Monday, June 11, 2012

Comfort in Communal Spaces

When I was a kid, I claimed I would to grow up to be a hermit like Adam on Northern Exposure: cabin in the woods, gruff attitude, haughtily shunning society and its pedestrian rules. I hated teamwork time in school - I felt I could accomplish things with less struggle if I did it myself. In other words, I thought I was special. As I get older, though, I'm beginning to appreciate the comfort of melting into a crowd and working on something with a group - it's a transformation reflected in the Fleet Foxes song, Helplessness Blues:

I was raised up believing 
I was somehow unique 
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes 
Unique in each way you can see 

And now after some thinking 
I'd say I'd rather be 
A functioning cog in some great machinery 
Serving something beyond me

This weekend I went for the second time to a Korean-style spa in Virginia called "Spa World". One of the unique aspects of the place is its large common room where people of all ages and nationalities nap and read and chat on mats laid out on the floor.


You stake out your temporary real estate, park your head on a cushion and drift in and out of wakefulness as the older Korean couple on the mat next to you talk in even, comforting tones you can't understand or the kids a few mats over unwrap red bean popsicles. In whatever section of the building you're in, there's a feeling of relaxed, anonymous intimacy with those around you - you're either wearing your birthday suit like everyone else in the pool area (and why feel self-conscious when everyone else is naked too?), or you're dressed in matching orange jumpsuits in the co-ed rooms as if you're all rooting for the same team.

Through my friends, I've also gotten into social dances like Square and Contra.

jack_mitchell_iv / flickr
Although the building block of such dances is the couple, the unity and integrity of the whole group is what's important. By the end of the night, everyone has danced with nearly everyone else on the floor, giving the event a feeling of shared joy and accomplishment. I can show up alone to an event like this and immediately feel embraced by the crowd.

Tryst in Washington, DC. A kind of community living room (Photo: Poldavo)
The buzz about walkable communities, collaborative consumption, placemaking, and localism all signal a shift from the illusion of separateness which Americans have been operating under for past few decades. We made a bargain, it seems: things over people; possessions over community. There are signs that we're now beginning to see the value in trusting each other and working together, in a shared purpose that transcends the nuclear family. Despite my youthful affinity for solitude, I welcome this shift.

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