At a gathering recently I was chatting with an African-American friend about gentrification in our town, and the inevitable lack of affordable housing for young folks and for people of color.
“When I was growing up,” he told me, “there were fourteen of us living in our two-bedroom house.”
“Fourteen!” I remarked, “then everyone had to get along! Was that hard?”
He laughed. “Sometimes we did and sometimes we didn’t, but we had to make it work because we had no other choice.”
My brother has said something similar about getting through the long, cold winters in Vermont; “You’ve got to get along because if you don’t look out for one another when things are hard, you just might not survive a bad winter.”
I sometimes wonder if our California climate makes it too easy for us to not even know our neighbors?
I shouldn’t talk because the truth is that I’m not the easiest person to get along with – or so I’m told. Coming from a family of scrappy Russian Jews, daily life was based on who was mad at whom at any given moment. We lacked the kind of wisdom that made it work in my friend’s family, so with lots of big yelling and harsh silences, we made the wrong choices again and again. Our house was, in effect, a kind of war zone of untrained fighters scared of their own shadows and wishing they were anywhere but there.
Sounds familiar – a bit like the world scene today, no?
What so many of us are longing for is community where we know and honor one another, bring up our beloved children in peace and plenty, work together and play together – but the ideal village seems hard to find. As the joke that is making the rounds goes:
“Community would be so great if you didn’t have to deal with other people.”
I remember, in my twenties volunteering for the organization “Turn Towards Peace” during the Vietnam War, but quitting after a few months because it was a war zone in that office! The mission was a brave one, but everyone was at loggerheads over just about everything! They bickered and gossiped about one another constantly. Once I pointed out dryly that we were supposed to be turning towards peace, but nobody got the joke. First I cried and then I laughed and then I left.
Families are hard; neighbors are hard; community is hard – that seems to be the nature of the beast. We’re human, I guess, and that’s what we do. But it’s also what we’re taught to do – to argue and look for the flaws in one another’s ideas, not to mention hairstyles, clothes and body shapes! Might we be taught to do it differently? Today a close friend with whom I love to spar on many issues actually apologized to me for having so many strong opinions, and with our arms tight around one another, we laughed our heads off.
I try not to do the comparison ‘thing,’ but I do it anyway: if only I were as articulate and self-assured as so-and-so, I would have more clout. If my personality were less passionate, if I listened more closely to what others were saying, maybe I wouldn’t make so many silly mistakes…
But I do. Like what happened last week at the farm when I thought I heard that we had been offered, free, twenty-two lambs if we could take them within the week. Twenty-two baby sheep? Where would we put them? It would be total chaos, sheep all over the place, what were they thinking? I geared for a fight and couldn’t sleep, worrying over sheep!
And then I learned I’d gotten the number wrong – it was two sheep! “How’d you ever come up with twenty-two?” Leah asked me, puzzled. “That would be kinda crazy!” Yup. Actually, I have no idea how I came up with twenty-two sheep – but there you are.
We all do that, right? How many fights have started by the simple misunderstanding of a word, and before you know it everyone’s gearing up for war?
Well, this week I experienced a possible remedy, a pop-out-of-the-ethers way of mitigating our problem: Pop-up street parties! They are a new fad in the East Bay; a great one appeared unexpectedly on my street last Sunday, starting pretty early in the day with the brash sounds of a Salsa Band right down the block, and the delicious aroma of tortillas and hot chilis frying. Nobody in the neighborhood had been prepared for this but we all poured out of our houses, bouncing to the beat. Folks began showing up with baby-strollers and bikes, kids on skateboards phoned their friends to come over, which brought dancers and party-lovers until I think every salsa dancer in town showed up dancing amongst us. Everyone was there – old guys and young guys, zavtig women and teens with perfect figures; they were Chinese and Black, Latino and Jewish; they spoke Spanish and Greek, Japanese and English and everyone felt free to mingle with people they’d never met before, and smile at each other’s kids. We danced the day away, swinging and jumping and twirling happily to the loud music while the rest hollered approval.
By mid-afternoon the sun was hot, the music was hot, the chili was hot and the dancers were really, really hot! It was the world we all wished to live in, the village we didn’t know we had. And all it took was a pop-up salsa band showing up on the street!
Dancing, that’s the ticket!
And laughing at our human selves who are, after all, quite amusing when you get right down to it.