Last weekend, my daughter and I went to visit one of my goddaughters at college—see her dance performance, eat dinner with her in the dining hall, see her dorm room, and meet some of her friends. After hearing me exclaim with delight several times, my daughter said, “Mom, it sounds like you want to go back to college!”
I’m not envying studying for finals or tuition payments, but how the campus is set up for community. The architecture, flow, and structure were designed to help people study, play, eat, and hang out together. Middle class suburban life, as you may have experienced, is designed for the opposite. (For a great discussion of this, check out this podcast)
And we are seeing tragic results of isolation, fear, racism, and fiefdom this week as TWO people, Kaylin Gillis and Ralph Yarl, 1000 miles apart, were both shot for knocking on the wrong door. Anand Giridharadas says (quoted by Priya Parker):
We are not merely divided; we are un-developing. We are — not all of us, thankfully, but many in this country — reverting to those eras of history in which anyone outside your circle had to be murdered if they came past your moat, because the presumption was that they would destroy you if you didn’t destroy them. Reverting to the purity-and-contamination framework of caste societies: my people are not just of similar mind and values and history; they are clean and safe, and others imperil me.
These stories sadden me so much that I can barely talk about them. They underscore the deep-seated, rotten reality that we value private property more than we value taking care of one another. The messes this has gotten us into–in education, health, mortality rates, and every measure of thriving–are well-documented.
And I’m always coming back to, “What can I do? How can I keep living out my values of inclusion, welcome, and vulnerability? How can I design my life for community?” The campus metaphor is imperfect since students must apply to be there. But eating dinner with my goddaughter on the outdoor patio has inspired some ideas and intentions:
- Invite people to my messy house. Post-Covid, I’ve noticed increased reluctance to invite people over—I feel more exposed somehow. I want to nip this in the bud. Community often doesn’t feel cozy or comfortable in the moment, but it’s good medicine. We need it to stay alive.
- Keep sharing meals. In my previous life, I was a food blogger and wrote for 12 years about the magic of sharing food together. I still believe it’s the bedrock of communal life. A stocked pantry helps me make something simple on-the-fly, and I’m forever inspired by our previous neighbors in Seattle who worked at McDonalds and would bring us food from their shift. And invite us over every time the grandmother in the house made pozole.
- Open my door to the hallway. I don’t live in a dorm, but I’m drawn to the accessibility it engenders. If every interaction we have is planned out weeks in advance with people who are just like us, we are not likely to be surprised, delighted, or challenged by the joys of just “hanging out.”
- Create and highlight common spaces. On campus, there are common rooms everywhere. Communal spaces where buying things is not a prerequisite! We have such a drastic lack of these in modern life. In San Francisco recently, I noticed that every communal spot in Union Square has become a barricaded, high-security zone policing unhoused people.
- Resist ownership. Dorm life includes a lot of borrowing—borrowing an iron, dress, car, or bike, pooling resources. It’s sad to me that the “American Dream” is mostly comprised of accumulating enough so you don’t have to borrow anything. My favorite thing is when a neighbor knocks on my door asking to borrow a cup of sugar.
- Choose love and openness over fear and restriction. Ralph Yarl had to go to three houses before he found someone who would help him after he was shot. I don’t think I’d be able to live with myself if I had turned him away. But history shows we all say these kinds of things—it’s another to live them. I can find ways to practice trust and kinship (especially with those who are different from me) without someone bleeding out. Much of it has to do with mindset and happens far before an emergency—am I willing to acknowledge and examine my own bias and prejudice?
In an interview with Yes! Magazine, Alissa Quart says,
The American dream I’m arguing for is partially the old “American Dream,” which was coined in 1931 as something more communitarian and more open to collective possibility. We need to think: How do we get past this story of doing everything on our own? As I say in my book, “If you think you’re self-made, call your mother.”
As always, thanks for reading, and thanks for all the healing work you do in your communities. I hope you can find a table in the sun this week and enjoy a meal with your roommates, friends, family, or co-workers.