How to find our way back to community
On networks, rootedness, and practicing love in conflict
I was talking with a friend, face to face, in person, at an annual writers’ conference. The last time I had seen him was over pizza at the same conference in March 2020. We had hugged goodbye then, not knowing two years of pandemic and turbulence would go by before we saw each other again. Now, we stood in a sunny, airy space catching up. Groups of people came and went, other friends and acquaintances stopping to say hi, staying a while, then moving on, the way it is at conferences like that. Waves of connections merging and flowing, nodes in a network activating and spreading.
It felt joyful, familiar, and also strange after all this time of so many video conference screens and chat box connections. I was happy to be there, albeit masked and continuing to negotiate all the boundaries and questions of hug-or-not, do-I want-to-eat-at-a-restaurant-with-you, is-this-panel-too-crowded-to-stay, etc. It felt right to be in my body, sharing the same space with other bodies, friends and acquaintances, people I have known in all the decades of my adulthood, and people I have only recently met. This is a community I belong to, my people, a network and web of relationships I am part of, and it felt significant to re-affirm those connections in person, even in fleeting moments in the halls of the Philadelphia Convention Center.
I was there in Philadelphia with my partner, Patti, who was born and raised in the city. We spent hours walking across Philly’s grid, to the squares and the circle, past sculptures and murals. We stopped for a drink at a dive bar and ate at an oyster house. She showed me the house her dad grew up in—a tiny row house in a now extremely gentrified neighborhood. I felt the energy of the city pulsing, felt welcomed and embraced by the spirit of the place. Walking through neighborhoods of tightly packed houses, past hole-in-the-wall restaurants and grand buildings, I thought, I could live here. This could be my home; these could be my people.
On our way out of Philly, we stopped in Kensington, a neighborhood hit hard by the opioid epidemic. The streets were mostly deserted on a Sunday morning, and there was a whole flock of chickens fenced in an empty lot. We were there to see the mural painted by Jess X Snow that I chose for the cover of my most recent book, Last Days.
When we found it, we just stood on the sidewalk and stared. I have looked at and lived with that image for so long, it has felt like it’s become a part of me, somehow. And now, here it was, larger than life, painted on an entire side of a three-story building. A brightly colored fence enclosed what looked like a restaurant patio at the back of the building, so we couldn’t see the whole thing, but I could still feel its magic pulsing in the cold wind that skittered trash along the sidewalk.
Just then, a man came out of his car. “That’s a great restaurant,” he said.
I realized he was talking about the Mexican restaurant on the ground floor of the building. “The food is amazing. They just opened up, and I don’t know if they’re going to do OK here. You should definitely check it out. I was just there last night for dinner—here, take a look.” He pulled out his phone to show us pictures of the dinner he had eaten there last night. “Man, it was good! I’m Rico, by the way.” We shook his hands and introduced ourselves. “Yeah, highly recommend this place. Their bar is great, too. Tina’s the bartender. They’re all good people. Tell them Rico sent you.” Then he waved goodbye and carried on.
Patti and I grinned at each other. Emboldened by Rico’s friendliness and enthusiasm, we ventured into the restaurant. We explained we hoped to see the full mural, and could we perhaps go into the patio? A kind server led us to the back, allowing us to spend a few minutes taking in the full power of the mural.
On the drive home we listened to an episode of Truthout’s podcast, Movement Memo, featuring author and activist Dean Spade. He and host Kelly Hayes talked about mutual aid, conflict and burnout, organizing for systems change, and community. Spade, like many others, believes that mutual aid will be the way that we survive the collapse of racial capitalism and reduce the suffering this collapse entails. As things get harder, no entity, organization, or political party is going to swoop in and fix everything. As June Jordan wrote, we are the ones we’ve been waiting for. Disabled people have known this for a long time. People taking care of each other, neighbors looking out for each other, communities coming together to try to meet the needs of each person in the community—that’s how any of us will survive.
Which means we have to learn how to work with each other through conflict and how to shift our attention from ourselves as individuals to ourselves as collectives. At one point in the interview, Spade wonders why doing mutual aid and other unpaid social change work feels impossible to so many people, why they get “burnt out” so easily. Historically, he notes, organizing for change has always come from the people who lived in the worst conditions. With little to lose, they are the ones motivated to take the biggest, boldest risks. It’s not like the organizers for the 40-hour-work day had more time than we do now; it’s not like enslaved people organizing revolts for their freedom lived under easier conditions than we do today. What are the conditions today that make it so hard to sustain long-term resistance and organizing?
His conclusion is that we are more isolated than ever before. More people are living alone or in small groups, with no support systems—even before COVID, under racial capitalism. We turn to scrolling or streaming to numb out. Most people don’t have the kinds of relationships that would make it possible to drop off their kids at the neighbors while they go to an organizing meeting. Too many of us are individuals in our own little spaces, spinning in misery, unable to connect. Or, when we do connect but then find ourselves in conflict with each other, most of us lack the skills to work through the interpersonal challenges in ways that deepen rather than sever community ties.
Yesterday, I finished N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. (So good! I want to re-read it immediately.) I was struck by how the main character, Essun, survives apocalypse in community, just like Lauren Olamina in Octavia Butler’s Parable series. Neither Castrima in Jemisin’s work nor Earthseed in Butler’s are utopias; the people in these communities have conflict, there’s mistrust, sometimes they even hate each other. But they know that to survive, they must share space, time, energy, and resources to take care of each other. Essun finds to her surprise that she ends up liking, even loving some of the people in her “comm.” They are, in the end, her chosen family.
When I think of my chosen family, I think of the poets and writers I connected with at the conference. I think of friends spread out across the country. Networks of care made possible by technology and airplanes. These communities are deeply important to me. And also, I feel a need for community rooted in place and grounded in proximity. A community that can help me break through the habits of isolation and bring me into physical and emotional closeness.
It's ironic, because I’ve lived in Boston now for about a decade, and it’s felt almost impenetrable to me, in contrast to the openness we found in Philly. Only in recent years, perhaps forced by the pandemic, have Patti and I started to find and build real community here. We are part of a network of people who take care of each other when the need arises. We practice mutual aid in a variety of ways, and are building relationships across all kinds of differences. It’s surprising to find ourselves in this kind of community in this city that has seemed for so long to me to be closed and isolating.
I’m not sure whether we’ll stay here or finally move to Philly as we’ve talked about for many years. But I know that wherever I am, I need to keep practicing being in the kind of community that will get us to a different kind of future. I need to keep actively practicing the skills we need to live together and take care of each other, as the world collapses around us. Not just how to grow tomatoes, but also how to be in loving relationship with people who annoy me or make me angry. How to work through conflict in ways that align with my values. How to listen and make sure I am heard. How to be vulnerable and ask for help. How to show up. How to keep showing up.
Below is a short list I came up with of things I need to practice to find my way back to community:
Learning to ask for help, feeling vulnerable in that risk and doing it anyway. Trusting that when I ask for help, people will show up.
Helping people who ask for help.
Offering help in low-key ways.
Getting to know my neighbors better.
Attending neighborhood civic association meetings.
Releasing my tight grip on the boundaries between mine and yours.
Learning how to acknowledge conflict, not be afraid of it, and learn to work within and inside of it.
Write your own list, or add on to this one. Then take one item and think about how you can do one thing to practice it this week. Journal about how it feels, what’s scary, what’s easy, what surprised you. Next week, choose another item, or another way to practice the first item. Journal again. Keep practicing for a month. Know that practicing means you’ll make mistakes. That’s ok, it’s good. Keep practicing.
Building community among Amazon workers seems to have been pivotal to the historic, successful unionization at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island.
Migrant workers, sex workers, and their allies recently released a report to serve as an organizing and policy tool.
Using art and graffiti to organize and communicate subversive messages in Russia.
Scalawag magazine celebrates national poetry month by pairing dope poets from the South with dope playlists by Black and Latinx musicians. I’m in love.
Last Days, along with many other fine books of poetry from Alice James Books, is on sale for just $10 during National Poetry Month.
That’s it for me this month! Thank you, as always, for reading and subscribing. I’ll be back in your inbox on May 16. It’ll be a full moon lunar eclipse, so let’s see what it will bring!