Community By Any Other Name
From Vesperisms Season 2, Episode 1, Aired January 2021
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Greetings and Salutations, and welcome to Vesperisms: The Art of Thinking for Yourself. I’m here to help you recalibrate toward an artistic worldview. So grab your coffee, and have a seat in my studio, and let’s have a chat.
Well. Here we are in Season 2 of Vesperisms! Happy New Year, everyone! MAN, how many of you were waiting to hear those words? It’s almost like it’s too good to be true. For a lot of you, I’ll bet any year that doesn’t end in 2-0 is a good one to write on your dentist forms, right? So without further ado, I present to you Vesperisms, Season 2, Episode 1: Community by Any Other Name.
If you’re new to Vesperisms, I strongly encourage you to go back and listen through Season 1, where I laid out the foundation for the podcast. And if you’re wondering who I am, I’m a literary illustrator who also writes novels of historical fiction for young adults. As we round out the META year that is 2020 into the unknown of 2021, one word has consistently come to meet me on the wrestling mat, and I’m going to take it on. That word is “community.”
We’ve heard for a long time about various “communities” that we are either a part of, or that we should put particular focus on based on what current events present themselves to us in the urgency of the 24-hour news cycle and our social media feeds. Whether it’s the kid lit community, the knitting community, the black community, the illustration community, the Jewish community, the LGBT community, the student community, the Christian community, the dance community, the disabled community, the Muslim community, the healthcare community, the gaming community, the neuro-atypical community, the science community, the vegan community, the activist community…
In the words of Inigo Montoya, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.”
Ready to hear something radical? Common-interest or common-characteristic groups are not communities. That doesn’t mean they’re not valuable or important. Homesteading, for example, is something I really enjoy learning about. I’m not a homesteader, but I do a lot of related acts of domesticity, and I love to geek out on anything having to do with sheep or fermented foods or chicken coops, and there are multiple thousands of people like me who I can find online and talk to.
But let’s be real. Beyond that single focus, homesteaders writ large have very little to do with my life. As multi-faceted as these subjects may be, they’re still fairly narrow. Single-interest groups are not communities. They are networks.
To put it simply, anything that would have a page on Facebook or a hashtag on Twitter is not a community. It is a network.
Why is it important, as an artist, to make that distinction? Why am I taking this on?
Well, the biggest reason is that we are, almost all of us, desperately lonely. Loneliness, anxiety and depression, suicidality, diseases of despair…these were all rising drastically before the events of 2020, but now they are skyrocketing. The reasons for that are obvious, right? But why were they rising before? I believe it is due in part to the misuse of the word “community,” especially on social media. And artists are susceptible to this, because of our incredible openness, and the incredible isolation it often takes to make our work.
As a studio artist, I’m alone for most of the day. I work in my home studio from about 8 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon, and then do a second shift after dinner. I’m naturally an extrovert, who is energized by people, so it’s important for me and my work to get that in-person, face-to-face, people time. The quality of my work as a writer and illustrator depends on it. In a normal year, I’d be bringing my writing work to a local cafe, getting together with friends, seeing my regular acquaintances at my daughter’s dance school or wherever. A few years ago, I, like a lot of my fellow New Yorkers this year, moved away from my beautiful big bustling city to a small semi-rural town on its outskirts, and I really underestimated the social cost of that. In a normal year, if I was going through something, I usually knew at least two people whose lives were stable enough that I could call or go to their houses and talk it out. Or I had the energy to help someone else in that situation. Now, with everyone’s lives upended, masks covering over the markers of our emotions, the premature deaths or long illnesses of loved ones, and all of us a little afraid of anyone we stand in line with at the post office, it’s no wonder we’re all dealing with a rise in things like loneliness, anxiety, panic attacks.
So we go online to try to find commonality with others going through the same thing. We read some reviews on Amazon and buy a book. And maybe we find a book group on Facebook. 50,000 people who have all read the same book on depression are not a community. They have no tangible way of helping you beyond commiseration on that one subject. They are a network. And we all need and appreciate networks. A network can be incredibly helpful for finding resources, but it is not going to be there for you in the trenches.
A network is not going to be there when your marriage is on the rocks. A network is not going to sit in your living room letting you cry on its shoulder. A network is not going to bring you a meal after you have a baby, or God forbid, you have cancer.
But a community will.
I want to tell you a story. It’s not a sob story, I promise. It’ll sound like one at first, but stay with me.
Back when I got my first major book contract, I had a big wake-up call. This was the single biggest thing to happen in my career. I had slogged for 17 long years to break in, and here it was—my big break: a two book deal with a major publisher—as a novelist, not just an illustrator. So I did what you do—I posted the announcement on Facebook. And I got a bunch of likes! But you know what I didn’t get? One single, solitary phonecall. Or text. Or a friend asking me out for celebratory drinks or coffee. Or flowers, or writerly gifts. Nothing. Nada. Zilch.
But you know what? I knew that I had no one to blame but myself. Because the fact was that I had been operating along my own single-interest network for years: my career. I had put my career ahead of my friendships, and the isolation that ensued was frankly my own fault. And I knew that writing a book about the Holocaust was something that I was not going to be able to get through without support. It was the single loneliest time in my life, and I’ve had some pretty lonely times. I knew that this was not going to be solved by being more active on social media. I needed friends. I needed community.
I thought of about 5 or 6 friends who I had history with, people who I felt really understood me, who I didn’t need to explain myself to, and I called them. I clearly explained the support I was going to need, and asked them to walk with me. All of them, every single one, graciously said yes. One of them even came with me on a tour of concentration camps in Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic and made sure I took care of myself.
That’s community. Are any of those friends also illustrators? No. A few of them are writers, but in completely different genres than myself. They are not part of any of my networks. They are part of my community. I’ve learned to reciprocate their care, to give to our community as well. And years later, we are walking with each other still.
Our family has had a hard time in this small town since moving here 4 years ago. It’s a pretty antisocial place, to be honest—or at least I’m saying this as a lifelong city girl with only a population of 17 million to compare it to. I’ve been glad to make a handful of friendships, but it takes effort in a town culture where it doesn’t come naturally. One thing that’s been really tough for us is finding a church. We really love church. It’s grounding for us as a family. We’re part of a story that’s bigger and older than us and our quotidian concerns. But the churches where we live have felt like an awkward fit.
As this crazy year’s gone on, I’ve found myself longing even more for church—the more smells and bells, the better. Sit, stand, kneel, recite, sing, jump around, shout Amen—I love it all. But the thing that makes it the most beautiful is its inherent difference. In any given sanctuary of a church or synagogue, most of us would neverrrr choose to spend time together, trust me. Let’s face it, most people think artists are weirdos. And most artists think the same about others. We really, honestly do think we’re the normal ones.
I desperately miss the act of singing together, of taking communion from a common cup, of sitting together as we hear a teaching, reading from a common book, listen together to announcements and nod to each other that yes, we will be going to the picnic at Riverside Park next week. Being in each other’s homes, sharing in a common life—this is a precious, transcendent thing that is vital for the human experience, and I daresay, for the artist—and we’ve been losing it for a long time, and this year made the situation critical. In the case of church, I don’t know when that’s coming back, or how it will change when it does.
I was telling this to my wonderful therapist, and she said, you know, there’s a certain contingency of people who will never go back, because they realize that they can curl up in their jammies with their coffee and a cozy blanket, and tune in to their favorite preacher, all in the comfort of their own home. When she said this, I almost threw up. So the lesson, in a year of global loneliness, is not how much more vital it is that we support each other and bear each other’s burdens, that we think of ways to safely gather and look each other in the eye, to comfort those who feel isolated and alone—but how to make our lives more comfortable, more inward? To divest entirely from community?
Do you know why “Jammie Church” is no substitute for the real thing? Because “Jammie Church” is a network. We tune in to the same YouTube channel, but we don’t feel each other’s collective “Amen” hanging in the air, or see the anguish in the face of a friend whose wife has just walked out on him, or feel responsible for the future of someone’s children running around at our feet.
Community means that we take our places in a story larger than us—whether that’s a faith story, or a town story, or even the story of an apartment building. Community depends on difference more than commonality. We find our commonality not in single-interest networks alongside us, but in the story that is larger than us.
Artists may need this sense of community more than many, because so much of our work is alone. We are in our heads 90% of the time, thinking of our own vision and concerns, or those of our single-interest networks. Social media—and yes, artists are just as addicted to it—it’s convinced us that the block of salt we’re eating is actually—no, really, guys, it’s real bread. It’s done immeasurable damage to our true connections and our sense of responsibility toward real people, as opposed to interests or political abstractions.
Remember, one tenet of Vesperisms is that Art is Human-Centered. So I am rejecting the term “community” except as it applies to a loose affiliation of diverse people, who actually have personal dealings with each other, and a common stake in each other's real lives.
One thing I’ve tried to be conscious of as this year begins, is to refuse to think of last year as a total waste. There’s always that tendency to tell the old year “good riddance—don’t let the doorknob hit you on the way out!” But this year, I didn’t want to miss the lessons it could have for us. Having written a novel about the Great Plague of 1348, I knew that were it not for the devastation of that 14th century pandemic, you and I would simply not be sitting here in the modern world. As I said in the last episode of Season 1, the advances that came out of the plague included the Renaissance, the scientific revolution, the enlightenment, modern democracy, germ theory—and a cascade of advances that changed the story of the previous millennia of human experience from one that was, for almost everyone, nasty brutish and short—to one in which we can dream beyond our 35th birthday.
When we lament the loss or lack of community, often that’s a sign that we hold the key to something. Communities are nothing more than groups of individuals, and we can wrap our minds around that, right? As we enter a new year, I know that our common life is going to look different for some time. But I want to be part of the solution, and I want all of you Vesperisms listeners to join me. What are 3 ways you can build community this year? Can you host a line-dancing class in the park and advertise it in your local message board? Can you invite one person or family over each month and cook dinner together? Call it, as my friend Noelle does, “first Friday with friends”—something regular that you hold yourself to?
Ben and I are looking at some ways to safely gather people in our community, to care for each other in our differences, to reweave those connections that social media promised, but ultimately betrayed. Besides checking in with people privately, we’ve delivered cookies, made actual long phone calls. We’re looking at starting a monthly singing club, where we’ll get together—outside around the fire pit for now—to sing old spirituals, Beatles songs, 80’s pop—whatever people want—just so we can hear each other sing and laugh and learn to be safe but not afraid. Ultimately, I want to fill my home again. I want a crowd of people around my table with a big pot of soup and homemade bread. I want the criers on my couch. I want the little kids in my living room playing with blocks and trains. A network can’t care for people like that. The time is now for rebuilding true community, in whatever ways we can.
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