The Communities We Come By

Greeting Card from Thailand

Back when my brother and I were living in our first apartment, and I was 24, I went through this three-year obsession with self-help books. I read up on style, relationships, making friends, nutrition, career planning.

One book recommended asking someone a series of questions about me. I was supposed to choose someone who knew me well and would be honest. The author assured me this would help me become more self-aware.

And so, just as I’d done since preschool, I dragged my brother into it. I’d forced him into book clubs, puppet shows, Barbie space operas, and espionage on neighbors with our toy periscopes. Pink plastic poking out of rhododendron bushes.

All things considered, this request was pretty mild.

“What animal best reflects my personality?” I asked.

He thought for a minute. We sat cr0ss-legged in my bedroom doorway, and I balanced a notepad and pencil on one knee.

I expected him to say a turtle. After all, I’m shy. I snap into my shell the instant I bump into anything new. I’m ponderously slow. At everything. From making friends to adjusting to change.

But he knew me better than that.

“An elephant,” he said. “Because of your long memory. And you develop very deep, lasting social bonds. Community is very important to you. And your intelligence.”

An elephant.

It was one of the sweetest things anyone had ever said to me. It left me feeling known, and understood.

And it stuck with me. Because he was right.

The following year, my brother and I parted ways. He moved east to Bellevue, settling in with a friend close to work. My husband and I moved into our own place. I still saw him regularly, but it was different. The definite end of our childhood together. And the community of two that I had with him gradually shifted into something still present, but distinct from what it had been. And as he moved from Bellevue on to New York, we grew into the separate worlds that adult siblings must inhabit.

So, I began my search for a new community. A new family. I threw myself into the Thai community, attending holiday parties and temple events and speaking Thai whenever I could. Helping my husband launch and staff his own restaurant.

But it didn’t take. I was the “farang”. Inevitably the outsider, clumsy and puzzled by their jokes. Forever needing translation.

It wasn’t until a class at Hugo House in April 2010 when I really felt I might be home.

At-home is a lovely feeling for elephants. There’s nothing like it. And nothing so necessary for sanity.

I’m grateful for the artists–the dancers and writers and choreographers I know–who have opened their studios and classrooms to me. They opened their doors, and their lives, to the larger world. And this has helped me open my own life.

The wonderful truth about family and home is that in having a secure community and a refuge, you become free. It is a beautiful irony of our social nature that we require healthy interdependence to be fully independent.

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