My mother was raised as an only child who yearned for family and worked hard to foster her own community. We had aunties, uncles, and cousins who I was disappointed to learn were not blood, and some who I was disappointed to learn were. My mother saw to it that our house was the place to gather. Mom would have friends and family over for long, weekend parties full of food, music, and card playing. My five sisters and I would always be directed to our rooms after the communal meal, but the bedtime curfew was lifted. I would fall asleep to the distant cadence of music and voices and laughter. Always on Friday evenings and into Saturday afternoon—this was my mother’s joy.
I knew early on that her joy, her need for community, would never fully be mine. The signs were always there. As much as I appreciated and anticipated the rhythm of people coming and going, what I looked forward to most was the experience of rich silence after the sustained sound. I was always glad to see Mom’s love of a good weekend party give way to the return of Sabbath and its rituals, the softer sounds of gospel music albums taking their turn on the Hi-Fi.
I didn’t have the words for it then, but I was always more drawn to the mysteries of silence and solitude. When we moved to a four-bedroom Victorian, the home that I lived in the longest and my favorite by far, I found paradise in retreating to its large attic and hidden rooms in the basement. This was my way of saying to the world, "let me be." Somehow, my family knew best not to bother me.
Like Mom, I had friends. No challenge there. I attracted them without even trying. Our ages ranged such that younger or older siblings of a friend would befriend each other out of habit. My oldest sister was especially popular at school, which earned me the moniker “PJ's sister." It carried weight, especially when someone was trying to figure out which category to place me in: popular, non-popular, to be bullied, not to be bullied. Community was seamless, organic, and grew exponentially.
And it was literally all around us. At times we couldn't have company inside the house, so the front porch was the place to watch games of foursquare, hopscotch, and dodgeball. In the evening, we'd sit on the stairs and talk about what we would do and who we would one day become. A few times we said goodnight to friends and heard of their deaths by morning. I had heard them say who they planned to be in the world, and I didn't know how to reconcile our loss.
What I’ve learned over time is that life and people are much too complex to fit into neat categories. It’s a lesson I’ve learned only by being honest and increasingly unapologetic about my great love for space, for quiet, for being. I’ve worked, and I continue to work, at cultivating solitude even as I live a busy life, fully engaged in various so-called communities. I’ve learned that observing and choosing silence can sometimes be more powerful and impactful than struggling or pretending to fit or belong simply based on expectations or shared DNA. For example, if the only identifiable thing we have in common is being Black, should we be referred to as “the Black Community”? Should having wealth place you in “the wealthy community”? Can a category ever be enough to capture the essence of individuals?
I don’t have firm answers, only questions. But wrestling with them has become part of my joy. The older I get, the more I realize we can’t bring peace to any of the worlds we move in if we’re not willing to know ourselves, challenge ourselves, and continually grow ourselves. Maybe by sharing her need for constant community, Mom gave me the greatest possible gift: the freedom to discover that the most important community lives within me.