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Part of the Chorus
On Interdependence and Interbeing
Note: In this essay, I write about the tv shows Somebody, Somewhere and The Bear as well as the book Lessons in Chemistry but not in a way that spoils plotlines for those who haven’t seen them.
Last Sunday, I sat in meditation with members of a community I have participated with online throughout the pandemic and in person for close to fifteen years. During the time when we hold space to share, I told them that I feel more and more that the only thing that matters is community.
Our reading by Tara Brach this past week focused on one of the three jewels in Buddhist tradition. The jewels are what we return to, what keep us going in our practice. The three jewels are the Buddha, not only the actual historical legend but the capacity within all of us to enlighten; the Dharma, the teachings, not only the wisdom of Buddhist texts and teachers but the raw material of our lives; and the Sangha. The sangha is community: fellow walkers on the path, those that sit beside us who share the desire to wake up from suffering and live an awakened life.
I am writing this a few days before I turn 44. I always get reflective around my birthday. Some mixture of hopeful and maudlin. I think back on all the years I have lived, all the moments I have shared, all the selves I have been. This year, I am thinking about community. How we show up to and for one another.
We can easily take for granted both the ways we show up naturally and the ways others provide this care to us. We are interwoven into one another’s days so seamlessly. The tiny gestures of affection, the followup texts, the phone calls, all the “I love you”s, the ways we encourage one another’s dreams, the meals made, the hosting in our homes, the times we share podcasts or shows or songs we know the other would love. Community is built through time and attention.
When you have a life that is less legible to others, when the milestones look different, it can be hard at times to understand your own value because it seems that others don’t readily see it. In the absence of a partner or a nuclear family or a career trajectory that is easily understandable by traditional standards, my life seems untethered. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.
At the center of my life–tethering me to purpose and meaning and beauty and joy–are all of the communities I have ever been a part of, am a part of, and will be a part of. I am not me without them.
My birthday falls so close to the 4th of July, “Independence day.” As a child, I resented the day because it meant my friends were out of town and we didn’t get to be together for my birthday. I have accepted the proximity as an adult.
But I do always wish that there was more liberation to celebrate. On top of the murderous and oppressive origins of this nation, we have been sold the mythology of uniqueness in favor of the reality of what it means to be together. In a culture that says individuals should defy circumstances and inequity to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, we aren’t accountable or responsible to one another. All of the ways we encourage and support and hold one another are erased in a story that says we can and should do it on our own.
I wonder about this fierce allegiance to the idea of independence when we are so clearly interdependent. As one of my Buddhist teachers Thich Nhat Hanh always said “we inter-are.”
One of my favorite television shows of the last few years and maybe ever is Somebody, Somewhere. I like the show because it is funny and well-written and the characters remind me of me and people I know.
Somebody, Somewhere also happens to center around a main character and her friends who are firmly placed in mid-life. They have decades behind them and potentially decades ahead. They have lived long enough to become intimate companions of heartbreak, grief, and fear. They have dreamed their dreams and seen some of them come true while others have been cast by the wayside. They have felt the fear of stepping into the life they want; they have stood on that threshold unable to move forward.
What I love most about Somebody, Somewhere is how it shows that our lives, because and despite ourselves, are intertwined. No one is ancillary, no one is without value. We do small things, we create moments of connection and those moments matter.
In the show, one of the characters Joel creates such a moment through an event called “Choir Practice,” which is actually a communal open mic and cabaret. He happens to be working at a job scoring standardized tests when he crosses paths with Sam, who has recently lost her sister; Joel and Sam went to high school together and were in choir together, and although she doesn’t remember him, he remembers her. Not only does he remember who she is but he remembers the truth she has decided to forget about herself: that she is a singer, that she needs to sing. And in creating a communal space through choir practice and reminding her of who she is, he opens a portal for her. She is able to access herself in a way she hasn’t for a long time. She sings. And it opens the floodgates to a life that can hold so much more.
We all need to remember who we are. And to do this, we need to be reminded.
In an interview with lead actors from the show Bridget Everett and Jeff Hiller, the interviewer referred to the show as a coming of middle-age story. I talked to a longtime friend recently about how much I need these stories, how absent and vital they are for those of us still dreaming and navigating life in this middle ground of middle age.
Mid-life feels nothing like I thought it would. When I was younger, I had the impression that this would be the time in my life when I felt settled. When things felt more certain. When the ground wasn’t shifting under my feet. Instead, I feel a perpetual sense of beginning and the deep call to return to the yearnings of all my previous selves. I feel the need to honor commitments to them. And I feel a sense of urgency that swells and stills me at different times.
About a year ago, I had a Zoom reading for my birthday with an astrologer. Across the miles and through the screen, I told her I was having all these serious reckonings with myself, with who I have been and who I feel called to be, and yet, I was unable to discern a clear path forward.
She called the Uranus Opposition, which I was in the midst of and which many people call a mid-life crisis, a “Crisis of Radical Authenticity.” Uranus is the planet of upheaval–its equivalent in the tarot deck is The Tower card. This moment is a time to wake up to our soul’s promise. Actually, it is a loud, incessant knocking on all of our doors telling us life is impermanent and we should pay attention to who we are, what we are meant to do, what matters.
It is my community and my friends, the great loves of my life, who remind me what matters.
Although the depths and details of science are a mystery to me, I feel drawn to it because of the way science helps me understand the cycles and impulses that I already feel in my core. The way whales move together in pods, the way trees communicate through their root systems, the way crows in scientific experiments choose solutions that mean that everyone gets fed, the way that singing together makes us feel better, the ways that the intricate systems of nature reveal, time and time again, how we are made to be a part of something bigger than our individual selves.
When I was growing up,I was shown very particular ways of being in community: school, church, neighborhoods, insular families, kin related by blood. But as I grew up and my life reached out in different ways (ones I didn’t have roadmaps for), as my life became an unknowable thing (outside the trajectories I had been shown), the idea of community exploded out.
Community as something we make together. Community as a place to co-create beauty and home. Community as the backdrop to all of our individual stories. Community as everywhere and everything. Community: possible even inside spaces that seem impossible.
This is the point where if I was reading, I would be like: Yes, but what about war, Lisa? What about racism? What about classism? What about sexism? What about homophobia and transphobia? What about all the very real systems constructed by people as a way to benefit a few and harm so many? What about the very real persecution and denial of rights.
To have made such progress culturally but see political leaders strip away autonomy and freedoms is devastating. I would argue that it is because of the strength of community that this particular power is being wielded in such treacherous ways. People in positions of political power who have decided their individual lives and wealth matter more than their connection to other human beings must do their best to confine the power of those who have chosen to center other values. Their attempt to control and confine is, in fact, indicative of great strength and enormous power of those of us who want all of us to thrive.
To build community, we must be in a continual act of remembering that we inter-are. I just finished listening to the novel Lessons in Chemistry, about the intricate web of family histories and connections but also about how one woman, by being herself, created community in a most unexpected way. She isn’t a typical tv show host. She’s a chemist. And she isn’t doing all the things she’s supposed to but, in spite and because of this, what she says resonates. And she what she says is that people’s dreams matter, that we are all connected to everything: plants and animals and the whole planet. She reminds us that all humans are 99.9 percent identical in their DNA. It is arrogance for us to try to separate and divide the way we do.
I’ve also been watching the show The Bear. Cinematically, it is stunning–the historical photos of Chicago, the beauty shots of food, the captures of the urgency of working in a restaurant kitchen. The last season was compelling but this season felt like alchemy. Because, in a beautiful and nuanced way, every character’s humanity is exposed, everyone’s fears and insecurities, and everyone’s beauty and strength. I love art that reveals people as we are: deeply flawed, deeply human, and deeply loveable. These characters fuck up in the ways that we fuck up. They are scared in the ways we are scared. And they are sacred in the ways we are sacred.
As I turn 44, I am thinking about how my life’s shape is so different from how I imagined when I was younger. And though there are griefs, there is also so much gratitude. My life is full in ways I didn’t even know were possible. I spend my days, most days, marveling at beauty, both natural and created by humans. It is stunning to live in a world so full.
Ambition looks different to me these days. It’s not that I don’t still want to do the things I feel called to: to write stories, to finish and publish books, to write songs and make albums, to self-express and hold space for others in their path of self-expression. But I also feel unwilling to sacrifice the promise of today for the potential of tomorrow. I don’t want to only work for a future goal. I want the shape of my days to reflect the life I want to live. Maybe because I know I have less of them, I desire for my days themselves to hold meaning rather than waiting for the meaning that some obscure and uncertain accomplishment would bestow on them. It’s not that clear goals or outward recognition are unimportant. Instead, I feel the need to validate my own days through the ways I choose to spend them. I want my moments to count.
I’m also thinking about my place in the chorus. Years ago, when I was doing research for an ongoing book project on the science of sound and social justice, I interviewed an audiology professor. He set me up with headphones to listen to tracks of individual voices. He told me that every person’s voice is distinctive. Each one of us has an audio fingerprint that is unique to us. Even among those whose voices are similar, if you look at the recordings visually, you can see the variations in the waves. We all have something to offer that is to be made and shared only by us. And we all have a place in the chorus. But, to do so, we have to remember we have a voice. And we have to sing. Together.
Some things that I was thinking about when writing:
Thanks for reading and for being a part of the community of people that read this post.
On social media, I invited folks, in the spirit of 44 and this next circle round the sun, to share four things with me: four statements of truth to you, four words you love, four memories, four stories that changed you, four songs or song lyrics that stay with you, four plants you grow, four birds you love--you get the idea. If you want to add to the community collage, feel free to post in the comments below.
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