My buddy Ray and I recently started an exercise to flex our creative muscles: We’re giving each other writing prompts each Sunday and publishing the results on Friday. The only catch? A self-imposed 500-word limit. This week’s prompt: Write about one of your values and why you value that.
Two years ago, I took a solo trip to New Orleans. I still think about that trip every day, but my lasting memories aren’t just of the decadent food, boisterous music, or the history that clings to every cobblestone street, shotgun house, and weather-worn restaurant sign like a persistent fog.
Don’t get me wrong: That’s all part of the New Orleans magic. But what I remember most is the incredible community and connectivity I found there.
I don’t know when or why I started valuing community so highly; I spent my high school and college years as a relative loner, and even 4-5 years ago, I didn’t venture far beyond my tight-knit circle of friends. I don’t remember feeling like something was missing or that I needed to expand my social network; it just kind of happened over a period of years and, by the time I left for New Orleans in April 2012, I was constantly rearranging my schedule like a Bananagrams game to fit in more friends.
The tipping point, when I realized just how much community meant to me, came on that trip. If I’d gone with a friend or significant other, we would have done our thing, kept to ourselves, and enjoyed our time well enough. But by going alone, I knew I had to leave my comfort zone if I was to make it a memorable trip.
Community was everywhere I looked in New Orleans. Late one night, for instance, I chatted with a friendly busker dressed as the devil. Midway through my trip, I made friends with a nice couple from Washington, D.C., and we ended up seeing several shows together that week. On Easter Sunday, I chatted with a friendly guy while eating a po’ boy in Jackson Square; we bonded over our weight-loss struggles and mutual love of journalism, and the friendship continues today.
Whether in New Orleans or back home in Portland, that longing for community and connectivity plays a part in everything I do. I recently joined a dragon boat team and love the camaraderie that permeates every practice; I’m a proud member of Team Road Kill, whose members ride bikes and raise money for the National MS Society; and my personal life remains busier than ever, with concerts, happy hours, and sporting events dotting the calendar. I never feel as good as when I’m sharing fun memories with others.
When I brought this prompt up to Ray, I struggled with breaking down exactly why I value community and connectivity so much. I think it originally sprung from a sense of inadequacy; I was never popular in school, and at a certain point, I think I just wanted people to like me. Eventually, I grew to subsist on that sense of approval and affirmation that I wasn’t as weird, fat, ugly, or awkward as I feared.
But it morphed over the years into something else entirely. I realized that creating connections and building community gets me out of my own head and into a space where anything can happen. That unpredictability–fueled by diverse life experiences, different ways of thinking, and contrasting perspectives–makes me feel like part of something bigger and makes it more difficult to feel alone. Whether I’m at the heart of a community or watching it grow from the periphery, it doesn’t matter; I’m just glad the exchanges take place at all.
And “exchange” is the word for it. I learn so much from the people I talk to, whether we’re discussing the keys to happiness over drinks or road tripping to and from the coast. Sometimes, they teach me something about myself; other times, I listen to someone’s life story, try to understand the way they see the world, or find out what makes them tick. When we’re stuck in our own heads, we can’t possibly bring to the table those disparate experiences and perspectives, which limits how we interact with the world we’re in. But by opening ourselves up to the world and accepting that stimuli, we explore some really interesting–and sometimes uncomfortable–places that enrich our lives and broaden our worldview. In the process, we become more empathetic, understanding, curious, informed, friendly, engaged … take your pick, they all apply.
The sentiment had been stewing in me for some time but truly crystallized in New Orleans. While waiting on the Soul Rebels to start at d.b.a. late one night, I struck up a conversation with a young San Franciscan named Devin. We talked at length about his job, which was to draw up road trip itineraries for groups of foreign visitors and drive them around the United States for weeks at a time. Over the span of three hours and two set breaks, we talked about his favorite stops, how different cultures react to the country, and what he’d like to do in the future. At one point, he leaned over and said, “I like to bring tourists down here as often as I can. The people down here, they’re so nice. They love it so much, and they never want to leave.”
“I know the feeling,” said. We toasted our pints and enjoyed the show.