At the start of the year I established a daily meditation practice. I didn’t foresee it as a long-term habit, but rather a tool for surviving a lonely quarantine winter. In lieu of New Year’s resolutions, I decided to simply survive the pandemic, and to that end I fixed upon a few states of mind I longed to conjure — clarity, acceptance, and inner light. I often listened to the Beatles song “The Inner Light” and thought about a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode of the same name. Captain Picard experiences another man’s entire adult life during the course of a brief coma. I reflected on the George Harrison lyrics that inspired it — “Without going out of my door, I can know all things of earth.” I knew that to stay safe I needed to physically distance from others. The harsh January elements didn’t allow for much outdoor socializing, especially as I spent most of my daylight hours at home with a very unhappy child trying to get through remote learning. I accepted and embraced these limitations by turning my focus inward.
And for the most part I was alright. I had my family, and managed to meet up with friends for occasional walks. I didn’t really feel how much I’d lost during that quarantine winter until I began a meditation app series on relationships. In the first part you practice visualizing an ever-growing beam of light pouring out of your chest. Then you switch to seeing that beam of light shine out of a loved one’s chest. When it got to the third part of the series, I got stuck. That’s when I was supposed to see the light beam emerging from a person I only sorta know. “This is someone you feel pretty neutral about,” the teacher explained. “Maybe it’s the cashier you often see at the grocery store, or your auto repair guy.” In that moment, I could not visualize a single person other than Dylan, the lanky, mild-mannered young man from the pest control company who comes to spray our house every three months. He was literally the only non-family, non-friend acquaintance I’d seen in the flesh since before Christmas. I tried to imagine people I’d seen in virtual meetings; alas, most people on Zoom don’t have chests! In order to fully visualize someone in three dimensions, experiencing the peaceful euphoria of that expanding inner light, I could only fix upon Dylan. And that felt like too much pressure on my one neutral, in-person relationship. So I abandoned that series and went back to concentrating on my own light beam.
That experience really nailed an idea I’ve had for several years now, that community is way more than just your group of friends. It also encompasses the many people you know just in passing. Quarantine taught me that I feel more at home in my town when I’m engaging in many of these neutral relationships. As someone who is deeply introverted, I find great comfort in the idea that community includes a lot of people who will never be that close to me on an emotional level.
I admit that until about four years ago, I’d shy away from the word “community” because I thought it meant “an obligation to hang out with a crowd of people”. The truth is, I don’t want a friend group because I don’t like being around a lot of people at the same time. That exhausts me. I enjoy an occasional party, but will probably show up early when it’s quiet and possibly pull an Irish goodbye when the crowd gets thick. I thought community meant a party every weekend, which was more than I could handle. So I assumed I was meant to be a lone wolf.
Right after we moved from Tennessee to North Carolina in 2017 — as I was struggling to reestablish myself in a totally new place — I read a very compelling installment of my friend Liza Featherstone’s advice column. In “Asking for a Friend,” Liza would answer readers’ questions about living ethically under late capitalism. In this particular edition a distraught reader explained that while they were fighting for a better world, they also worried what would happen if we don’t have a social safety net by the time they have to stop working. How would they survive at that point? (You can read the column here; TW: suicide.) Liza turned to some experts on the subject of aging, including a hospice volunteer and an anti-ageism activist. Both emphasized the importance of community for poor and working class elderly folks. As I read that I felt my hackles rise. There was that pesky c-word again, that friend group thing that had always eluded me. In that moment I began to worry what would become of hopelessly introverted me in my elder years.
And then the anti-aging activist, Ashton Applewhite, said something that’s been tattooed on my brain ever since. “I have a horror of the collective… In my ideal life, I’d live alone in a turret, entertaining a very handsome visitor now and then. But I realize I have to get over this. Community, community, community is the only way we are going to age affordably and comfortably.” And that was the moment I decided I must make an effort to connect with the people around me. Maybe we’d never be close in the way of founding an elder commune together. But surely there had to be other ways we could support and protect one another in an increasingly chaotic and self-destructive world. There was no way around it, we all need each other.
Four years and a global pandemic later, I am so grateful for the safe ways I can connect with my community and those lightweight relationships I was missing last winter. Thank goodness for vaccination. Now if I need to imagine a neutral person’s chest beam, I can think about the barista who complimented my shirt or the comrade I just met for the first time at our recent DSA outdoor meet-up. I can also experience the nosy joy of eavesdropping once more, and wonder what it meant when that young lady at the park said, “Seeing all my friends was great, but there was no wedding.” (Did someone cancel their wedding?! Who and why? Ahhh, it’s so fun to imagine even though I’ll never know!) And while I had misgivings about my kid returning to elementary school before any of the students had been vaccinated, I get to enjoy her happier mental state and even see some of her teachers in person sometimes. I have become an ardent fan of those who usher the car lines every day.
I know most of these people will never be very close to me. But in the last four years I’ve also learned a lot about solidarity — the idea that all of us working class people share a common struggle. You can have someone’s back without being their best bud. I may not have a lot of close friends, but I’ve got comrades all over this town.