I scaled a whole new mountain during my junior year when I joined a sorority. I probably wouldn't have hung out with most of my new "sisters" otherwise. In some cases, our social circles just wouldn't have crossed. In others, I don't think we would have given each other much of a chance. But the sorority acted as a link between us, allowing us to find other common ground.
And then there was the alternative crowd, also known around campus as the AlternaHerd. In the social landscape of college, they were my dream destination. These were the artsy, rebellious types, and they were easy to spot on a campus largely comprised of conservative Christians. I was an English major and was involved with theatre, so I knew some of them. And oh how I wanted to be part of that crowd. They oozed coolness. No, not oozed. It's more like coolness wafted into a room with them, like perfume. The girls were like French women: projecting a sense of beauty no matter what they really looked like. To me, they seemed so strong and self-assured. And the guys were gay, grungy, or dark and broody, all without apologies.
I became friends with one of those dark and broody boys, and he was my entrée into that world. I was secretly thrilled, but tried to act nonchalant. He invited me to a Bible study that some of the AlternaHerds were holding. (Yes, even some of these cool, gay, broody kids believed in God.) The Bible study was like no other I attended. (And I attended two others.) We read passages of Scripture as literature, exploring the poetry of the language, the nuances of word choice, the subtleties of what was and wasn't explicitly said. Sometimes our conversations sounded more like literary criticism class than Bible study. The tone was less moralistic and more spiritual. After Bible study we'd smoke clove cigarettes out on the patio. I felt like I was on the cusp of something that never materialized. Beyond broody boy, I made a few vague friendships in that foreign land, but nothing substantial.
A few years after graduation, I saw my broody friend at a concert. I don't remember why, but we talked about how I went to that Bible study for awhile but never really broke into the group. "Oh, yeah," he said. "You were a fringe person!"
I don't think he said this to hurt me, but I felt exposed and humiliated. He'd named my secret shame: I had been a fringe person. And he was absolutely right, at least regarding that social circle. I'd known it back in college and hated it. I was horrified to realize that someone else knew it, too.
I've always wanted to be different. I want people to think I'm unique, interesting, special. And yet I long to be accepted, to be part of a group. I may want to be on the fringe of what I consider the bland norm, but not on the fringe of the fringe.
I know I'm not the only one to wrestle with these opposing forces. At its heart, I think this paradox is driven by insecurity. As I've gotten older, my need to be viewed as different isn't so strong. I'm more rooted in -- and accepting of -- who I am and what I like. I'm learning to let it be enough to be myself, rather than striving to fit an image or ideal of "cool." Besides, I've met enough people to know that "cool" is in the eye of the beholder. I'm learning to use my own eyes as my mirror.
And still, I long to belong. I ache for community; a group of people who inspire, encourage, and support each other. Nine years out of college, my social landscape is still somewhat varied. It's also more geographically spread out. I have friends a few towns over and across the Atlantic. But as my college friends and I have changed from young 20-somethings to young 30-somethings, we haven't always grown in the same direction. The relationships seem to ebb and flow like an unpredictable tide. At times, despite these ties, I feel lost at sea.
I look around and wonder: Where is my tribe? Where are my people?
I haven't found them in my day-to-day life. Are they in my neighborhood? I live in a suburban sea where each house seems to be its own self-sufficient island, populated with people who belong to a different demographic than I do. I work from home, so my tribe is not at my office. (Is it a bad sign if I start counting the kits as part of my social circle?) I don't have kids, so they're not at my kids' school. Where do I go to find my people?
I've found people who could be "my people" online. Like my "real world" friends, they live around the U.S. and around the world. I've met some of them in person and exchanged emails with others. But some of them don't know who I am, or even that I exist. But I visit their blogs regularly, because they share things that speak to me; that make me feel less alone; that show me we're part of the same tribe, even if we don't call each other by name.
I've been trying to write about community and the "real world" since I came back from BlogHer last summer. I'm full of more questions than answers. How does online community differ from physical community? Is one more real or valuable than the other? In a world where people can live hundreds or thousands of miles apart and still stay connected through phone calls, text messages, emails, blogs, Flickr photo streams, Twitter updates, and even good old fashioned snail mail, does it really matter if we can't get together for an impromptu lunch or pop by to say hi?
I think it does. But I don't think it's the only thing that matters. What do you think?