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This week’s guest on my podcast, Latchkey Urchins and Friends, is discussing community care, highlighting Mia Birdsong’s powerful book, How We Show Up.
The idea of community conjures images of warmth and well-being, but for me, belonging feels foundationally shameful, so I have avoided communities most of my life.
This avoidance might be a protective factor against joining a cult, where one of my feet is firmly and perpetually out of the door. The cacophony of voices, wisdom, and my own longing to live in authentic, nourishing communities is disruptive to my system. Showing up for the community feels harder than it should be—shamefully hard.
Birdsong states “All of us have ancestral memory of what it’s like to live connected, interdependent lives. We may be cut off or too far away from those traditions to claim them, but we can listen to our needs, our longings, and through ritual, rite, and practice build a way of being in the world that honors and makes tangible our connections to one another, to nature, and to spirit. This is a process of decolonization.”
Birdsong’s words feel hopeful to me, and they mirror what has been happening through decades of therapy. I had no idea how “broken” I was until I began attempting to belong to groups of more than three people, especially if the stated goal was to be more loving. I found a whole new level of shame around attempts to connect to the group. I employed all the masks: friendly, engaged, competent, espousing good ethics and morals, mouthing all the right words around love, mimicking platitudes around justice and equity. Yet underneath, I was and still am often filled with bouts of anxiety, projections, hatred, exhaustion, confusion, and anger at the constant needs.
Why does this community gig seem easy and enjoyable for everyone else in the room and so difficult for me?
I am coming to terms with the fact that I hail from the emotional lands of hard-packed clay.
My developmental history of emotional neglect projects so much onto existing communities in which I seek membership. I focus on those in the community who appear to be tenders of rich, loamy soil and have the capacity to grow beautiful food. It seems those folks are not afraid to nourish and be nourished. I hear the words that these communities are welcoming to all, no matter where you hail from. Yet when I dig deep into my internal experience to explore why really “showing up” is so painful, I am hitting that layer of hard-packed clay. I have been toiling in these lands for as long as I can remember.
I have spent so many resources (thousands of dollars of therapy, workshops, books, trainings) trying to learn how to grow effectively on my dirt, always reaching for deep loamy, fertile soil so I can stop hiding and feeling shame. There is no shortage of books with information about how to be healthy and happy written by those who hail from the lands of good enough soil. They provide evidence-based studies that show simple practices such as creating a calm environment, speaking kindly to yourself, paying attention to your needs such as rest, nutrition, friendships, and exercise that will grow contentedness at the very least.
As I moved through decades of life experiences, my losses felt like they overwhelmed the wins and I fell behind in my yields. My shame at failing to amend my soil fast and reliably enough was demoralizing.
This process of amending hard-packed clay is arduous and takes years before getting to places where these fertile soil techniques will begin to take hold. In my 30 years of receiving therapy and my 15 years of providing it, I am coming to a place where I believe I might be able to offer some scraps of information from the lands of hard-packed clay. Those of us who come from soils that have been devoid of nutrients for decades believe communities only want happy, nourished members. Our experience of farming hard soil has ingrained the belief that there is not enough and that sharing is a luxury. We cannot believe this platitude of abundance because we have never experienced it. We fear we will be a burden to you and then will be turned away again, and risking that possibility is the edge we live with constantly.
So, we engage in years of trying to make ourselves presentable. We do all the things in the manuals that teach how to make fertile soil. We pour over your almanacs that say that this year will be a good year. We exhaust ourselves with these methods of fixing, especially when we see they are researched and evidence-based. Yet, we often fail to enact regular practices, we don’t feel the benefits sufficiently, and are just plain tired of trying to grow in hard-packed clay, while our failures reinforce the message that something is wrong with us.
I have tried for years to enact a sitting meditation practice, regular exercise, better eating habits, regularly speaking kindly to myself and others, and in my 50s now, it’s sporadic and taking shape a bit more.
If I’m honest, I don’t exactly understand why I am seeking community connection. Hard-packed clay isn’t guaranteed to soften in a linear fashion, but I do feel it from time to time and it is a better model than what keeps getting passed down. I have done enough personal work to allow myself to inhabit my body and feelings enough to get a glimpse of who I actually am, which has led me to roads with street signs named “Belonging is Normal Blvd,” “Connection is Nourishing Court,” and “I See You Avenue.” So, I’m traveling; I’m still on the road, and that likely will be where I stay, landing in towns and cities called “Love for longer and longer stays.”
Yet I allow myself to get back on the road so I don’t freak out with what I cannot absorb. I wander with others who are lost. These are my people, the ones traveling and are ashamed they have no map.
The more I allow myself to claim this inheritance, the more I hear the cries of hopelessness without offering false hope, just presence and tales from the road. The map is revealing itself slowly, like the polaroid photos from my youth. I am comfortable when I am traveling in this way and coming to understand the gifts and what I am growing.
I ask those of you who know, those who come from the lands of rich soils, to make space for those who are covered in clay and are malnourished.
Create your communities with this information and dig even deeper to maybe experience the inevitable layers of hard-packed clay under your fertile soil. Communities with foundations of deep love, awareness, and patience will inevitably make space for those with foundations of shame. We will come and go, be awkward, stumble in our words, lie even. We will disappoint you, disappear on you, offend you, claim to be more than we are, pretend we don’t care, sign up for way more than we can ever accomplish, and even cause division.
Our hard-packed clay creates a nourishment barrier, we are often not enlivened by the community, and we cannot readily take in the gifts it offers. It does not feed us like you think it should, receiving is anathema to our systems, as we have learned to live on very little, and we have to eat slowly and secretively sometimes.
If we frustrate you, we are 100 times more frustrated and exhausted just trying to connect. We may be in the process of amending our soil, softening our hard-packed clay. Hang in there, offer some nutrients, some water, some forgiveness, some grace.
We are coming because we know we need help with our soil. We have been trying to do it alone for years. We are discovering farming alone in this soil isn’t sustainable—community is, and that’s terrifying.
I have humorously referred to my way of being as “Independent Personality Disorder.” Toxic individualism underlies much of the American experience. Self-reliance is an American ideal. People like us are praised for their grit and resilience. We are the American dream, and we are sad and lost and hungry.
Thanks for listening. Now, go away.