I spent three days last week peeing at the Ashe Cultural Arts Center in New Orleans. I mean, that's not all I was doing: I was at a workshop about how to lead a workshop (pretty meta, I know). But the peeing is significant because the Ashe Cultural Arts Center only has one bathroom, and it has a sign on the door I grew to really like as I sat there peeing (and feeling bad for boys, who don't get to sit to pee and read good door signs). It was a long poster titled, "How To Build Community." It offered a bunch of practical ways that your Common Joe could contribute to a real life community. I ate it up.
Here were some of the things the sign recommended: Fix it even if you didn't break it. Sit on your doorstep. Greet people. Look up while you are walking. Ask for help when you need it. Help carry something heavy when you can. There were roughly 40 ideas right along these same lines. I liked them because they struck me as really, really easy. I could imagine doing any of those things without having to go very far out of my way. After peeing a bunch of times over three days (the workshop provided free bottled water, so), I made the conscious decision to heed the sign's advice.
So the next day I sat on my doorstep. Just sat there. For probably 30 seconds, that felt easy. But then I remembered all the things I had to do. I had to go grocery shopping to get ready for the writing workshop! I had to clean out my car because someone might get inside my car and be like, "This car is so messy." And the E-MAILS I had to write! Oh, the E-MAILS. They were neverending. In fact, I thought, I had better get inside and do some of the e-mails RIGHT NOW. They needed to be DONE.
I was just getting up to go inside and get started on the (very important) e-mails, when Mr. Gene, my next door neighbor, stepped out onto HIS doorstep. "You sittin' on the porch?" He said. Mr. Gene is usually sitting on his porch. He's really good at sitting on the porch with a beer and whoever else wants to sit there. "Yeah, I'm just... sittin' on the porch," I said. "Well that's nice, huh?" He said.
At the charter schools I've taught at for the past seven years, "community" is often taught as a school value. In the charter school context, that means teaching kids the importance of picking up trash in the hallway. If a child picks up trash in the hallway, a teacher can say, "Wow, you really showed community just then. I'm gonna give you a point." And that is how we teach children that if adults are watching, they will be rewarded for picking up trash in hallways. Unfortunately, that's all we really teach them.
Because the truth is that community is about two things: connecting with other people, and being willing to slow down. That stuff is kind of hard at most charter schools, because lunches have to be silent (or, you know, chaos will ensue); and there is this overarching sense of urgency behind everything that happens.
I get the urgency. I feel it all the time. Everything going on in my life feels like it is of the utmost importance, and I have to maximize efficiency and minimize time-taking. When things feel uncomfortable, I want to FIX them. When I see a mess, I get the itch to CLEAN it.
My roommate (and mentor, and close friend) Derek is outstanding at community. Derek is the kind of guy every kid ever wanted to grow up to be: he fills our living room with all the innumerable instruments he plays; he buries himself under piles of thick, out-of-print books; he scales trees, walls, street signs, and buildings like he is a superhero who hopped off the page and into real life. He's one of those disarmingly funny and charismatic people who can fill out spaces and groups; he knows -- or, in his time, he has learned -- how to make people feel human. Sometimes I walk into the living room and Derek will be perched in a corner like a lotus flower, balanced in a cross-legged seat, eyes closed, meditating unblinkingly in the humming afternoon. There might be people busy all around him, doing important afternoon tasks, but he is fixed there. He is practicing what it means to Be with a capital-B -- to take in each present moment and to honor the now.
For his birthday last year, Derek had a party on the front porch. He set up sturdy lawn chairs and spread food out on foldable television tables and fired up the grill. (I say this like we have a grill at our house. We don't have one -- Derek had to borrow the grill from our neighbors down the street. But "fired up a grill we borrowed from our grill-having neighbors" just doesn't have the same kick to it.) He invited all our neighbors. People stopped by, chatted, ate a hot dog (from the grill), and moseyed off, all evening long.
Derek's decision to celebrate his birthday on our front porch was intentional: he wanted our porch to be welcoming. He made an active decision to be a member of our neighborhood community. He opened our space up for connection, and he was willing to slow down. We "reveled" -- which I put in quotes because this mostly consisted of talking lackadaisically about plants and stuff while stretched out on lawn chairs -- for the entire afternoon and into the night.
Last weekend, I volunteered at the kids' corner of Fete Marigny Fest. This is not something I would have ever done of my own volition, mind you. I am extremely busy after all, what with all the e-mails and car-cleaning and e-mails I have to be doing. I almost never leave the house. But my friend Luke -- who is also crazy-good at community -- asked if I would help, and while I am great at never leaving the house when given the choice, I am terrible at saying no to people I like. Privately, I felt a lot of dread around this commitment. As a rule, I dislike anything that describes itself as a "Fest." "Fest" is just a euphemism for "You Have To Mingle With Strangers And Everyone Is Drinking."
I got to the fest on Sunday morning. The day was impossible. It was like 77 degrees with a gentle breeze and cloudless sky. You could've worn any outfit on earth and been totally comfortable. (Within reason. You couldn't have worn something made exclusively of straw.) Luke was flitting around the tables and tents, very much in his element. I knew he'd gotten up at dawn to get this fest set up, and that he had probably stayed up late planning, but he was smiley and energetic nevertheless. "Here! This is your spot," he told me, indicating to a pile of washable tempera paints and parchment paper. "We're going to turn the play structure into the Bastille."
We covered the play structure in parchment paper and poured the paint liberally into clear plastic cups. The kids who came -- there were dozens throughout the day -- were fearless about the paint. They flung it at the Bastille. They mixed it all together and poured it over the Bastille. They smeared it with their fingers on the not-parchment-paper-covered portions of the Bastille. And they were very happy.
At first, my teacher brain was in high gear. I wanted to keep the paints organized and the kids' clothes clean. Around noon I wisely gave up on that. It had been a futile dream. (There are parallels to the French Revolution to be made here, but let's skip them for now.)
Eventually, I sat down on the ground by the Bastille with some of the other volunteers. I listened to the charming French music web the nearby reaches of the park. There were people in various stages of falling in love amidst the trees, sprawled out on the ground, chatting or listening or both. Miller -- a little girl with long brown curls and butterfly face paint -- ran up to me asked if she could paint the sun on my forearm. That was the exact moment I felt it: Oh. This is community. It is being able to slow down. It is being able to connect. I felt the gratitude sink into the pit of my stomach, and I let it roll around in there like a river stone.
Building community isn't easy. It's hard. Connecting and slowing down are both antithetical to the very essence of the whole get-this-done-right-now thing we have going on in our modern capitalist society. But the secret is this: community isn't just ethical and wholesome and altruistic; it also feels good. It shakes you. And in tiny moments when, perhaps, you didn't even know you were asleep, it has the unique and unparalleled power to wake you up.