This evening I will participate in one of our periodic GANA (Green Acres Neighborhood Association) meetings. Hopefully, more than four or five of us will show up (in a neighborhood that contains 440 homes). But if not, we will close our chairs into a smaller circle and work through an agenda that we set up beforehand and sent to the neighborhood list-serve.
On the agenda: an artist’s sketches for the neighborhood painting (on a utility box) that we have commissioned to set a more formal “entrance” to the neighborhood. Can we agree on the style and content of how these sketches could be fleshed in before actual painting begins? What will the differences in our aesthetic styles reveal about us as persons? How can we turn the perception of our differences into a celebration of the richness, generativity, and resilience of diversity?
It’s hard, doing democracy. Hard, regaining both the physical commons and the real-life in-person trust in the commons that gradually dissipated after World War II when GIs, drawn by the allure of the American Dream, tore their young families from their generational nests and, as if drawn by the ghosts of 19th century wagon trains, once again obeyed the unconscious dictum of Manifest Destiny, “Go west, young man, go west.”
Once again, extended families were torn apart by this diaspora. And even today, reverse migration, from the west back to the midwest, is almost unheard of. (For first class flyers, from west (coast) to east (coast) is not so strange: these folks sometimes refer to themselves as “bi-coastal.”) I am one of the few who have made the switch, from the west to the midwest (my family has not very deep roots in Wisconsin and Minnesota; before that, the coal mines of Pennsylvania; and before that, Germany. But who were those ancestors three and four generations back? I have no idea.)
And yet, recovering community is hard here in Bloomington, too. This is a university town. Most of the homes in our Green Acres Neighborhood are rentals, housing students in transit. What kind of commons is even possible here? How can we turn this typical suburban neighborhood into a thriving village? For that is the goal, that is, for me, always the goal.
The internet has returned us to the commons, but a virtual commons, no substitute. It did help get this meeting announced, however. We no longer need a phone tree. On the other hand, I look around me in this town so full of creativity, and idealism and worthwhile projects, and I realize: there are so many meetings, and so much distraction, not to mention the gnawing worry and fear in a deteriorating economy, that it’s hard to get the energy up to even read the email reminder about an upcoming neighborhood meeting, much less actually turn up present and accounted for.
How this meeting “turns out” is not up to me. What is up to me is how I respond to events and to my own experience of them. I see outer events as mirrors of my own inner processes. As without, so within.
As for my inner preparations for this particular meeting, well, anthropologist and occupier David Graeber’s seemingly off-the-cuff TEDx talk about democracy helps.