In search of community

What defines a community? This is a question I often wonder during this time when I can’t find community belonging by simply walking around in a neighborhood, experiencing activities at my aerial gym, and interacting with people in public spaces. It seems to be a subtle and easily underappreciated element of the pre-quarantine past–now a luxury we no longer have, without some efforts in recreating.

First, I must explore what generally defines a community, the purposes it may serve and the natural elements about it that I find so appealing if I’m to have any luck of manufacturing my own.

n. 1. a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common. 2. a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.

Two definitions pop up for “community.” The first evokes the natural community of the place we live, something we naturally have without having to search for it. For me, it could be my downtown community, or my work community (people on my office floor). The latter seems more like a subset of the former. Often in very large communities where I don’t know everyone, this feeling of fellowship may not be readily available, but as the group becomes more specific and with some certainty, I can say what are the community’s (and individual members’) goals and interests, I may find that feeling of fellowship towards them.

Natural communities may not have obvious purposes as much as there are natural reasons that have caused communities to be formed. For example, for zoning and management purposes, a city subdivides neighborhoods into communities. I live by Lake Ontario, right in the heart of downtown, only 20 minutes away from work, so by default perhaps I share some common interests with others in my geographic community who likes the proximity to bay street, the great views of the harbor and proximity to various lakeside activities like beach access, sailing and protected bike lanes. However I know only <0.01% of dwellers in my geographic community, so I can’t be certain.

On the other hand, I chose to be in my aerial community because I liked aerial arts, silks and Lyra. I appreciate the elegance, the beauty of the performances, the exhilaration of the drops and the ultimate combination of artistry and high-performance fitness. In the beginning my simple goals were to just get a great arms workout without feeling like I’m trying to work them out so I won’t quit–which holding for my dear life 20 ft up in the air, is not conducive to “giving up” voluntarily. With my Toronto group of friends, most of whom I went to university with, work in some aspects of management (be it marketing, HR or finance), we have a sense fellowship and connection given past ties and present mutual interests or personality compatibility. We enjoy laughter, propping each other up and sharing fun/pop culture/insightful facts–many a covid-19 meme or article for example in the present time.

Both the natural and more niche communities seem to serve to bring people together and give everyone a sense of belonging. Togetherness means I have people to socialize with that I know I will enjoy the company of. Belonging, now that’s the harder one to define. It seems often a byproduct of being “together” and more of an ID label. I tell everyone where I live, work, went to school, the natural, geographic communities, and what are things I like to do, which may only hint at the niche, closer-nit communities I belong to. (a) They help others identify me, refer people I should connect with or introduce to my community and help me find similarly minded people when traveling outside. (b) Communities are also naturally inviting, and in normal circumstances, people can freely move into a community if they move there, stumble upon a class at my aerial studio for example or are brought to house parties/friend group gatherings to get into the more niche ones.

Aha! The missing element has reared its head upon us in our current circumstance. It’s harder to join or invite others to new communities when the natural approach is stopped by the restriction of physical movement. Digitally, we must find more innovative ways to join new communities and become acquainted and as connected to others via video and one-on-one introductions (zoom breakout rooms and FB messenger chats work wonders for example), to simulate that experience of finding and fitting into these communities. As the social distancing sustains over longer periods, one less spoken-about way to combat loneliness and isolation is to reclaim our sense of belonging in existing and new communities.