Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Come Together, Right Now, Over Me...

I've been thinking a lot about community and what it means. I started a blog partly to reach out to a world from which I've felt very isolated. I wanted to feel like I am making some kind of meaningful connection with all the other people in the world. And between writing here, following several other blogs, and commenting there, I've really started to feel less alone; I feel like there are a lot of people out there in the world who make sense to me. I read a blog and read the comments left there by other readers, then follow those readers over to their blogs, and before I know it, I feel like I've discovered this whole hidden world of people who, in another world or several years ago, might have been the girls I went out drinking with in college, the ones who told me whether my professor was actually being a jerk, whether I ought to just quit my bartending job, and yes, whether that guy was in fact worth my time.

Now, my darling husband, God bless him, has no faith in the internet at all. As far as he's concerned, it's just a way for people to scam other people. He uses it, checking his email regularly and checking sports scores, but you would never find him on a message board or Facebook. He just fundamentally doesn't trust them. So after I read about the tragedy that was Maddie's passing, I immediately went and made a donation to the March of Dimes in her name. Just $10, not a huge sum, but it seemed like it would be an even greater tragedy if I knew there was something I could do to prevent losses like this and I didn't do anything at all. Shortly after that, Stephanie of Baby on Bored suggested that if people wanted to help, she would organize efforts to send Maddie's family meals for the next couple of weeks. I can only imagine what her family is going through and would guess that eating is not one of the things they're thinking about much. So I offered to send them a meal one day.

Later that evening, my husband opened the computer and saw the automated March of Dimes email thanking me for my donation. He immediately asked who I'd met on the internet that I was giving money to. I explained that a family had lost their daughter, and I'd made a donation to the March of Dimes for them--totally reputable charity. He said that was fine, but remember that you can't trust people on the internet; they could be anyone, running any kind of scam. He went on to use this example: "If you meet someone in the grocery store who says they just lost a $20 bill, give them $20. But don't just hand out money online." Okay, I agree with the last part of that--don't send your bank account number to the Nigerian prince, because you're not going to get the money he promised you. But that guy at the grocery store? Dollars to donuts, he's running an even simpler scam. I decided not to start that argument with my husband and didn't mention that I would be sending this family a meal later in the week. He doesn't need to know everything.

But this got me started thinking about the very idea of community. Are relationships by definition more meaningful because of the way they started? I also belong to a message board. When I found out I was pregnant with Zachary, I didn't even know where to start, so I think I probably just Googled "pregnancy." I found a message board of women all due in the same month. Now our kids are all roughly 5 1/2, and I still keep in touch with most of them. My husband gives me a hard time about these "pretend" friends, but what about them isn't real? No, I haven't seen most of them in person. But we've known each other for more than 6 years. Doesn't that count for anything? When I read about Maddie, I was overwhelmed by this family and their story. And now I read about another little boy whose family is mourning today. And it's not that I sit around and search for bloogers who've lost their children; I assure you, I have no desire to track down that kind of story. It's just that as I try to feel connected to the other people in this world, bad things keep happening to those people. Has the world always been this cold, this uncaring, this just plain cruel, and I just didn't know it? Part of me wants to say, "Okay, this was fun, but I have to call it a failed experiment. I tried to connect to the world, and all that happened is that I found out that the world is full of pain I cannot heal. So I am going to crawl back into my hole, watch CSI, and complain that I don't have any friends. Because I can't take this kind of pain." But isn't this what it means to be part of a community? That you identify with one another in meaningful ways, and when someone in your community hurts, you remind them that they are not alone in their pain.

I didn't know Maddie or Thalon in life. I, probably like a lot of other people, got to know them only when they were gone. Does that make me nothing but a voyeur to other people's pain? I hope not. I hope that what it makes me is someone who is trying to establish connections in a world where it is so easy to go through life in a box. I hope it makes me one more thread in a web that can help to keep parents afloat in a time when it would be so easy to drown in their pain.

My husband talks a lot about things like the homeless people who gather in the public library; there is, he says, no substitute for actually seeing the people who populate our world, and it is a privilege to visit the world from our computers, one we should not accept as a substitute for "real interaction." And I would not want to live in a world where the only people in my life were seen through the screen of my computer. But I also want--need--to feel like the community that has been created this way is a real one, that I can be there for its members when they are in need and that maybe, someday, I can count on support from them too. And that's real community, isn't it?

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