Are We Community?
It’s a legitimate question these days. Are we? Are you my community? Am I yours?
It doesn’t matter which side of the line you’re standing on--both sides are wondering what the hell is happening to our country…our world.
I spent my high school years in Valdez, Alaska. It’s not a stretch to say my heart still lives in the wilds around Prince William Sound. Between the years of 1992-1997 I was treated to a very strange, possibly one-of-a-kind type of community experience.
With a population of roughly thirty-five hundred in the winter, and fifty-five hundred to six thousand in the summer tourism and fishing season—Valdez was (still is) a small community at very end of the Alaska State Highway. I was fourteen when we moved to Valdez. We’d followed the road until the very end, which left us in a small fishing and oil town surrounded by lush, green, snow-capped mountains laced with waterfalls. Valdez is perched on the edge of the ocean, and backed against thousands of square miles of wilderness and glaciers. It is the very birthplace of imagination.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that small-town living meant, everyone knew your business whether you wanted them to or not. All of it. It’s hard to keep secrets in a thirty-five hundred person town when the sky is black for twenty hours of the day, and snow covers the windows all the way to the eaves—all you have is one another. Cold, dark, and community. The nearest metropolitan town was six hours away.
Alaska is one of those glorious regions still so wild it will pleasantly be the death of you in a million different ways. From bear attacks, wolves, hypothermia, avalanche, and countless other ways Mother Nature will clean your slate—to all the many ways isolation and darkness take a death toll in alcoholism, suicide, domestic violence, and the town drunk killing someone on the highway. Yes, these things happen in cities, too—but in a tiny community, even one loss of life or tragedy impacts nearly everyone. Why?
Well, Alaskans fundamentally understand community is survival. Common decency is paramount in order to have shared social and community contracts. You don’t have to like everyone, and often don’t—BUT you DO have to stop and pick them up off the side of the road because they might actually die out there…and next week it could be your car that breaks down and you need a lift. There is an unspoken “social contract” to sharing living space and public spaces with other people in your community.
Community is the invisible thread that supports a construct of human survival in a location that could mean the neighbor next door may be the only one who will be able to get to you in time if the snow load collapses your roof, or the river overflows the bank, or a black bear wanders into your yard while you’re gardening. It happens.
Valdez isn’t a perfect community; far from it. But it did lay the groundwork for a concept that I’d never encountered before. Tribal awareness.
One thing that really sucked as a kid was doing something freshly rebellious or stupid and getting caught by someone, sometimes even a total stranger, then dragged home to my mother where the community member would nark on me, then hand me over to my mom.
This shared parental pact was something totally foreign to me. It felt like living in a police state. I couldn’t get away with anything! (And tried almost everything.) I was from the lower 48, after all. Other people had no right or business to parent other people’s children or even weigh in on non-communal behaviors. But in a small community, people looked out for each other—and for each other’s kids. Survival mandated it.
This always included the folks who would make sure you were introduced to something that you had an interest in or needed to know but wouldn’t get it at home; arts and theater, banned books, comic books, access to rock music, etc. The local theater group adopted me into their circle and family to teach me broader theater and social humanitarian awareness. My high school librarian discovered I wanted to read books that had been put on pseudo-banned reading lists—so she ordered copies to the city library where I could pick them up freely. My pep band teacher exposed me to jazz. My choir instructor taught me to choose lipstick to match my undertones. My biology teacher acknowledged I wasn’t really a “lab kind of kid” but if he needed his winter ptarmigan’s cleaned and packaged—I could earn extra science credit for dissecting and animal anatomy.
The point is: my community always found ways to keep me out of trouble, or help me reach potential that would eventually lead back to support the whole network one day; keep my mind engaged, teach me what I couldn’t learn at home…and make sure I didn’t wander out and get eaten by a bear.
They were all fast and hard about stepping in front of me before I could toe the line. They didn’t take my shit, but instead challenged me to engage in other outlets. To this day, I am incredibly grateful that I grew up in a place that allowed and encouraged a form of tribal community guardianship.
My family was also incredibly poor. The community often brought food and supplementals; salmon, caribou, halibut and freezer meals. My friends’ parents almost always tried to feed me before I went home. It was an unspoken shared knowledge that we struggled...a lot. My first restaurant boss even packed small lunch meals for me to take to school.
So why the long explanation? Because community that has such a level of social interdependence (despite its other issues) can ONLY function by these important social contracts: Trust/Respect/Personal Autonomy/Generosity/Compassion/ & A Social Construct (IE: Values and Manners)
This creates a culture, if you will, of social self-regulation with allowance for interdependent support. Those who adhered to the social contracts did their best to help hold the younger kids to it as well, regardless if they were regular fixtures in the kids’ lives or not. I assume, because I was too young to know for sure, that the adults tried to hold each other accountable to the social contracts as well…but over time, well, everything changes in time.
Unfortunately, this also often comes off as meddling, or “sticking your nose in” which creates a lot of bad blood, and irritation. There is obviously a fine line, a measure between maintaining a community social contract, and “None ya” (None of your business).
These are the social contractual concepts I learned between 1992-1997 while living in Valdez, Alaska:
Help each other when you can or are able. Never leave someone in the elements. Watch out for all the kiddos. All of them, all of the time. Leave no trace. (IE: environmental, carry in/carry out rule). Don’t be the asshole that takes the last of anything without checking if anyone needs it first. (This does not apply to Doritos, or beer…or fries) but it does apply to sustainable hunting and fishing, as well as fuel resources and access to water—even picking wildflowers and berries. Never take the last one. Leave some for the next generation. Never leave a human being on the side of the highway. Stop at the scene of every accident, even if it looks handled. Check first. Hold the door for anyone behind you always and without exception regardless of who they are. Offer to teach a skill you can share. If someone is fifteen minutes late to a date/location—check on them; Alaska is a dangerous place. Volunteer if you can for social community anything. Participate in gatherings if you are able (at least pop in, say hello and then leave). Look out for those who are struggling. Help where you can. Respect other people’s spoken boundaries and limitations. No means No. Don’t block the aisle, roads, bike trails, etc.—access is for everyone so be situationally aware of others and your impact. Support the arts. Support humanitarian causes. Support the Constitution. And MOST IMPORTANTLY---always take your shoes off at the door. Basically, don’t be an asshole.
Not everyone adhered to these social contracts. We’re humans. We have good days and bad days. Most humans are still ruled by ego, and a plethora of baggage-laden issues. Some days the social contract can slip, be challenged, or forgotten. Even by myself.
The point was always to DO YOUR BEST, not what you can get away with, but the best that you have that very moment.
And REMEMBER: You can’t force anyone to participate as a community member. You can’t force anyone to care about their neighborhood or homeland. You can’t force anyone to reach, stretch or inconvenience themselves for the sake of the whole or even just you. You can’t make them be grateful, helpful, interdependent or even just kind. You can only be what the standard is: and they will either buy in to the inter-connectedness of the whole population—or risk being left out of the joyful and wonderful parts of tribal awareness and social cooperation.
Sure, you’ll still pick them up on the side of the highway in winter, but you probably won’t be inviting them to the fish fry next weekend. If they won’t go out of their way for you—why go beyond the basic social expectations for them?
This is Alaskan hospitality. They will give until you don’t give back. Then they will put you somewhere outside the inclusion line. That's how community tends to work. Do your part to support the whole, or be left out.
Because the social contract requires reciprocation. It requires the respectfulness to be mutual in order for the exchange to be fair to the overall well being of the community. This is not a tit-for-tat tally. It is do your best as often as you can—and they do their best as often as they can. Period.
And if people think you’re slacking on your best, you can be damn sure they’re going to shit talk about you to the moon and back while sitting at the bar—and in a small community built on such self-governing social contracts…it’s an Olympic sport, shit talking. That and gossip, because, what else is there to do in winter?
Essentially, this model left a lot of squeegee room in “what is defined as a person’s best?” I don’t know if I truly understood it all when I was a kid. I don’t know how much of it I was actually even seeing. I have no idea if this was a manifestation of my imagination—but I carried it out of Alaska and tried to bring it to the Lower 48; which obviously did not work. Still, twenty years later, I fully expect to be called out when I'm in violation of or not paying attention to sacred community contracts. (Yes, even I miss the cues, or trip over something, or have a bad day where I let my ego rule.)
Maybe I romanticized it all. Maybe I imagined I was just super lucky to have landed around people who picked up so much of my family’s weight until I understood I needed to learn how to do it myself. Maybe I’m exaggerating the fierce protectiveness I felt from my community back home.
It must also be said, this community was always the very first, even decades later, to support, encourage, boost and even finance my wild dreams of being a storyteller. I asked, and they answered with profound generosity and incredible faith. To this day, half of my regular supporters and patrons are from my hometown of Valdez—and they’ve been pushing, urging, encouraging since I was fourteen years old.
Now, twenty-eight years after I first landed in Valdez and was exposed to a different kind of community experience—and twenty years after leaving Alaska I can’t help but feel like our world is melting down because so many of us have forgotten, or possibly never knew what it was like to be part of something that was greater than ourselves; a sense of true community—with epically bad flaws, and tremendous human unity despite those flaws.
I’ve seen a post several times on some FB threads that says, “If I don’t wear a mask, it’s not because I don’t respect you. I just believe your FEAR is not my problem.”
I paused and stared at it the first time it came across my feed. I was surprised, because masking up for COVID is not about fear—it’s about common wellness. Community wellness. Fear has nothing to do with offering respectful courtesy and encouraging a social pact for group health in an isolated town. A small town, where even one loss is felt throughout the whole population.
So, I feel like the meme should change just one word to make it more accurate. More honest. Just one word. Change FEAR to the word HEALTH and then it will read true to the poster’s intentions.
“If I don’t wear a mask, it’s not because I don’t respect you. I just believe your HEALTH is not my problem.”
Ouch. It’s hard to hear. It’s hard to think someone would say it and believe it—but at least it’s honestly worded. It could be even more accurately worded to add a couple of things; “life and/or uninsured financial stability” could also replace FEAR accurately.
I guess it just depends on how honest you want to be on your Facebook/Instagram/twitter. I mean, how blunt do you want to speak to the people who will be picking you up on the side of the highway in a snowstorm when your car breaks down on the pass? Your call.
All I know for sure is this…in Alaska, you take your shoes off at the door to respect the home you are entering. You don’t track fish guts, snow melt, slush, mud or muck into someone’s home. If you choose to ignore this unspoken (assumed) social contract, and step OVER the pile of shoes in the arctic entryway—you can be assured, someone will call you on it. And if you argue, “I have rights!” then you can also be assured, you will not likely be invited into that home again. This is also your call.
So the question arises: if our communities are our communal homes, extensions of our family—where does the mask argument end, and the pile of shoes at the door begin?
Home. Community. Same thing, right?
So I ask again—Are we community?
It’s a legitimate question these days? Are we? Are you my community? Am I yours?
I wear a mask, and I take my shoes off at the door.