Whether we realize it or not, we all need a sense of community, a sense of belonging, a place to call home. A place that, no matter where else we find ourselves, 50 miles away or halfway around the globe, always calls us back to it. Even those of us who live in the atomized, hyperindividualistic West long for such a place, even if it’s not an organic part of the environment that we live in, which is particularly true when it comes to urban and suburban areas.
Nevertheless, some of us are fortunate enough to have found such a place; a community, a home, a place that we long for when we’re away from it, friends, neighbors, family, ties that bond and bonds that matter, not just people whom we nod our heads and say hello to whenever we happen to see them.
But many of us are not so fortunate. I’ll never forget the time when the program director of a radio station where I used to host a music show called me in to his office one day and explained to me that my job is really to be a friend to folks who may not necessarily have one. He said, “do you realize how many people in this city go from home to work and back and that’s it? Outside of work and service people they literally have no one in their lives, no one to talk to, not one friend. Be their friend. That’s your job.”
He was right, of course. His motives weren’t pure, but then who among us operates from a place of pure altruism. But the more I thought about what he said, the more I realized just how right he was, and is. We live pressed and crammed together on all sides in environments of concrete and steel that are home to hundreds of thousands, if not millions. Yet it’s precisely these environments where the sense of belonging, of home has reached its nadir and the sense of alienation has reached its zenith.
I count myself among the lucky ones in that I have found a home, a community, multiple times in my life, whether I realized it at the time or not.
I was born and raised in Tehran, Iran, in a neighborhood called “Kooye Mehr.” It consisted of a series of low-rise apartment complexes that began at one street and extended downhill all the way to a major thoroughfare at the bottom. If you ask me to name either of those streets right now, I couldn’t do it, and not just because so many of the street names in Tehran have changed since the 1970s.
Even back then I didn’t really know the street names and didn’t care. I just knew that so and so lived one block down from us or two blocks over. I knew that whenever we needed any day to day stuff — groceries, gum, candy, whatever — I’d run up to Mr. Daliri’s store on that street that was uphill from us, with a bunch of cash in my pockets.
I knew damn near all the kids in the neighborhood, exactly where they lived, who their parents were, who they hung out with, who they were and weren’t friendly with… all the kids in the neighborhood did. We also knew almost all of the adults in the neighborhood. Knocking on someone’s door was never an issue, not for any reason. Parents frequently sent us to one of our neighbors to ask for something in particular or to offer them something, or just to invite them over.
It was a real community. It was home.
I guess the next time I felt that sense of community was when I was in middle school and high school in Maryland and I had immersed myself in two or three different musical subcultures. Having a circle of kids my own age that I could talk to about the music that not only served as a soundtrack to my life but increasingly served to give my life meaning in a period of extreme alienation meant so much to me that I can’t really express it accurately with mere words. Going to concerts (to the extent that I could, given that many venues didn’t particularly care for opening their door to kids who couldn’t legally buy alcohol) became a life-affirming, group tribal ritual that both strengthened bonds between us and to the music and the artists.
While I had a good number of “friends” (I think “people I hung out with” is more accurate, but way too clunky) in college and drifted in an out of various social circles, there was nothing remotely resembling a community or “home” to be found. And the bonds that were formed were always based on the superficial, fleeting and ephemeral, which is why there was never any real attempt, with two or three notable exceptions, at maintaining any of those “friendships” after graduation
The next 13 years, my “professional” life, was simultaneously the period when I immersed myself in books and music the most, maybe even more so than in high school, but also the period of my greatest isolation, in some ways self-imposed, in other ways not. Things went south in a major, major way with one or two “friendships” that I had maintained beyond college and this served to foster and nurture a deep-seated misanthropy and, coinciding with that, a deep-seated self-hatred. While I maintained cordial “friendships” with people at work, none of them ever extended beyond the workplace and the bulk of my social life at this point consisted of anonymous discussions on online forums dedicated to politics, literature, mythology, music and other interests. Never any sense of community or home during this entire period.
My “professional” life ended abruptly, for good, thanks to my own handiwork and self-sabotage and when it did I experienced a kind of intense depression that I had only experienced once before in my life. But a co-worker of mine, who also happened to live in the same apartment complex, literally came to my rescue. After two full days of being locked in my apartment, eating absolutely nothing, and sleeping for over 30 hours, he damn near broke down my door, forced me to get dressed and took me out to get Chinese food. I haven’t had much interaction with him since then, but I’ll never forget that act of supreme kindness and friendship on his part. The end of my professional life was actually the beginning of the period of my adult life when I felt the greatest sense of community and family. I befriended, genuinely befriended, some of the best people and best souls I’ve ever met in my life, people who wanted to improve their communities and the quality of life for people who lived in those communities. Leaving for overseas changed all that. Living in Croatia and Serbia for four years certainly wasn’t a lonely experience. I was with my wife, I made friends wherever I lived, or connected with people that I had only previously been familiar with online, but there was never a sense of community or “family.” I think there were two reasons for this: one, that I didn’t speak the language (although I became more familiar with it as time went on) and the second, closely related, reason, that I never really truly felt like I belonged. “Stranger in a Strange Land Syndrome,” as I called it.
The entire time that I was living in the Balkans, even as much as I much as I enjoyed the local culture and history, and loved my friends there, I kept thinking about how much I missed “home.” My family, my parents, the community-minded friends that I had made after my career ended. You can tell yourself that you’re going to Skype and email as much as possible, and obviously there’s social media as well. But at the end of the day distance makes a huge difference, and as time passes that distance is magnified.
Naively, I thought that returning “home” this year would be a panacea. But things change. Time passes. People move. The city changes. Friendships that were close become less so. The cost of living, while never low, has risen astronomically in just a few short years. People are coarser. Tempers are shorter. Neighbors barely speak a single word to one another. Everybody, it seems, is only out for themselves, f**k everybody else.
The sense of community, of home, that I once felt here, in the Washington, D.C. area, seems to have evaporated. What I was longing for, what I wanted to return to, when I was living in the Balkans, was nothing more than a memory. A sweet, distant, fleeting memory.
Unbeknownst to me, my wife feels much the same way. The other day, as we were both coming out of a store, she broke down and told me that she didn’t feel as though she belonged anywhere in this world. As I was thinking of what I could say to console and comfort her, I allowed myself a moment to admit and come to grips with the fact that what she said resonated deeply with myself as well. I controlled my own emotions that were welling up at that moment, because I knew that that was the last thing she needed from me right then and there. Instead I spoke calmly, sincerely and from the heart. I told her that “the world” as such can go to hell, she doesn’t need to feel any sense of belonging in it or to it. All she needs to know, whenever she feels this way again, is that she does have a place in the world where she belongs and where she feels like she belongs. Our home, our apartment, our life. She belongs with me, she belongs with our little kitty and no matter what else happens that will always be the case.
So, maybe we’ll end up finding our physical home, our community, in rural Virginia, or Montana, or Macedonia. Who knows?
Whatever the case, even though the hour is late, we will both continue to look under every rock and every bush until we’ve found that home, that community that right now only exists in hopes, dreams and memories.
-Photo by Brenda Nasr