair my fully broken spirit. Two of the women I met my first week at church, Niki and Barbara, married women a bit older than I, are still friends. We’re still in touch, years after they have moved away, with our former minister and one of his assistants.
On our visit back this week, I was worried we might be snubbed for having been away for so long, but people were lovely. One older man, much more hunched over his cane than we had ever seen him, stopped me to say, with joy: “You’re walking so well!” They had seen me suffer 24/7 pain for 3 years with my damaged hip, on crutches for three months to relieve it, seen me through three prior surgeries.
I congratulated one woman on a 60-pound weight loss, saw another get baptized and heard about a friend’s move.
They knew me single, knew me when dating and living with Jose, and know and value us now as a married couple. We were asked to carry the elements — the Communion wine and wafers — down the aisle in their gleaming silver containers, cold to the touch. I feel deeply honored to be, however briefly, a part of the service, and in such an essential way.
Jose and I are not much like our fellow parishioners, many of whom are wealthy and live in large houses, the women staying home to raise multiple children, when we have none. But his parents are decades in their graves; his two sisters live far away and my father is a 10-hour drive north in Canada.
Like all of us, we need to know we are appreciated!
And, while I obviously value on-line connections, I most crave being in a room with people I know.
It is deeply comforting, especially in times of such fear and insecurity, to be known, loved and accepted by community.
Where — in person — are you finding this sort of community in your life now?
I grew up in a family of, if not lone wolves, non-joiners.
Team spirit? Not so much.
My father, mother and stepmother were all freelance creatives: film, television, magazine journalism, almost always done working from home, sitting at a desk piled with papers, an ashtray overflowing (step-mom), a cold cup of milky coffee defining our “office.”
No one ever worked for The Man, or could count on paid vacation and sick days or a pension.
No one went to church or synagogue or played a team sport or joined a club or organization. My two brothers and I have all been nationally ranked athletes and super-competitive jocks, but usually in individual sports (riding, rally car racing, skateboarding, fencing.)
So it’s been an eye-opener to see what pleasures lie within community, not defined geographically — as it classically is for most of us — but through interests. After my divorce in 1994, alone in the ‘burbs with little cash and no pets or kids to pull me into those groups naturally, I started racing on sailboats of all sizes as a crew member, and did that for about five fun years.
My communities, now, include:
— the board, and 1,400 membership of, the American Society of Journalists and Authors
— the board of the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund, a body that grants up to $5,000 quickly to writers in desperate financial straits
— a co-ed softball team that includes a literary agent, a pastry chef for a Big New York restaurant, high school teachers, a medical editor, a retired ironworker, an orthopedic surgeon and a cantor. We’ve played Softball Lite for more than eight years right until the ground freezes and the snow flies, and I love them dearly. Here’s my love letter to them that ran in The New York Times.
— my Episcopal church, an uneasy fit for me and my sweetie (both career journos) in that most of its members are wealthy, conservative and work in finance, law or high-level corporate jobs. But I’ve been there since 1998 and have made a few good friends. St. B’s and its pastors and assistant ministers has seen me through some major crises
I never really thought about “community” in this way until I read the obit of the sister of a dear friend of mine. When I called him to offer my condolences, he said, “I never knew how many communities she had.” It made me realize how many we enjoy, far beyond our traditional and individual roles of friend, daughter/son, wife/husband, partner, employee/boss.
Being a member of a community, de facto, shapes you. Every group has its own character, standards, acceptable (and not) forms of behavior, interaction and address, how to handle conflict or disagreement.
In Softball Lite, for example, we all know (and love) that cell phones are verboten and no one is allowed to freak out or berate a fellow player for a bobble or error. The operative word — in hyper-competitive New York where we are all so hungry for a friendly break — is Lite.
I think the final definition here is the only one that applies to those who create and try to sustain community on the web.
And the challenge of simply interacting with people you do not know, have never met, may never meet and who may be creating utterly false identities is…who are you dealing with?
For me, a community worth being part of involves a significant level of trust: that is your real name, and photo, and these are your credentials or experiences. This may mark me as naive, or old-fashioned, someone unable to appreciate the wit and irony that so delight and amuse many others in this medium.
But I’m fine with that.
I’m a female Popeye — I yam what I yam.
I want to talk to, and listen to, and interact with, and trust (else why would I really listen to you or heed you?) real people.
Capture a moment in time, Sunday May 2, and join thousands of photographers around the world, a project created by The New York Times‘ Lens blog, one of my favorites:
These were among the responses to our initial invitation, “A Timely Global Mosaic, Created by All of Us,” in which we asked everyone, everywhere, to join in making this worldwide photographic mosaic, with each photographer submitting their one best picture. As guidance, we suggested a few broad topics like arts and entertainment, community, family, money and the economy, nature and the environment, play, religion, social issues and work. And we also suggested that you might find the experience even more rewarding if you do some planning in advance, taking into account how best to represent yourself, and your community, with a single image.
You asked how long you’d have to submit your picture. | The answer: up to five days from the time you took it. The submission form will be live and usable from 15:00 (U.T.C.) on Sunday, May 2, until 15:00 (U.T.C.) on Friday, May 7.
If I had to capture my community in one image, what would it be? A woman getting a manicure? A tug towing a barge up the Hudson River? A day laborer waiting on the corner for work? It’s a cool exercise in forcing us to think hard about what we see every day (or don’t) and how much we take it for granted.
What’s unique about your community? What might you photograph?