Thoughts on Community from Salt Lake City

These last few months have moved at a breakneck pace! Defend my master’s thesis, finish graduate school, finish teaching undergraduate course, leave my job at Colorado Review, find a new job, pack and move to Utah, unpack, plan my wedding, start a new job… and–oh yeah–try to squeeze in some time writing and some time outside amid all that. I think I’ve been more successful with the latter, which isn’t too challenging considering how beautiful the mountains around Salt Lake City are in the summer.

I moved to SLC because Matt, my soon-to-be-husband, found work here a year ago, and we have some friends from the rock climbing community living here already. Though I without question miss my Fort Collins, Colorado friends (not to mention moving sucks), I was excited to be with my fiancé and dog again. Salt Lake City seemed particularly exciting since it’s a bustling urban center nestled between two beautiful mountain ranges, and Utah poet laureate Paisley Rekdal just recently wrote a piece for LitHub about “Why Salt Lake City Is a Great Place for a Writer to Live.”

The hard thing about finishing an MFA program (I still love you, all my creative writing friends in Fort Collins!) is that your creative community disappears. Or, at least, fragments.

2019 interns at crawfish boil
The lovely writing community I had in Fort Collins, Colorado

And ironically, it seems like the theme of my life as of late has become community. I just keep stumbling across or running into mentions of community and how important building and sustaining community are in the context of a 21st-century world that increasingly isolates us. Here are just a few at the forefront of my mind:

  • The most recent episode of Hidden Brain, an NPR podcast about social science research, is on empathy. In America today, college students have the lowest levels of empathy since researchers began measuring our empathy in the late 1970s (source here). Is this because more of us are living alone than ever before? Or because we’re less likely to regularly attend worship services, or confide in our religious leaders? Or because of, as the study’s researchers say, “the recent rise of social media” or our “hypercompetitive atmosphere and inflated expectations of success, borne of celebrity ‘reality shows’”? Or because of what’s been termed the epidemic of loneliness? Or some combination of all of these phenomena?
  • Have you heard about the huge, long-term Harvard study on happiness and quality of life? After nearly 80 years, researchers determined that “The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80” (source here). So not only are relationships important because they make our lives feel more meaningful, but because they literally make us healthier. That article I linked to adds, “Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives, the study revealed. Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.” Not only are diet and exercise important to our health–so are relationships!
  • I’ve also been reading a lot of articles recently about contemporary motherhood and parenthood, about how we used to be okay with letting our kids go outside and play unsupervised, but now American mothers (and sometimes fathers) are expected to not just watch over but actively engage with their kids 24/7. This sounds like a recipe for loneliness; more than one mother-artist has discussed how difficult it is to get adult work done without a single moment away from her children. In addition, “American women spend more than two hours daily on chores, compared to just 82 minutes for men,” and around the world, the domestic, unpaid work gap is even worse (source here). How does this relate to community, you ask? Well, parenthood and marriage used to exist only in the context of multi-generational households and villages. Parents and spouses received support from their friends and family to help raise their kids, settle disputes, entertain themselves, and provide respite from stress. Esther Perel has become the preeminent expert on marriage and long-term romantic relationships. In a recent interview with Krista Tippett for one of my favorite public radio programs/podcasts, On Being, Perel said about marriage, “You didn’t necessarily go away with your partner, alone, to celebrate something that isn’t necessarily seen as private. The marriage lived in the center; it was one central relationship, but it lived in the midst of an aggregation of other intimate, powerful connections with their own sense of duty, obligation, et cetera.” I’ve been thinking a lot about how we expect so much of our partners–to be our best friend, confidant, roommate, co-parent, sexual partner, financial advisor, chef, personal shopper, spiritual advisor, chauffeur, nurse, business partner, etc. How many of these roles can be or used to be distributed among different people? And why have we evolved to placing all our eggs in one matrimonial basket?
  • When I was looking into what kind of wedding ceremony I wanted Matt and me to have, I came across the traditional, unprogrammed Quaker ceremony. Because Quakers believe every person has God within them, and therefore no one has any more authority before God than anyone else, there is no officiant at the wedding ceremony. (For more information on Quaker wedding tradition, see this helpful article or this more in-depth look.) Traditional Quaker worship services are like this as well; to embody this, most Quaker meeting houses (like churches) have pews facing each other rather than the front of the room. Anyway, as I did more research, I’ve seen how central community is to Quaker theology. In this 2015 interview with Krista Tippett, Quaker author and thinker Parker J. Palmer said, “I think complexity can only be held by community. And I think that one of the most important things that needs to happen right now is… inter-generational community…. I am an individual with a voice. I am also embedded in a community on which I’m highly dependent, from which I came, and to which I will return. And I include the community of the natural world in that.” We are both apart and a part, and to be a whole is to be both.
  • One more cool thing about Quakers: the way they make decisions! According to the American Friends Service Committee (“Friends” is what Quakers call themselves), “Quaker decision-making is grounded in the belief that when several people come together to labor in the Spirit they can discern a truth that exceeds the reach of any one individual…. To be effective, Quaker process requires that everyone come ready to participate fully by sharing their experiences and knowledge, by listening respectfully to the experiences and knowledge brought by others, and by remaining open to new insights and ideas.” Effective decision-making, in this model, can only be done in the context of a loving and vulnerable community.
  • Lastly, at my new job as the development associate at the environment nonprofit the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, I’m seeing how so much of getting things done–in terms of policy and helping others and raising money to do both of those things–is about making meaningful connections and sustaining those relationships. People support causes they care about, but what they care about is largely informed by what their friends and family care about. We rely on our communities to communicate to us what needs doing and how.

So I’m learning that community is important–vital, even. But true and sustaining community takes its shape organically. Like friendship or romance, it can be sought out, but it can’t be forced. And it takes risk. I have to seek authentically, or else any connections I make will be to some version of myself that I put on to impress others or to avoid discomfort, not to the real me. The risk, of course, is that the real me gets rejected–for being me. Yikes.

With the proliferation of the internet and her aforementioned stepchild, social media, it certainly looks like opportunities for real social connection and community abound. Meetup.com describes itself as “a platform for finding and building local communities.” Private Facebook groups connect people who have in common anything from the banal–where you live plus a desire to buy/sell used goods–to the wacky–I’m a member of a feminist womxn climbers’ group ♥. Other prime examples: Reddit, Twitter, Instagram, chatrooms, Skype, FaceTime, MarcoPolo…. I mean, dating apps, y’all!

But I have to admit, scrolling through Facebook and Instagram makes me feel lonely more often than not. I’m just witnessing other people’s lives–their travels, their accomplishments, their vacations, their kids, their pets. I’m not actually doing anything with them, except occasionally when a comment war ensues over a (usually) political issue. The fuel of social media’s engine is individual opinion. People share their thoughts in order to be liked, followed, commented. I guess I’m hungry for a truly communal space.

One reason I’m looking forward to my wedding–other than actually getting married to Matt :)–is the community it will create around us, around our marriage.

2019-07 Civil Ceremony1
Matt & me getting hitched at the SLC courthouse in July

I know we’re going to need all sorts of people to support us and celebrate us throughout our lives as we encounter different challenges and accomplish things we never dreamed we’d attempt. I look forward to hanging on my wall the marriage certificate every guest will sign, a reminder that these people believe in us, want the best for us, and will help us when we inevitably need it.

Love to all. ♥

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