I’ve spent much of my life determined to stay away. By refusing to belong to anything, I felt safe from rejection. Over and over I either defined myself in opposition to some group or kicked myself out before someone else did. It wasn’t the worst strategy, actually. I’ve never had a tribe, but I’ve always had a handful of foolproof friends, a dynamic that suits my introverted ways.
On Friday night, Dave and I attended a Shabbat dinner with the community of people he used to live with. It was his daughter’s birthday and she had asked him to attend and he, in turn, asked me to join him. The invitation meant a lot to me so I agreed to go despite the fact that I knew it was going to be rough. I’d not only be in Dave’s old house, but I’d be meeting his ex-wife and all the other families and friends who lived nearby who had been having these dinners together for ages. Dave said hello and introduced me to everyone sprawled across several rooms. He mentioned that we were both introverts just to be totally upfront about what was probably obvious about me if not him.
It was awkward and a little painful. While everyone was friendly, I had stepped into a well-worn ritual that had nothing to do with me and had barely anything to do with Dave anymore. This was not my tribe and it never would be and while I was happy to have been there for my friend, I was happier when we slipped away.
I spent most of that night awake having brilliant imaginary conversations with everyone at the dinner and then more imaginary conversations with the people I’d be meeting the next night. The new strangers at the dinner meant nothing to me except as an indicator of the severity of my social anxiety. The old strangers I’d be with the next night were writers, some of whom I’ve known of for as long as I’ve lived here.
Over the last few years I’ve found myself envious of the writing community in this town. Even from its edges, I see how much love and support it has for its people. In fact, it’s so loving and supportive that I’ve actually slipped off the edge and started to wade in. Or maybe the truth is, I’ve been wading around here so long I didn’t realize I was already waist deep.
Regardless of where I may or may not fit within this community, meeting a roomful of people I’ve only known on Facebook or in brief interactions or simply as readers on a stage, had me sick with nerves. Sean came with me and we sat uncomfortably in the back of the room, waiting anxiously in the noise of dozens of good friends greeting each other. I sunk into my beer as my old instinct of rebelling against such coziness rumbled up from my gut. I didn’t want or need to be a part of this. Fuck the literary cliquishness of it all. Fuck all the smoke being blown.
I got on stage, did my reading and finally relaxed. Then thankfully, the more mature, slightly less anxious part of me surfaced. What had looked like a clique turned into a community. What had looked like smoke turned into support. I listened carefully to the words being shared and, as always, was thankful that we do this for each other. I don’t know how it is in other cities, but I’ve always been impressed how the readings I’ve been to here rarely feel like competitions. To me, they feel like love.
Shaking hands with half a dozen or more familiar strangers was still terribly hard, but I got through it. There will be a next time. That’s the good news. I have hope that it will be easier.