Leaving Home by Ness Mountain
"...I fell head over heels in love with my entire school-with the experience of being in community with everyone."
I have this dream of a perfect community. I'm always looking for it. At one time in my life, I was a little like the young bird in the children's story who goes around asking everyone, "Are you my Mother?" I would meet a neat group of people and ask, one way or another, "Are you my Community?" I suppose it's not surprising that people were often a little uncomfortable.
To me, being in community is kind of like being in love. When you're not in love, and you're lonely, potential lovers can look so appealing; of course, once you wind up involved with someone, you learn about a different side to them. Which is the point, of course. You get down to specifics. No matter how well-suited you are, you have to learn to negotiate and deal with problems.
I've often looked at community-type groups of people with the same kind of rosy-colored glasses: the hopeful view of an outsider looking in.
As a young teenager I often had this view, watching older teenagers in my alternative community school. Then, when I got a little older myself, I fell head over heels in love with my entire school-with the experience of being in community with everyone. Because school is a temporary experience, we never had to get down to specifics. We never reached the point of having to deal with a lot of difficult details or get along when the going got tough. And the teachers helped us out when we did.
I've often longed to be able to recreate this feeling of community, but I've found over the years that it's not as easy in the world of grown-ups. Group connections have come and gone for me, but they've never become the kind of community that I dream of. To this situation I must apply the same uncomfortable logic I apply to love: it'll happen when I'm ready for it to happen-when I learn what I need to learn to be a member of a wonderfully warm, supportive community, the group will show up.
But I don't think I'm the only person with this problem, even though I don't hear many people talk about it. It's so lonely and shameful to admit you don't have community.
A friend managed a homeless shelter for some years. The shelter had a terrible success rate in getting their clients placed in permanent housing. One reason was that "permanent housing" meant a tiny, isolated apartment with nothing to do but watch TV. In the shelter, they were surrounded by people. People don't just need apartments; they need homes. Being alone is worse than being houseless.
Here's my message: everybody talk about it. Yes, you. Talk to someone about community in your life. If it's missing, admit it. Why not? If it's there, talk to your community, and remind them to rejoice in it, talk about how to strengthen it, and ask them: is there a way we could draw one more person in?
It's not easy. Community can be destabilized by change. I think that's how we got where we are now, actually, and our society is still changing faster every year. The bonds that hold people together are tested by change. If they last, they grow stronger, but in an age characterized by an excess of choice, it's all too easy to just find another group when the going gets tough . . . or go home and watch a video.
Not all communities are healthy, of course. Part of the reason so few of us live in community these days is because we aren't willing to compromise ourselves. But I think we are happiest and most productive when we are in a community we can live with.
When I was a kid, we had alternative school teachers to show us how to be a community. Our school was a true democracy: we had all-school meetings in which we set school policy. I learned what community looked and felt like, even though I didn't know how to make it happen myself. Well, I still don't know how, but I'm working on it. I've made up my mind. This is what I need to give to the world. I will devote myself to this.
Ness Mountain is a counselor and urban shaman living in Portland. Your comments on Leaving Home are welcome: respond to Alternatives or to Ness.