It’s a broad term, but one that, for me, once had a narrow definition. I used to think that community referred to my neighbors. The people I encounter at the local grocery store or the gas station down the street or the public library. The collection of those who inhabit the same small city that I call home.
But two weeks ago, my view of community was challenged, changed, expanded to a scope wider than a ten-mile radius from my front door. Two weeks ago, through three separate experiences, I found community across the country.
It all started in a town called Twentynine Palms in southern California where a National Park Visitor Center employee took the time to not only orient my husband and me to all there was to see and do in Joshua Tree National Park, but also helped to allay my fear of snakes. She didn’t downplay the threat and dismiss my fear, but instead was patient and kind regarding my anxiety and straightforward and truthful in her response. It was springtime in the desert, the likelihood of seeing snakes on the trails was very high. She went on to outline their behavior, how to safely coexist as an intruder in their territory, and what to do if “life happened” and one of us did suffer a bite.
So, armed with a new perspective and a detailed hiking plan, we headed out to explore the park. Was I still on high alert and incredibly jumpy any time a living creature presented itself? Absolutely. Those fears are too deep-seated to be fully dismantled with a single pep talk. But I was able to chill out enough to appreciate the richness of the area—its quiet, remote, unspoiled beauty—and when we did encounter a snake (top left in above picture), my initial reaction was not one of shrieking panic, but a calm sidestep away from his warning rattle.
The next morning we rose with the sun in order to complete a three-mile out and back trek into a desert oasis before the heat of the day became unbearable (bottom left in above picture). We climbed 300 feet over a ridge and before beginning the descent on the other side, noticed that the few cars in the mostly empty parking lot below had been joined by a school bus. Shortly before we reached our destination, the occupants of that bus—a group of sixty-five men—caught up to and passed us by. They were pleasant, polite, and proactive in warning us that the reason for their visit was to engage in an anger release ritual. “We don’t want you to be alarmed,” said the man who appeared to be in charge. “But there will be a lot of yelling.”
He wasn’t kidding.
Moments later, the tranquility of that desert oasis was transformed into a fierce expulsion of human emotion. There were screams of fury, cries of regret, and shouts and swear words so full of anguish that I was moved to tears. I didn’t know these men. I didn’t know the demons they were fighting or the injustices they had endured. But I do know pain. We all do. And in that intersection of apparent opposites—sorrow and splendor, desolate earth and life-giving spring—my husband and I were reminded that despite our superficial differences, despite our ethnicity, orientation, gender, or age, we too intersect. We are inextricably linked by construction, compassion, and the intrinsic desire for human connection.
Two days later, after settling into the La Jolla hotel that would be our home away from home for the rest of the week, I was faced with a choice (not a life or death decision, by any means, but a decision just the same): work out by myself in the very nice and completely adequate hotel fitness center, or take advantage of the classes at the facility next door that were included in our stay.
In my experience, group fitness classes—especially well-established ones—are not very welcoming to outsiders, so I was tempted to retreat into isolation as per my introverted nature. To hop on a wall-facing elliptical or treadmill, get through 30-40 minutes of cardio, and get on with my day. But something was telling me to step out of my comfort zone. Maybe it was all the time and focus I’d recently placed on personal growth and development. Or perhaps it was the kindness we encountered when my husband and I toured the facility the night before. (Thanks, Rocky!) Whatever it was, it nudged me out of bed at six a.m. to tackle my first ever spin class with a handful of perfect strangers.
But from the moment I walked in, these people were no longer strangers. And neither did they treat me like one. The woman at the desk happily got me set up on a bike. The gentleman on my left suggested grabbing a second towel, which the young man on my right retrieved on my behalf. There was the social butterfly, a cheerful woman who wanted to be sure that I experienced all the local flavor I could while in the area. And then there was the instructor. An awesome and encouraging woman who led kick ass work outs, carried an inspiring and motivating outlook, and exuded a beautiful spirit of wholehearted generosity. (Teresa, girl, you are amazing!)
This wonderful group of friendly souls had been spinning together for several years. They knew each other well, they had backstories and inside stories and roles they filled, and as an interloper—and a temporary one at that—they could have easily excluded me from all of it. Yet they chose not to. They accepted and embraced me as one of their own and I am forever grateful for the warm welcome.
To all of you: The National Park employee at the Joshua Tree Visitor Center, the men in the desert oasis, and everybody I encountered at the Shiley Sports and Health Center in La Jolla, thank you.
Thank you for reminding me that amid our often judgmental and divided society, there remains an abundance of goodness and benevolence. Thank you for reminding me that it is inside every single one of us. That it’s a choice. And each day, with every interaction, we have the opportunity to include, to embrace, to make connections. To respond to others with compassion. To dig deep, past the experiences and beliefs and opinions that make us different, to the root of what makes us the same. Our need for community. Our common unity.
*Also shown in the picture above are Rocky and Teresa from Shiley Sports and Health Center.