Reimagining American Community

IndiaPostThe fact is that we– the collective modern world “we”– do actually tend to be physically dispersed from our families and our college friend groups and our old officemates.  That’s just reality, and we need to live in reality.  And the secondary fact is that the internet has enabled us to keep up these old connections in ways that weren’t possible before

My own mother is, I believe right at this very moment, visiting with her fifth grade boyfriend’s ninety year-old mother: the visit would not have happened if Andy hadn’t found her on Facebook.  (She is not sure that Andy was ever actually aware that he was her boyfriend, but she knows that he was, because her younger brother Jonathan got in trouble for writing “Debby+Andy” on the side of their house on Ratendone Road in Friends Colony, in Delhi.)

We all, I’m sure, have stories like that: old connections renewed.  And more recent friendships, obviously, also can be served by online communities: recently, the family of a friend of mine who was in a coma following a neurological infection set up a Facebook page, where people have been going for the latest news on her condition, to post their prayers, to organize visits. (She is, as of about a week ago, out of the coma; as of yesterday, starting to try to talk.)

This is how we live: it’s one of the ways, at least, that we do experience community. And here’s something new: a dedicated Facebook-esque social networking site aimed at caring for caregivers.  It’s not the village pump, but it’s embedded in the reality of our actual lives: this is, in fact, one of the ways that we connect.

We’re uneasy about this.  The idea of non-local, non-physical communities seems to threaten something good about being embodied.  But consider the humble postcard– you know, the one that you won’t be getting any more of on Saturdays, because, as the WSJ noted, escalating costs have done for the post office what rain and snow and fog and dark of night could not.

Our grandparents sent these things around like they were so many… emails, actually.  It wasn’t all long reflective missives on rose-scented paper.  They maintained extensive non-local, non-physically-proximate networks of friends via the astonishing social technology that was the international postal system: a system that I am growing increasingly to appreciate as I go through the files upon files of my grandparents’ correspondence with friends and family in America.  They and their absurd number of children moved from Delhi, to Kashmir, to Southern Rhodesia, throughout the fifties and sixties; the letters and post cards made their way back to New York City.

Can we regret this?  Do we have to call postal systems imperialist tools, sinister manifestations of forces that are destructive of local community?  The Empire was lost, but the postal system remained, and that was all to the good: surely even the most ardent Gandhian wouldn’t take self-rule to require an attack on the red British-style post boxes.

Unless we are willing to reject the concept of the postal service, we can’t completely reject the non-local community.  But, in true Solidarity Hall fashion, I want to put out two action-oriented DIY suggestions:

1. Write an unusually lengthy, thoughtful post on somebody’s Facebook wall, or send an unusually well-punctuated and complex email, in support of someone you know who’s going through hard times.

2. Dash off and send a not-particularly-deep, but honestly kindhearted, postcard.  Send it in the actual mail, I mean.  You can even use texting shorthand, if you like, and decorate it with smiley faces.

And rejoice in the fact that we have access to both of these social technologies; that we have bodies that can be in the same room as each other; and that we have language that can bring us into community with each other even when we are physically distant.


About the Author
Born and raised on Manhattan, a small island in the Atlantic, Susannah Black received a degree from Amherst College and another one from Boston University. She has written for The Distributist Review, Front Porch Republic, Amherst Magazine, The L Magazine, and (in her young and foolish libertarian days) National Review. Having moved back to the New York area, she is now taking her stand in Central Queens, helping to run a sort of boarding facility/rental commune/household for her relatives and friends out of her great-grandparents’ big old house. She is also obsessed with tall ships and in the summers can be found helping to sail a schooner in New York Harbor. She blogs at