Friday, September 16, 2011

Building community in challenging times

An acquaintance of mine has, at age 27, reached the time in life where her friends have begun to get married in en masse. She confessed to a group of us recently that frequent travel has depleted her savings and her vacation days. While it is indeed a blessing to have so many fond associates, complicating her situation is the transient nature of those she knows well. She herself has lived for a short time in three separate cities and attended both undergraduate and graduate school in separate cities. Among East Coast liberals, this is pretty commonplace.

By their early thirties, most people I know have lived on average, three to five places for extremely short periods of time. Often their jobs demand it. Often such conduct is considered essential when rising up the ladder towards career advancement. This is partially a cultural mindset and also indicative of blue state privilege. By contrast, few people with whom I went to school back in Alabama were such prodigious travelers, unless, of course, they chose the military as their career. Many people who graduated high school with me are quite content to live and die in Birmingham. Neither system is beyond reproach, nor without its benefits.

I bring this issue up partially because it may explain our challenges in finding community, feminist or otherwise. To combine two lifestyles I’ve brought up, I’ll share that I once dated a woman who had been raised an army brat. Due to the fact that she was forced to uproot and move frequently throughout childhood, she had major adjustment issues and abandonment fears. She would make friends somewhere, and then have to leave and start over again somewhere new. Should I not be available, she would deliberately surround herself with at least one other person at all times, especially while out in public. She would never take her meals alone and would beg others to just be present, even if they weren’t hungry. Her story may be unusual, but it might also explain a few of my questions.

Building community in any form is difficult because of how diffuse we have become. In my own religious work, for example, planning events and functions is complicated by how many people have jobs which require frequent travel. Establishing any kind of leadership continuity is difficult when most people can only truthfully commit to at most two years of direct service. Most committee membership does not take this into account, demanding four years at any position. Established systems were never designed to accommodate this much moving back and forth.

I return to the subject of marriage. Several people I know well have had their own weddings in the recent past. Fun aside, I’ve only attended one or two in five years’ time. Part of this is because I’ve never really made much money, but it’s just not a high priority. This may well be a significant gender distinction, but I usually can think of better ways to spend my money. And not only that, I’ve tried to make friends where I am, not returning continually to past stops along the way. Newcomers to DC have often stated that they reached out to Quakers when it grew too lonely to call friends from other cities and life stages. I think holding on to past experiences is fine, but moving forward requires the bravery to find new friends.

Internet activism like Feministing is important. For the uninitiated, Feministing is an interactive Feminist website designed for young adults like myself. Indeed, I would much be all the more worse for wear had I not found it. However, we are still social creatures who crave and need interpersonal contact. Sometimes that may not be possible due to distance, but I’m sure that there are feminists out there who routinely interact with each other online, live close by, and may not recognize how easy it would be to meet up in person. I think it takes a blend between offline and online to really form sufficient bonds between those who share a common interest. Constant travel is unsustainable and, should our economic woes persist, may become too expensive to continue. We may have to conform to that which we cannot change overnight, but neither should we let an isolating model dictate how we live every aspect of our lives.

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