Building a Sense of Community

While wandering various sites today I was first struck by Jonathon Delacour’s summary of an article that points out that innovators are seldom loners, but, rather, are members of a community. Jonathon points out that the blogging community seems to fulfill the author’s requirement that “… if you can combine the best of those two states—the right kind of insularity with the right kind of homogeneity—you create an environment both safe enough and stimulating enough to make great thoughts possible.” A blogger is, of course, insulated in the sense that s/he generally produces the site by himself/herself. On the other hand, most bloggers today do seem to work within a broader community linking to other bloggers and commenting on common ideas.

Later I was reading Jeff Ward’s page about the operation of dialectics, and the diagram somehow reminded me of Jonathon’s argument. I’ve modified Jeff’s illustration to fit Jonathon’s argument:

Between the poles of blogger and community, the theory is that great thoughts may arise. Personally, I don’t doubt the theory in general when it suggests that great ideas are more likely to arise when there is a supportive community. This has certainly been proven true many times in American literature. The most famous example would be in Boston where the Transcendentalists interacted with Hawthorne and Melville to produce some of America’s greatest literature. The Lost Generation’s greatest authors Hemingway and Fitzgerald also produced several masterpieces.

However, the main reason I liked Jeff’s illustration so much is that it is an ambiguous illlustration. While it appears to support Jonathon’s theory, it is also an illusion that depends on drawing conventions to produce an “impossible” figure.

While I want to believe that this theory applies to the blogging community, I have many doubts. At times the blogging community seems positively scintillating, while other times mundane issues dominate blogs for days, if not weeks. While I haven’t observed the kind of flaming that drove me from newsgroups, I have observed more than enough hostility to make me unsure that blogger communities are willing to accept innovative and challenging ideas.

The problem, of course, is how to balance stimulating ideas with a supportive community. If we choose to form a community only with those who agree with us, how will we ever produce a stimulating community that will generate new ideas. If we attempt to establish a wider community that can provide multiple perspectives, how do we avoid the criticism that can quickly degenerate into name calling and backbiting?

Leaving My Sadness Behind

I’m so used to being in tune with virtually everything Jonathon says that I was a little taken aback when I read, “I’ve known for a long time that the legacy of those years is that I equate authenticity with sadness” in reply to a comment I made on his blog entry discussing Jackson Browne.

Somehow that statement haunted me this morning as I sucked up the last of this year’s leaves. At first I wondered if perhaps I didn’t agree with him. Certainly much of what I’ve written about in my blog has focused on “sadness.” My favorite literature, too, often seems centered on sadness. If I am to believe all the negative reactions I’ve gotten when I recommend Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure as my favorite book, it is, indeed, a sad, depressing novel. Many of my favorite poets also focus on the inevitable sadness that accompanies life. Blues music is undoubtedly my favorite music, and what’s sadder than “the blues?”

Still, I resisted the notion that authenticity must be identified with sadness. Sadness is authentic, no doubt about that. At times, it’s what we most remember about relationships and events in our lives. My first love ended with a “dear Loren” letter as I was about to leave for Vietnam, Vietnam was anything but happy, and admittedly my first marriage is best symbolized by Browne’s “Shape of a Heart.” Nor can I deny that these are all pivotal events in my life.

However, I still don’t “equate authenticity with sadness.” Perhaps I might subscribe to a dialectical view of life, where joy and sadness seem to balance each other out, where both are “authentic” experiences. It often seems that sadness is the direct result of a corresponding happiness. For instance, the end of my “first true love” was sad precisely because the beginning had seemed so joyous. Everything had seemed so “alive” with Judy that it suddenly seemed dead without her. I’m not convinced, though, that the ending negates the beginning. The beginning joy is just as real, just as authentic, as the final sorrow.

Of course, I followed that sad moment up with a jaunt to Vietnam, so my life seemed really sad for quite awhile, particularly since I became a caseworker after leaving the army. Ironically, it was the joy of my marriage that ended this miserable interlude and gave me new hope in life. The birth of my two children seemed to confirm that optimistic view. For a while, everything, even the end of the Cold War, seemed to offer a rosy outlook on life.

Kids who were a pain-in-the-ass in school often seem certain I will remember them vividly, but, in reality, memories of them have long since faded. Instead, I remember the kids I loved teaching, the kids that were full of life and made sharing their life a joy.

But what really convinces me of the authenticity of happiness is that I seem most alive on those days when I am doing the things I most love. I often judge my summers by how many days I spend in the mountains, and I can’t remember a bad day while hiking in the mountain. I hardly remember the days when I sit around and accomplish nothing, but I vividly remember the joyful moments I spend with my kids or with my grandson Gavin. The “authentic” days are those you remember vividly, not those you have forgotten.

Surprisingly, I Loved Frida

I don’t often see movies and comment on them even less often. Perhaps that says something about the state of movies, or perhaps it says something about my age.

It’s not that I can’t find movies that I like. I can. I enjoyed Lord of the Rings enough to buy the CD, though not enough to buy it a second time, and I enjoyed children’s movies like Shrek, Monster, Inc., and Harry Potter. Unfortunately, enjoying a movie isn’t the same as being affected or moved by it. Although I enjoyed Jonathon’s analysis of Lord of the Rings and have noted some of the arguments over whether Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings is more “Christian,” I personally didn’t feel any more need to examine them than I feel a need to examine the ethical ramifications of Warcraft III that I’m currently playing.

Frida is an altogether different kind of movie, one that could rightfully be called an “adult” movie. It is one of the few movies I’ve seen recently that was both entertaining and thought provoking. For those of us only familiar with Frida through her art, it provided insights into her life that made the art even more accessible and meaningful. The creative cutting of actual works of art into scenes in the movie was an effective way to comment on both her life and her art, not to mention adding visual excitement.

Second, the movie provided a snapshot of a period of Mexican history that I knew next to nothing about, making me realize just how narrow my view of Mexico is. It’s amazing how little Mexican history, or Canadian history, for that matter, is taught in American schools. If I hadn’t lived several years in California as a youth I’m sure I would know even less about their history or culture.

More importantly, though, the movie raised the question of what it means to be “liberated,” and what price one pays for such liberation. The movie portrayed Frida as a strong, if not willful child who wanted to live life her own way. She did end up living life her own way

It’s clear Frida’s liberation contributed to, even made possible, her artwork. It’s unlikely a more conventional woman could ever have seen the world in the ways she did or have achieved her status in the art world. In this sense, being liberated was a positive force in her life. When you examine the pain that Frida and Diego caused each other that very pain may well have contributed to the appeal of Frida’s work.

Still, you have to question whether that success wasn’t bought at too great a price. Diego’s affair with Frida’s sister was but one example of how Diego’s cheating made Frida miserable. Her affair with Trotsky seemed to have the same effect on Diego. At times you’re left wondering whether Frida had the affairs because she enjoyed them or simply because she wanted to make Diego suffer. The drinking in their circle seemed excessive, and few of them seemed to be really enjoying life.

Despite my enthusiastic endorsement, I noticed that reviews of the movie have been mixed. The movie certainly more than earned its “R” rating and some of the sex scenes were, at least for me, a little shocking. Still, it inspired me to explore the net to find out more about Frida, and it’s been a long time since any movie has affected me that much.

About the Size of a Fist

One of the dangers of nostalgia, of looking back, when you’re my age, is that, like Orpheus, you may catch a fleeting glance of a love that has died, but is still following behind you, confronts you every time you look in your daughter’s eyes or pick up your grandson. While looking up “For America,” I ran into another song on the album I liked even more and one that, perhaps, brought back even more unpleasant memories than Vietnam, if that’s possible.

It’s one of several songs I used to console myself with after my 17-year marriage died a long, slow painful death. In some unknown way, it helped me to make sense of a divorce that I never wanted and never really understood. It may be the best song on Jackson Browne’s Lives in the Balance, and, sadly, seems nearly as much of an anthem of my generation as "Doctor My Eyes":

In the Shape of a Heart

Was a ruby that she wore
On a chain around her neck
In the shape of a heart
In the shape of a heart
It was a time I won’t forget
For the sorrow and regret
And the shape of a heart
And the shape of a heart

I guess I never knew
What she was talking about
I guess I never knew
She was living without

People speak of love don’t know what they’re thinking of
Wait around for the one who fits just like a glove
Speak in terms of belief and belonging
Try to fit some name to their longing

There was a hole left in the wall
From some ancient fight
About the size of a fist
Something thrown that had missed
There were other holes as well
In the house where our nights fell
Far too many to repair
In the time that we were there

People speak of love don’t know what they’re thinking of
Reach out to each other though the push and shove
Speak in terms of a life and the learning
Try to think of a word for the burning

Keep it up
Try so hard
To keep a life from coming apart
And never know
What breaches and faults are concealed
In the shape of a heart
In the shape of a heart
In the shape of a heart

Was the ruby that she wore
On a stand beside the bed
In the hour before dawn
When I knew she was gone
And I held it in my hand
For a little while
Dropped it into the wall
Let it go, and heard it fall

I guess I never knew
What she was talking about
I guess I never knew
What she was living without
People speak of love don’t know what they’re thinking of
Wait around for the one who fits just like a glove
Speak in terms of a life and the living
Try to find the word for forgiving

Keep it up
Try so hard
To keep a life from coming apart
And never know
The shallows and the unseen reefs
That are there from the start
In the shape of a heart

It sometimes seems to me that in comparison to my parents’ generation, we treated love and marriage like jewelry, something to be worn for a while and then discarded when out of fashion or when we have tired of. No need for diamonds here, rubies will last longer than this marriage!

Sadly enough, it is possible to live with someone for seventeen years and never know “what she was talking about” and never realize that “she was living without.” Perhaps it’s as simple as men are from Mars and women are from Venus, but I suspect that it goes much deeper than that. Beliefs that seemed unimportant when young and in love, suddenly seem insurmountable barriers when raising kids.

Maybe we simply weren’t willing to settle for what our parents settled for. We wanted a marriage that fulfilled all our dreams. We wanted a lover that “fits just like a glove.” Perhaps we simply expected too much from marriage and too little from ourselves. Surely if you don’t “reach out to each other through the push and shove” that’s inevitable in any relationship, it isn’t going to last.

Perhaps we simply never know each other, can “… never know/ What breaches and faults are concealed/ In the shape of a heart” until we encounter them in our evolving relationship. And, unless we are good navigators of the heart, “The shallows and the unseen reefs/ That are there from the start/ In the shape of a heart” will leave us high and dry, stranded on the island that is ourselves, cut off from all those we once loved.