I like to tell people I grew up Orthodox Hippie. All of the stereotypical elements were in place, and that certainly makes for a cool origin story. But what really made it wonderful was that we were always, always, always surrounded by people. Our lives were intertwined with the small college across the street for 40 years. Our house was a home, juke joint, refuge, and landmark to generations of students, while my sister and I grew inside from little kids to coeds at that very same college.
Rules were pretty loosey-goosey at our house. No bedtime. No real chores. We didn’t have front steps on the house for about 15 years. It became a sort of benign hazing to watch new folks navigate their way inside despite the three foot gap between the ground and the door. They came anyway.
It seemed like all of these people happily flowed into our lives without many formal plans or obvious intention. Parties happened. Entire theater productions. Feasts were prepared and eaten. We danced (a lot). There was ALWAYS music – with instruments or on vinyl. We made costumes and radio shows, camped for weeks at a time in the mountains. We scribbled art and poetry on the walls, and unexpected overnight guests repaid the favor with jars of salsa, stacks of pancakes, or some crazy treasure. People moved in, became family, moved on. It was a special place to grow up.
My parents took rich college kids adrift from rigid family life and showed them easygoing ways to still get it all done. We were always bringing home stray friends whose parents forgot about their birthdays and lunch money. Mom’s rumpled reporters from the newspaper ate Thanksgiving dinner – always served around 10 pm – with our high school boyfriends and Dad’s students who couldn’t afford to travel home. We were usually pretty poor, but that stuff always somehow got managed.
At some point I got old enough to know that what they created was so much bigger than our home or our family. It was an uneasy realization. I was proud, but I also knew there were a lot of people who fiercely believed it belonged to them nearly as much as it belonged to us. Whether they spent one evening there or weeks at a time, it made an indelible and precious impact. When Dad unexpectedly died a few years ago, hundreds of them returned for that very reason. It rolled off of them when they spoke to us through tears.
My own home never became that kind of place. As much as I loved my parent’s house and that life, it turns out to be a very difficult thing to reproduce because it wasn’t produced in the first place. It just happened. Part magic. Part luck. Part steady supply of pot. They were good, generous, safe people in the right place at the right time. Kismet.
While that life gave me a fantastic appreciation of people and adventure, it turns out to not be a great way to learn how to intentionally build community. I’m shy. I’m disorganized. (Both hilarious admissions if you know what I do for a living). And I’m honestly a little lazy. I grew up with people willing to literally crawl into my house just to hang out there. When you’re the innkeeper on the pilgrim’s trail, you don’t learn much about the journey.
Instead I’ve managed to sort of fall into these small, magical, loving communities, and learned more about maintaining those connections in the last few years than I did the 30 years prior. Thankfully they came more prepared than me – willing to knit themselves around me and each other. When I type out who they are it seems so obvious and banal. The ones I met in college, but never really knew until now. The ones I met at work. The mothers of my children’s schoolmates. Friends of friends. Married, single, gay, straight, men, and women. The young ones we picked up along the way.
Each group has a benevolent dictator. The secret keeper. The flirt. The quiet one. The creative genius. The sage. We take turns falling apart, getting pulled back together, and then catching someone else. No one is forgotten. All of the children are adored but dunked on for comedic effect. If the husbands have managed to hang on, well we know exactly why and exactly how close they’ve come to getting cut loose.
There are more rules now. And there are plans and intention. But there are still parties, dancing, feasts that are prepared and eaten. Adventures, projects, birthdays celebrated, new years’ kissed. Not as much camping, but we’re all ok with that (especially Tina).
We get mad. We talk shit. We drink too much. We judge too hard. We are jealous. We fuck up.
But here is what I know now: even if I just fell into this, we are building it with intention now and that means people don’t move in, become family, and then move on. They stay. And we dry tears, say the hard thing that needed saying, apologize. We hold each other accountable with love and respect.
All of them has given something elemental and essential to what are whole new rooms I’ve built between my soul and my heart and my brain. We made our own kismet. It even has front steps.
These families we make…they are everything.