As I reflect on the life I’m currently living, one marked by solitude and distance chosen over potential social engagement and closeness due to the risks of the on-going pandemic, I find myself thinking about all the moments in my life that I actually felt like I was a part of something larger than myself. Generally speaking, these moments happened in crowds or as part of some collective action since I’ve never really been one to attach my sense of self to a cause or group identity (like fandoms or social archetypes), and there are far fewer of them than I thought there’d be when I started this reflection. As I’ve worked through it, though, it started to make more sense. After all, my childhood was marked by a sense of being lesser-than, my college years were filled with me attempting to rationalize that sense of self with the way other people treated me (both those who treated me well and those who took advantage of me), and my entire life has been marked by a desire to avoid chaos, crowds, and spaces in which I have no control. It is no wonder I rarely felt like I was a part of something more than myself, though it does hurt a bit to realize how rarely I felt like that in spite of how frequently I sought it out.
Despite being involved in a lot of things as a child (a church, cub scouts, sports teams, youth groups, homeschooling groups, school clubs, select friend-groups), I never really felt like I was a part of them. I definitely was present with them, I definitely was included in them, but I never felt like I really belonged. I just felt like I was there at the same time as everyone else. Since I didn’t have cable, my parents limited out TV time, and I sort of skipped most YA literature since I went from picture books straight to The Lord of the Rings and similar. I read stuff like Redwall, Harry Potter, Narnia, and a lot of other stuff that’s sort of YA but skips most of the stuff about becoming a person, finding a place to belong, and feeling like people care about you. I didn’t think much of it at the time but, in retrospect, I’m fairly confident my parents at least tried to prevent me from being exposed to anything that might push me to develop my own sense of self rather than cling to the sense of self they’d instilled in me. I don’t think it was until I started reading assigned literature in high school (my first English course that wasn’t filtered through the conservative christian lense of my mother, who was my only teacher until high school thanks to being homeschooled) that I started to realize there was more to being a part of something than showing up and leaving at the same time as everyone else did.
The first time I ever felt like a part of something more was when I went to my first convention. It was my final semester of college and I went with a bunch of the other English Honors Society students to present at a conference in Portland. I read a personal essay I’d written about the importance of fiction, listened to all my friends and peers read much more scholarly papers, and walked around Portland with a group of people who seemed to genuinely just enjoy my company as much as I enjoyed theirs. There were moments of walking from place to place, my friends picking destinations and navigating as I kept track of how to get around the city without a map and made sure no one got lost, that I felt like I was actually a part of the group. I felt like I belonged there in a way that left such a strong impression on me that I almost abandoned every plan I’d ever made during college to move out to the west coast because I thought the feeling was a result of place I was at rather than the people I was with.
The second time was also a convention, one I went to with different friends but that had me feeling like a part of this group of very specific nerds. NerdCon: Stories was the first non-academic convention I had been to and it was a blissful weekend of wandering from talk to talk, panel to panel, as I rubbed elbows with strangers who were all there for same reason I was: a love of all kinds of stories. The feeling came and went multiple times over the weekend, mostly tied to moments of focus in panels or when almost the whole convention showed up for a particular event. It was my first “Con” experience and instantly made it clear why some people feel so at-home when attending events like that. Sadly, I couldn’t afford to attend the following year (and had some work stuff going on that weekend, anyway), and the convention was cancelled after that due to poor attendance and a subsequent lack of funding.
The third time, and the reason I began this reflection, was when I went to a tour event in Illinois for John Green’s Turtles All The Way Down, which featured a moment when his brother (Hank Green) came on stage with him so they could perform Sweet Caroline, but with the crowd instructed to stay completely and totally silent during the parts when people typically vocalized the trumpet bits or added in extra “So Good”s to the refrain. Hank Green talked about it in a recent video, and I’ll let him do the explaining since it’ll prevent this whole thing from being another paragraph or two longer (and there’s a recording of this resounding silence at the end of his video). I saw that video today, while eating my lunch, and while I think of this moment often due to how utterly connected I felt with the crowd and the way they’d managed to flip audience participation on its head, it was interesting to hear how much Hank thinks about it to. And to think about what it would have felt like to be in one of the crowds where someone stubbornly refused to be a part of the group effort. Which is when I realized that part of the reason I was so obsessed with the idea of being a part of something like that was because it was so rare for me.
The fourth time it happened was last month. Just over exactly a month ago, on July 4th, in fact. I was part of a group of viewers watching a livestream of Friends at the Table who were raising money for the National Network of Abortion Funds. I wrote about that experience after it happened and I’m still thinking about what it felt like to be a part of the crowd that donated, laughed, and enjoyed watching/listening to a bunch of beloved performers work together to bring attention and funding to an important cause. While this was the most physically removed version of connection I’ve felt, it was also the strongest emotionally. I still feel it, like a little thread from my heart to the hearts of these people who collectively donated $160,000 to help combat some of the truly awful shit happening in the US. A reminder that even when I’m alone in my apartment, I’m a part of something bigger than just me and my experience of the world.
There might only be four of them, but they’re the kind of experiences that ground me and remind me of the things I think are important in life. My friends. My passions. Working together to make the world a better place. Sharing stories with each other. Loving and being loved. All things I could not live without. I will always want more of them in my life, I will never be content to have had these experiences once and never pursue them again, but I am still glad I had these moment even if they never get more frequent than one every two or three years now. Hopefully my future will be filled with more, but for now I’m just glad they happened at all.
I’m not posting tomorrow. Taking a day off to rest. I have some stuff ready to post for the return of my old serial story (under a new name, even! This time with an index, links to previous and subsequent chapters, and better writing!), but I would also like to give it a little more time to sit before I do a final edit past and post it. That’ll be up next week, though, on the 13th!