WHAT IS YOUR COMMUNITY? – Homes Within, Communities Without

This month, every morning when I wake to the pounding, clattering, and growling of machinery and men building the new house two doors down, I’ll stare at my spinning ceiling fan and ask myself, “What is my community?” July 1st, was the first day of my writing residency for the Biennial of the Americas, with PlatteForum and the Lighthouse Writers Workshop. My project is called “Homes Within, Communities Without.” I’m creating two digital video stories: one in which I explore how I experience community, and another in which a young, recently homeless woman explores how she experiences community.

For now I’m just stirring the question around: what is my community? I avoided the answer for years. Though I spent my entire childhood in Los Angeles County, I moved from home to home: first with my parents, then my grandparents, then my dad and first stepmom, then my grandparents, then my dad and second stepmom, then just Dad, then just his girlfriend, her parents, back to my grandparents… until they divorced and it was just Grandmom and me. In the mornings, I often felt a moment of panic on waking, as I wondered which house would appear when I opened my eyes.

Though I spent my entire childhood in Los Angeles County, I moved from home to home.

When I grew up, I spent years moving, wandering, traveling – believing that I loved everyplace and everyone, but that I fit in with nobody and belonged nowhere. Feeling unmoored had a comforting familiarity. But it was childish to pretend I didn’t want to belong to something.

I spent years moving, wandering, traveling – believing that I loved everyplace and everyone, but that I fit in with nobody and belonged nowhere.

Today, when I wake, I reach next to me to feel the cool flesh of my husband’s arm, which reconnects me to the world. I know that when I open my eyes I’ll see pale green, pale wood, and bright light filtered through bamboo shades. I’ll breath in the bittersweet smells of skin and sweat, sun and sleep. All these things give me a sense of relationship, a sense of place, and a sense of myself in space and time. When I wake, I know where I am.

Today, when I wake I know where I am.

I am in a brick bungalow in the Platte Park Neighborhood in Denver, Colorado, USA. That soft snore belongs to my husband, Dale. If we make love or argue, Brian and Elena might hear us next door. They’re probably already awake, thanks to their new baby, Lilian. We don’t know them well, but I like knowing their names. The contractors next door to them have their permission to tear across their lawn with the front loader. We find this funny: Brian’s lawn was covered in polka dots a year or two ago thanks to overzealous weed killer. “Maybe they’ll fill in the dead spots for him,” Dale says.

The Denver Post will be on the front walk when I step out to water the flowers, and both those things further connect me to the world.

I don’t know many other neighbors, but here’s what I do know: The Denver Post will be on the front walk when I step out to water the flowers, and both those things further connect me to the world. I know that if I walk a few blocks east, I’ll hit the Pajama Baking Company, where Dale and I go for coffee, chai, and peach scones every weekend. If I head a few blocks west, I’ll hit Heidi’s Deli with its sandwiches on ciabatta bread that my teenage sister insists on eating when she visits from LA. A few blocks south I’ll reach the building full of slouching sofas where my Alanon group meets on Saturday to laugh and cry over the weirdness of life with alcoholic friends and family – recovering or not. A few doors to the north, we often walk through our pocket park, sometimes on our way to the Decker Branch Library. The old building looks like the kind of library you’d find in a children’s fantasy: a sweet brick cottage that’s a secret portal to imaginary places, or a place where an old witch will eat you. Books are my favorite source of community, but that’s another story.

The Decker Branch looks like the kind of library you’d find in a children’s fantasy.

As I lie in bed and open my eyes, the knowledge of where I am and who I am in space and time gives me a sense of belonging. When my feet hit the wood floor, I feel grounded. For me, community really does begin at home.

When I open the shades in the kitchen, the intense light of this mile-high city thrusts its way inside with insistence. The air is thinner here, making the sun bolder. And by this strong sunshine, Coloradans begin to define themselves, even us relative newcomers of a decade or so. We know we belong together because we love the intensity of that too-close fireball.

I walk the Big Blue Stem Loop of Boulder’s South Mesa Trail, below the phallic rock known as Devil’s Thumb.

The Colorado sun draws us outside to another community. Most Mondays in the summer, I hike in the mountains, sometimes with Dale or a friend, but often alone. That might not sound community-oriented. But as I walk the Big Blue Stem Loop of Boulder’s South Mesa Trail, below the foothills, the tilted Flatirons, and the phallic rock known as Devil’s Thumb, past creek and stream, among flowers and butterflies, I ask myself, “Is this my community?”

Damn straight.

As I walk past creek and stream, among flowers and butterflies, I ask myself, “Is this my community?” Damn straight.

People and places become reflections of each other. It’s the combination of accessible wilderness and city convenience that binds me to the Denver area and the friends I’ve made here. We love climbing big rocks in the morning and then dancing all night, or biking for hours and then hitting a movie.

In Colorado, when strangers pass on a trail, we smile or say hello. I step off the trail for a closer look at a woodpecker and two women stop to ask, “What did you find?” This wouldn’t happen on the streets of LA. On the other hand, when I took my sister to the Santa Monica Pier, I’ll confess I called Dale to taunt, “I saw Diane Keaton and you didn’t!”

In Colorado, when strangers pass on a trail, we smile or say hello.

My community includes woodpecker, grasshopper, and panting dog. So, too, all the flowers, rocks, and bees waiting at home. I went on the hike to get away, but I never really left my community behind: a place, a connection, a sense of who I am in space and time, and who I find here with me.

So too, my community includes all the flowers, rocks, and bees waiting at home.

After my hike, Dale and I head to the Pajama Baking Company. This time we buy milkshakes from a young woman who knows our faces but not our names. We drink our shakes as we walk down Old South Pearl Street, which was the end of the Denver Tramway line back in 1893. So it seems my community extends into the past, beyond this space and time, prompting me to ask again, “What is my community?”

At PBC we buy milkshakes from a young woman who knows our faces but not our names.

I’ll tell you about my other communities in the coming weeks. But for me this is where it starts: lying in my bed and knowing where I am. Where does community start for you?

10 thoughts on “WHAT IS YOUR COMMUNITY? – Homes Within, Communities Without

  1. saint

    You described perfectly and beautifully what I loved about living in Denver. Though I must admit, even here in a small village in the Caucasus, I get a sense of community. Granted, in poorer countries, that’s sometimes all there is.

    Reply
  2. Cara Lopez Lee Post author

    Well-said, Shawn. In this country, so many of us have the luxury of choosing to share in community or isolate. If we choose community, we get to pick which ones we’ll participate in and which we won’t. The young woman I’m working with on this project, who just got an apartment after more than 6 months of homelessness, has relied heavily on her community of fellow homeless women for support. Sad isn’t it, people with nothing leaning on other people with nothing?

    I checked out your blog, and wow, why didn’t I have it on my blogroll before?! It is now. Beautiful photos and thoughtful observations. I hope my readers check it out.

    Reply
  3. Beth Partin

    I had no idea you moved around so much as a child. I remember someone saying to me after grad school, “And your life was just beginning to get stable!” I guess they were referring to my living in one place for longer than 9 months. It had never occurred to me before that all the moving I’d done from ages 18 to 29 was a form of “instability,” and now I think that I’ve lived in 1 place far too long.

    I like the mention of the library door too. I’m always finding places that seem like portals to other worlds.

    Reply
  4. Zee

    Now I understand where your wanderlust comes from. I suppose it’s something that is suffused in people from childhood.

    You live in a beautiful area by the way. Lots of natural beauty. Community to me also begins at home, with neighbours, knowing their faces, names and being involved with the world around you. Community is something that is slowly dying out, and its sad. I’m glad your life has settled into a pattern you are comfortable with now.

    Reply
  5. Cara Lopez Lee

    If you have stability in childhood, Beth, then I think moving a lot as a young adult can be a wonderful way to test your wings and discover where you feel connected. I think that, as a child, I learned to feel comfortable with unfamiliarity… which I carried into adulthood as wanderlust. Yet, I, too, have used that wandering to discover who I am by seeking the places and people that attract me most.

    Ah, yes, I’ve long fantasized about finding a real-life portal to another world. Until then, books provide that for me… and the occasional cave when I travel. Did you see “Pan’s Labyrinth”? Though the movie dealt with painful subjects, I loved when the girl entered her portal to another world.

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  6. Cara Lopez Lee

    Ah, Zee, it’s amazing to discover someone who instantly gets me, though you live halfway around the world. Although I didn’t move outside the LA area as a childhood, all those different houses and people made me feel at home with the idea of not having a permanent home. So now, wherever I wander, I always make myself at home.

    Now that I’ve married and created satisfying long-term relationships with myself and others, settling down no longer feels scarier than wandering. I can see moving again, but I’m no longer so antsy.

    I agree that some kinds of community are dying, and such change is sad. But we’re creating new kinds of community, where we reach out to those with whom we connect most strongly, via our interests and values rather than by location. I hope this will ultimately have compensations, and that soon we’ll all learn to blend the two.

    Reply
  7. Tam

    Wow, Cara. What an amazing thing to move so much as a child. I went to school with the same kids k-12. For good and bad.

    Do me a favor and go over to my blog, get the link to Sunday Creative. This week’s prompt is Connect. This would be perfect and everyone would love your blog. 🙂

    Reply
  8. Cara Lopez Lee Post author

    I used to like the idea that with each new school, I had a new opportunity to recreate myself, a new opportunity to fit in. But I always tried too hard, and was the odd one out each time. Actually, from 6th grade to 12th grade I went to school with the same kids. But those formative years were rough.

    I linked back to the Sunday Creative, Tammy. What a great idea! Thanks for that.

    Reply
  9. Jen Reeder

    I love your community (and the picture of you as a little intent girl – so cute!). Community has to do with Bryan, books, our tent and dancing with freaks at jamband concerts. And now our puppy Rio – he became a full-fledged member quickly!

    Have you read Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams? A beautiful reflection on finding home/community.

    Reply
  10. Cara Lopez Lee

    Thanks for sharing a slice of your vision of community, too, Jen. Talking to other people, I’m finding that modern Americans still have a strong sense of community; it’s simply shifting.

    “Dancing with freaks at jamband concerts” sounds fantastic. I heard last night that some study has linked longevity to social dancing. So rock on, hippy girl!

    “Animal Dreams” is, in fact, the only Kingsolver I’ve read. I enjoyed it. My favorite image from that book is the moment when she thinks a bunch of mean kids are beating a peacock with a stick, and then realizes it’s a piñata.

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