Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Happiness and the Good Life 2: Community

On Saturday mornings, Bill and I begin our day by going out for coffee; sometimes we go to Good Earth in the Scarth Street Mall.  This last Saturday, the view was slightly surreal.  The tall homeless man (I'm making a presumption--and no, that's not a slip of the fingers) who stands silently at the corner of 12th and Scarth was there, and we talked about the weather, as we often do, while I dug around for my small contribution to his life.  Across the way, in Victoria Park, were the tents of Occupy Regina, still mostly peaceful.  I imagined what it would be like to wake up on a crisp October morning surrounded by people who shared your passion, your vision, standing around drinking coffee, talking about what mattered.  In my nostalgic haze, I hadn't thought where the hot coffee might come from.

Nostalgic it was:  because if I thought about the last time I felt embraced in such a community, it would be my early years in the English Department at the University of Regina, when we all taught four courses a year (instead of five every other year) and did far less committee work.  Wednesday mornings--because nobody taught on Wednesday--we often gathered in the Faculty Lounge and talked about what mattered:  students, texts, approaches to literature.   We created a community, and is so often the case, that community was created by our response to literature--to art.  Stretching back as far as Kant, the "judgement of taste" as he would have put it, assumed that other people might share your opinion, but that no one needed to.  More recently, in Dennis Donaghue's book Speaking of Beauty, he talks about the fact that a definition of beauty eludes us, so we must talk about it.  In Dave Hickey's Air Guitar, which I've been reading for my work on Virginia Woolf's aesthetics (an odd pairing if ever there was one:  Hickey loves Las Vegas, the one place in the States where he feels at home, and once dealt in psychedelic art), he talks about the feeling that you have when you have read a poem or a story, or have been to a movie or a gallery show, and you say to other people "You've got to see/read/hear this!"  This response makes Woolf and Hickey logical bedfellows, in spite of their obvious differences.  For what else is Woolf's two-volume The Common Reader but an attempt to create a community of readers?  When she heard that the copy of TCR in the Lewes library was spotted and splotched with food, she was delighted.  She had indeed reached common readers.

In the same essay, Dave Hickey told another story about community which entirely charmed me--again, with a sense of nostalgia.  Because he grew up in the fifties, when people kept their windows open during the summer, his father learned that the Jewish woman down the street who had survived the Holocaust shared a passion of his.  Simply put, on summer nights he could hear her playing Duke Ellington 78s.  This led to an extraordinary Sunday afternoon jam session, with Mildred, Hickey and his father and two other Irish dudes, two Latinos, and two blacks toking up and making music.  Unlike the others, Mildred brought an armload of sheet music, and when Hickey whispered about this derisively to his father, his dad told him to shut up.  The more experienced jammers made room for Mildred that afternoon, encouraging her to "take it," and giving her the usual 16-bar space for a solo that never came.  But they never stopped making space for her.  Who knew when she might finally feel enough courage?

This is a fairly long riff on my part, as it moves from my Saturday morning thoughts about community, to nostalgic memories of my early years in Regina, to an aesthetics of community and a 1950s slightly stoned jam session.  But as it turns out, it comes right back to where it began.  Yesterday afternoon I bought some cookies and muffins and went to hang out with the folks who are occupying Regina.  On the basis of 25 minutes of uneasy conversation between an English professor and a couple of guys, I'm not going to make any generalizations about the people who are occupying Regina with their signs that range from telling me not to trip over tent ropes (which I promptly proceeded to do), to assertions that "In Squirrel We Trust" or "This is Democracy in Action."  Interestingly, I talked to quite a number of people who are not occupying Regina, but who came there simply to hang.  One young man said sadly that if his wife would simply let him off his leash, he'd move in tomorrow.  Another young man had brought his kids. 

But Gerry (not his name), whom I talked to longest, said that the response to their occupation has been pretty good.  They have their whiteboard up with things they need, and people often read it, go away and clean out their closets, and then return with needed blankets or sleeping bags.  Gerry often keeps night watch, however, because when O'Hanlons gets out, they can find dudes pissing on their tents.  But a supportive retired couple drove in last week from Fort Qu'Appelle with enormous pans of ham and other hot food.  And apparently there were lots of leftovers from a Knox Met pot luck or fowl supper that got brought over to the group of tents.

There have been complaints that the aims of the "Occupy" movement are unfocussed.  I don't agree.  I think they're critiquing a capitalist system that's way out of tune, and I think they're worried about what we're doing to the planet--since changing our approach to the environment would (shock and awe) cost money (which we could take out of absurd CEO salaries).  But what I saw and heard yesterday, and the daydreams that the quiet collection of tents started in my head was the dream of community.  We could say this about the "Occupy" movement:  that in the place of an excessively competitive capitalism that divides winners and losers pretty ruthlessly, they're offering us a vision of community.  They clean up their park; they chant the words of the people who come to inspire them, they move their tents every couple of days so they don't kill the grass.  In his essay "What is the Good Life?" Mark Kingwell writes "We are, finally, happier not with more stuff but with more meaning:  more creative leisure time, stronger connections to groups of friends, deeper commitment to common social projects, and a great opportunity to reflect.  In short, the life of the well-rounded person, including crucially the orienting aspect of life associated with virtuous citizenship.  Nor is this basic social commitment something we should pursue for ourselves alone, a project simply to promote our personal happiness.  At its best, it is an expression of commonality that creates something greater than the sum of its--let us be honest--often self-interested and distracted members.  It creates a community."


  1. Kathleen, I have been enjoying your last two posts. Very thoughtful. I especially like the image of the jammers leaving 'space' for Mildred. Perhaps this is part of the intrinsic and community both - allowing individuals (including ourselves) space to be themselves without expectation. I recently had a conversation with a friend and taking the time to reflect is becoming more important for us and others we know. Perhaps an age thing, but more I think an awareness, of both self and the times.

  2. Thank you for reading and commenting, Carla. I like your thoughts about our need for time to reflect. In some ways, though, I wonder if "the age thing" isn't putting us out of sync with some fairly unreflective times--at least before the "occupy" folks made it so clear that we needed to re-think everything. I rather like being an obstructive old fogey who's just going to take time to think things through. It has nuisance value, don't you think?

  3. Nuisance value, yes. I think it's valid though regardless of age. Maybe we really can slow things down enough that change has a chance to catch up.