Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Reflections on Loss of Community

"The paradox of our time in history is that we spend more,but have less, buy more, but enjoy less. We have bigger houses and smaller families, more conveniences, but less time. We've learned how to make a living, but not a life. We've added years to life not life to years. We've been all the way to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to meet a new neighbor. We write more, but learn less. We've learned to rush, but not to wait"

George Carlin

I find I am reluctant to sell my motor home, because it represented a dream I had of finding a more friendly life in a small town in New Mexico. I don't know if it would have worked out that way, but I think it might.  But the truth is I can't leave Tucson now not only because of responsibilities to my mother, but economic realities as well.  And yet, I've never really felt "at home" here, never really been able to find any kind of lasting community. 

I once had an astrologer do an Astro-Cartography chart for me.  Turned out the worst places I could be in the world were Phoenix and Indianapolis, with Saudi Arabia being a bad choice too.  Well, I'm only 100 miles from Phoenix ..........but if I went to New Mexico, or back to Northern California, would things really be different?  I'd  over 60 now, and the world is a different place.   I think it's very difficult for many people to find community now, and loneliness, in spite of our "instant connections" is increasingly pernicious in American society.  And its something no one talks about, because it's both subtle and embarrousing.  If you feel isolated it must be your fault, right?  

I come from a generation and time that lived in communal houses, and was big on co-ops.  And yet, all these years later, I find myself living in a house in a neighborhood where I know no one.  When my mother lived here she never knew her neighbors, and they don't want to know me either.  

I don't know when it happened, but I don't send out emails about my new work, blog posts, or even interesting tidbits of information any more because......well, we all know that it would fall among hundreds of emails.  The assumption, somewhere along the line, I came to make  is that no one has time to read my emails any more, and if they do, they don't have time to respond.    And yet........I remember when I used to write long letters to people, when people did that.  

I feel the same way about calling people  unless I have a specific reason to exchange information. In the "Information Age" that's a real BUZZWORD.   The serpentine undulations and spiral logic of the art of conversation are lost in such a world that values "information" and "getting things accomplished" above all else.

I go to the coffee shop now and confront rows of impregnable laptops, and it seems to me that the days of just hanging out are over.    I join groups and listen to speakers, but that never seems to become one-on-one either.  You listen, everyone gets their 1.5 minute of question and answer, and then you go home.   If I find it frustrating, it's because I'm an anachonism already. 

The function of this blog has been to explore connection, the often invisible strands of Spider Woman's Web.  But I like to have my occasional rant about dis-connection as well.
"Americans' circle of close confidants has shrunk dramatically in the past two decades and the number of people who say they have no one with whom to discuss important matters has more than doubled, according to a new study by sociologists at the University of Arizona. "The evidence shows that Americans have fewer confidants" said Lynn Smith-Lovin, one of the study's authors. "This change indicates something that's not good for our society. Ties with a close network of people create a safety net. These ties also lead to civic engagement and local political action."

The study compared data from 1985 and 2004 and found that the number of people with whom Americans can discuss matters important to them dropped by nearly one-third, from 2.94 people in 1985 to 2.08 in 2004.
Researchers also found that the number of people who said they had no one with whom to discuss such matters more than doubled, to nearly 25 percent. The survey found that both family and non-family connections dropped, with the greatest loss in non-family connections."

Recently I  re-connected with two friends from college.  One I haven't seen in 25 years, the other in 10.   She said she was coming to Tucson for a concert and the Dia de Los Muertos parade.  I made up the guest room and  looked forward, I suppose, to a long discussion about where we've been since graduate school.  Instead we rushed to the parade, spent a lot of time trying to park, had time for a brief drink, then they both rushed to their concert, and I got an email a few days later saying how great it was to re-connect.

Well, I guess so.  That seems to be how it's done these days............?  Kind of like Facebook.  Abreviated, condensed.   Why should I be disappointed?

The busy, busy, busy  indifference of our world is sometimes amazing to me.   I pulled up a few past entries I wrote on the subject. I think creating community is a very important endeavor today, but it's not really easy at all, because the drift of our culture is going in the opposite direction.
May, 2010:

 Yesterday I saw something that happens everyday, but it stayed with me.

 I was looking for a post office, which I found.  There was a long line, and a nice looking gentleman, with a badge that said "Allesandro" was the "maitre'd" of the operation.  In the section between the postal tellers and the long  line was an older woman in a wheelchair.......I could see that she often came to the post office because she knew everyone's names, and in that unfortunate and busy place, she was trying to engage the tellers and Allesandro with conversation by asking a lot of questions about mailing options, asking where the bathroom was, and making some personal comments in the hope of response.  The people in line were annoyed because she was taking up time, and space, and the tellers smirked.  Finally she apologized, and told everyone she was "under the influence of legal drugs", meaning I assume painkillers, and away she rolled, looking embarrassed, down the street.

I didn't think she seemed like a crazy person............on the contrary, she had an intelligent face and a pleasant voice.  She was just desperately lonely, and here was a place with people who were "familiar", and where the hum of  activity was going on.  She was like a stray dog, hoping for a scrap of affection or attention in a place where she surely wasn't going to get it.

Did I do anything?  No, but I sympathized.   I have a better social mask than her, and I have legs and a car, so I'm better off.  People like the Post Office lady have fallen through the cracks.  Am I the only one who saw her, was she invisible to everyone else?

 I should have asked her  to have coffee with me.  Maybe I would have found her disturbing, or it would have taken "time from my busy life".  But I might have learned something, been touched in some way.  I suspect, if I had, she would have looked at me with something akin to terror or suspicion, and refused. Maybe I should have tried anyway.

Here's another entry I found that kind of addresses the issue as well.  I still miss the "Tempe Beach". 

 August, 2008:

Tempe is the home of ASU, a mega-university, and is part of the vast sprawling urban complex that Phoenix has become. But my memories there go back to when I was a child, and one of my fondest memories was  the "Beach".

Back then, Tempe was just a little college town, and in the '50's, only rich people (very few of whom lived in Tempe) could afford a private swimming pool. The Tempe Beach was a huge public swimming pool that took up a whole block, and in the summer, when it was too hot to swim in the day, as soon as the sun went down families arrived with towels in hand, to swim, and eat hot dogs and ice cream from stands at the "Beach". It was a riotous scene of kids in plastic swimming caps and boxer shorts leaping in and out of the pool, a legion of life guards, flirtatious college students posing for each other, and young families socializing at picnic tables.

The "Beach" is long gone, and private swimming pools are  common now, and people can swim with all the "privacy" they could want in their own back yard, along with spending a lot of time and money maintaining that privacy (not to mention the enormously wasteful water use all this "privacy" requires). But I think, even with the obsession Americans seem to have with insulating themselves thoroughly from contact with "strangers" - that there are a few people like myself, who remember the color, fun, and crowds of the "Beach".

The demise of the "Tempe Beach" reminds me of the demise of the "diners" my mother still remembers fondly. Breakfast, for her as a young working woman, involved a whole community of people cooperating to share an experience called "breakfast". Her eggs came with a waitress, cooks, dishwashers, and the regulars she got to know by virtue of eating there regularly.  A  disposable egg mac muffin and a throwaway coffee alone in the car on the way to work may be more convenient.......but is it better? 

Well, I do have to add that somethings are, indeed, better.  The Tempe Beach was, in its early days, segregated.  That's a huge change for the better.  


kd said...

Oh Lauren - I wish I could rush out and spend a long morning drinking coffee/tea with you and talking. maybe go for a walk. You don't know me but following your blog has been one of the things which has helped me make sense of the incredibly alienating process of immigrating (I came to this country in my forties 11 years ago). You ahve probably never felt it but your blog is one which has given me a sense of community, led me to make other online connections and helped me keep balance and provide incredible inspiration adn validation. I earn my living as a librarian working in public libraries now for over 30 years. A hhuge and often unacknowledged aspect of public libraries is the way they serve as a place and a community of sorts for lonely and marginalized people. I am opening my small rural public library the Friday after thanksgiving because I feel so strongly that we need to continue to be there for our community. That said, when you posted about selling your motor home - my heart lept - it looked just like my dream of the nomadic life. The colours, the radiance. I know this is more of the virtual stuff, but you are meaningful and important to many of us invisible ones, ghosts in your life.

Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

You and I would spend long hours over coffee, Lauren, discussing Jung and Gaia and synchros and art. You have a community, just as I do, in blogland. It's not the face to face community of the sixties, but it is no less real, no less important. Hang in there.

Valerianna said...

Great post, Lauren... been seeing and feeling much of this myself, witnessing the lost and lonely and finding myself sometimes so appreciative of the small, rural towns here where I know the tellers and the librarians and folks wave at each other when they pass each other driving. When I first got here from Providence, I didn't, but caught on quickly. Now I know who's local and who not when I pass them. And, totally agree with kd, that the library is such a great place for community. Ours in Williamsburg is amazing. I think I'm sometimes the lost and lonely person whose cup is filled by the friendly librarian or the other folks at the stacks. :)

Lauren said...

Thanks so much to all of you for your comments, and for your encouragement. I admit that the holidays depress me, like so many others.

KD, what a wonderful thing to be doing for your community.....Valerianna said it well. You are so right about the library - it's such an important community center, especially for the marginalized and the elderly. People need places to go where they can be among books, coffee, human beings, even if they aren't talking to each other. I think this, in our electronic age, is something we are losing bit by bit, and it makes me very sad sometimes.

I'll work my way through the holidays, and try to take a longer view of my disatisfaction with my life here. Tucson does have spectacular winters, I must say........75 degrees and sunny always. Come visit!

karen said...

Wow...it's like you were reading my mind. Wish you lived closer to Chicago....I would treasure a friend like you. Like Trish says....blogland does offer a community., although sometimes I have a hard time reading them....my life isn't exactly like many of the bloggers I visit, and sometimes I tend to look at myself with great disdain that my life isn't as full of the fun and activity others are having. Poverty makes one look away from that.
Thanks for talking about this.
The holidays are tough...for sure...yep...hang in there.

Lauren said...

You hang in there too, Karen. If you ever venture this way, the coffee pot is on.

Distain is what I also often experience for my own life, my ideas of what I should have accomplished, and didn't, etc. I think, perhaps, we all need to speak more of these things so that we can exorcise them, get "reality checks". I think it was Leonard Cohen who said "your loneliness makes you think you have sinned."

As far as poverty goes.......I think times are going to get much more difficult economically in the future, and one of the things that is good that may come from that is a movement toward more sharing, more cooperation. So I hope.

karen said...

I agree with you on the poverty thing....from my own experience...when help is needed....ask someone that already has nothing...that will be the person who is most likely to give help to those in need. So if everyone comes to a place of nothing I suppose there will be more cooperation.
I enjoyed your giving thanks post very much...Starfish...
Hope you enjoy your Thanksgiving.