Skip to content

On the Cusp of Old | 2016 | Seeking a Friend for Saturday


I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.  

-Groucho Marx

Have Me as a Member

She's a portable community

A lifetime ago, I looked out the window of a bathroom at Bard College and my internal compass found its north. In the quad were twenty of my "gifted" peers spending a July day tossing a Frisbee around, playing guitar, and lounging in the grass as though we had forever. I had never felt so at home, so myself. Summer Scholars was two weeks of crushes, unpolished poetry, unplanned midnight concerts, cookie baking, and independent movies with classes in writing interspersed. If I had to describe my heaven, I could do little better.

The next year - same campus, but new classmates and organized around sociology - was rigidly planned and so an imperfect repetition. When, years later, I had the pleasure of being an RA for this program, I saw it through the wrong eyes. It was work, not a unique adventure with my peers. I became the one enforcing the rules to ungrateful kids who wasted a formative experience obeying to me.

That first summer at Bard inspired the longing that has ruled me since: craving a community that feels ever just out of my reach. My fingers have grazed it, but it slips away whenever I try to hold it to my chest.

What I mourned most about not living on campus when I was in college is that I wanted a prolonged recreation of Summer Scholars. The closest I have come to replicating that communal sensation was Free Spirit, where I was awash in a community that sprang up, existed for a finite eternity, and decomposed until the next year. Among concerts, dancing, swimming, drumming, and classes, I could pretend my world could be this with a little work and luck. It was the first time I let my walls down enough to feel a connection with Pagans en masse, whom I as a rule do not trust for claiming the poor taste of a similar theology.

Both Summer Scholars and Free Spirit have as their underpinning a rare demographic quirk (giftedness, Paganism). I was appreciated in specific, but allowed to have my own experience within the paradigm; within limits, I could do or not as I pleased. Without question, my basic needs were met and I could focus on how I wanted to experience the situation. There were not expectations, simply suggestions.

Studies have shown that some survivors are happiest after a disaster because it reconnects us. After 9/11, I felt a hopeful unity that lasted until the government started dropping bombs on unrelated countries. In the streets, people were friendly and compassionate because we all understood that we had suffered a shock to our system, reshaping our shared world. Humanity is built to want a tribe, but this society keeps us isolated. Social networks reliant on computers are prescriptions for loneliness, showing us a curated, artificial life to covet. It is voyeurism at a theatrical play we mistake for reality.

There is a theory so popular as to be likely that one of the reasons for the prevalence of eyeglasses in our society is that we spend so much time indoors, looking only so far as the nearest screen, that we lose the muscular control necessary to focus at a distance. Our bodies are as lazy as they are economical, because why bother with 20/20 vision any more than we should on wisdom teeth or appendices? What we have lost, optometry can replace, even though we are never as sharp as our hunter-gatherer ancestors, conditioned to scanning the plains for dangers. Society conditions us to be nearsighted.

I like to imagine that this was less of an issue in former generations. We could harbor under the illusion that, bereft of a million choices of specific digital companionship, we had to make do with the people in our towns. Under the tyranny of choice, we are always allowed to choose wrongly and I am apt to.

Yet the times in my life when I have been the most content are when I have most felt a part of a community. When I felt despair closing in, it was because the circumstances of my life had made me feel secluded from the people whom I find important.

Whenever one of my close friends disappeared from my life, either intentionally or through neglect, I mourned that the sliver of my world they represented vanished forever. I had a matchless community with them, then I didn't.

In my brighter moments, a phrase I mean both intellectually and emotionally, I can acknowledge that my life is wonderful. Yes, there are parts that are not quite right, but I cannot let perfect be the enemy of good, especially when summer looms. I am on the road to my bliss, but will not get there unaccompanied.

My people

Daniel has said I am the male equivalent of a maniac pixie dream girl, what with the fantasy writing and philosophical wackiness as I play social director, but I need Amber to make me run through dandelions. Without our relationship, without other people spurring me into exploration, I feel inert and stagnant.

My wedding filled me with joy in large part because I was marrying one of the kindest and sweetest people I've encountered, but a portion of it was that I had brought together many of the people I adore for the explicit purpose of celebrating my love. My emotionality that day was flavored by how fragile I found it all, how the community reduced to its constituent parts before Amber and I could manage to cut the cake. Communities become less tenuous the more people are added.

Some find their community within their bloodline, having grown up at the side of cousins. Though I saw my cousins at birthday parties and holidays, my brothers and I never hit it off with them. I respect and like them-most should, as they are respectable and likable sorts-but they are not my community. Perhaps it is because they are technically second cousins on my mother's side. That generation removed could prove too unbridgeable a chasm.

Since I have met her - the reason I met her - Amber has had a circle of local witches who met once a month for new moon rituals or women's worship sessions. Given my gender, I was excluded from many of these, but I couldn't begrudge them their exclusivity. Part of having a community is knowing there are people who do not belong with you.

They have ceased to meet so regularly, I think in part because the organizer and host of these went through a breakup with her girlfriend. Amber misses her community, but I do not know that she feels the pull as I do. I have rarely hit it off with people along religious lines, so I cannot guarantee I would be happy in a circle that expected regular attendance and frequent rituals.

I will never be able to find a community at my day job, as I know some do with their careers. Spending forty hours a week with a group of people can certainly make them seem like a community to the casual observer, but I do not feel the requisite click. If I worked at some liberal private school or even a well-funded public school, I could envision going out for drinks after hours with my colleagues. If I worked in a place where there were more people in my department than behind the counter at a Starbucks, the statistics might be on the side of a friendship. Forced socialization isn't going to be enough, particularly when I have to deal with teaching child molesters and attempted murderers the finer points of English composition.

My people

What is my writing but an attempt to create a community? With my characters, I can feel camaraderie, as they are all parts of me. Each of my books is an attempt to find connection in the wider world, a completed thesis for people to explore and discover me. This is in part why I take it so personally when I perceive that people are not interested in my work: I have put a chunk of myself before them and most won't ever read it.

Unfortunately for my mental sanctity, I don't want to connect with most people, yet I thrive as part of a community where I am left to my own devices. I've written whole books while sitting in the middle of a loud restaurant with earphones in because I felt a part of things. Some of our warmest moments with Daniel involve the three of us working on individual projects, interrupted by the occasional funny video or quick conversation. I have felt content when surprising Daniel with a sloppy birthday cake I had hidden in the microwave or scrabbling after Kristina as she darts up a mountainside. Caring about them distracts me from uncertainty.

I thought the least in terms of my own happiness when I felt like an irreplaceable part of a community, so enmeshed that I didn't question its existence. The moments where I have been content - or the least existentially miserable - were those where I felt I had a group of close friends who cared a great deal about me. I don't know how I missed the correlation all this time, though maybe it was simply that I didn't want to see it as I entered the period of my life when people statistically have fewer friends. One of the sources of my abandonment issues is that losing a member of a community I had cobble together meant I was losing a source of personal happiness.

It is easy to feel blithely a part of something in high school because there is no end of things to which one can belong. Even when I didn't like all members of my peer group, even when they bickered and broke up, I could still come to school with purple hair and know people would feel closer to me for it. It was superficial, but that is all I needed then, united by the external.

The danger of realizing all this, in part, is that I am a writer. Now that I have figured out the theme, I can so easily see the foreshadowing in the last twenty years of my life that I am convinced half my evidence is only retroactively significant, bits of scenery I have mistaken for puzzle pieces. Even the shows and books that have most reached my core let me feel as the silent additional member of some fictional team, and it couldn't simply be a coincidence that I related best to these. I have long thought I had Seasonal Affective Disorder, but what if I just like sunny days better because they facilitate seeing other people? And what was my revelation that I have abandonment issues but the harbinger that I need a community to feel healthy and balanced?

The solution to my malaise, now that I have put together its likeliest cause, is to seek involvement outside my apartment. Yes, I have somewhat warped neurochemistry, however I am the master of it. I can change the shape of my brain. This epiphany will no doubt strike most readers as the height of obviousness, but I am slow on the uptake when it comes to the impulses that guide my actions.

Soon in Xenology: Art.

last watched: Daredevil
reading: The Grim Grotto
listening: Regina Spektor

On the Cusp of Old | 2016 | Seeking a Friend for Saturday

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

eXTReMe Tracker