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New Muse Jamila and the Community Gap

At her last party in my psyche, my muse the Marchesa invited a special guest from her homeland of Italy: Jamila Salimpour, pioneer of "tribal" style belly dance in the U.S. in the 1960s. The Marchesa found out about Jamila through a few handy links about Jamila and American Tribal Style on the Bellydance Paladin blog. I was stoked to meet Jamila and completely in awe of her history, teaching, and style of dance as shown in this short documentary:

But it also made me sad to watch this. I was saddened because it brought home to me how much I miss out on real, in-person community with other women my age, women who dance and live and love and bear children. I realized how little I know about cultural dances, historical and modern. I realized how little time I spend in real community with people like myself. I have lady friends my age, of course, but we are all so busy with our working lives that we rarely get to spend time together, in person, as opposed to connecting by e-mail or Facebook or blogging or even on the phone.

On top of that, one thing I want to do at this point in my life is have children. I have never been close to anyone going through a pregnancy or giving birth. The whole concept of it is alien to me. Most of my friends have never gone through the experience and have no interest in doing so, ever. There's a branch of my family in which all the female cousins, by blood and by marriage, have been shooting out kids willy-nilly since their early teens, but I am not close to them, and their lifestyles are so foreign to mine that I have trouble relating to them at all. I enjoy spending time with them (when we actually gather as a family once or twice a year) and I love them, but I feel almost like a different species. (Miss Moppet once observed that when I talk about them, I sound like Jane Goodall. That is not my intention, to imply that my family members are less than human! But frankly, they are far less empowered and educated than I am, to the point where it's hard to even hold a coherent conversation. I feel like we speak different languages--not just that I have more knowledge in some areas, but that they have so much knowledge and experience in a life I know nothing about that I am completely lost in their references, vocal inflections, insinuations, and euphemisms. I spend all my time trying to figure them out, which probably makes me sound more like I'm studying them than having meaningful interactions.)

So I feel cut off from some very basic aspects of being a young, healthy adult human female, dancing and celebrating the mundane in community and sharing conversation face-to-face and childbirth.

This feeling of isolation resonated at a conference I attended on Saturday. It was a meeting of church lay leaders, and one of the workshops discussed how many of the churches in our district have a generational gap of people aged 18-30. (Personally, from my observations, I would extend this age gap to 40. Even 38-year-olds are considered young 'uns in a church setting.) There is programming designed for children in school (preschool through high school), but there is nothing for college students. There is programming targeted at middle aged working people and the retired elderly, but nothing for younger adults who do not have children. No social networking for young professionals, no mentoring that isn't focused on children, no musical or athletic or social action projects that are designed to appeal to people aged 18-30. The programming called "multigenerational" (a great buzz word) is designed to be accommodating to little kids and the elderly. And everybody in the middle? Since they CAN participate, they are expected to WANT to participate. And if they don't want to, well, bah humbug to THEM.

Surprisingly, at the workshop I attended which opened by addressing the age gap of 18-30, there was absolutely nothing suggested that would appeal primarily to people in that gap. "You can help out with the kids," they said. "Don't you like hanging out with older people? Come camping with us," said others.

Now, let me just point out that I LOVE these folks. They are fun, entertaining, wise beyond my years, and admirable in so many ways. I like hanging out with them. I like having conversations with them. Yet, I am always a partial outsider when talking with a group of people who all share a different generation than mine. That feeling of other-ness has nothing to do with how much I like them.

Sure, I CAN help out with other people's kids. Sure, I enjoy spending time with people outside of my generation. But if I'm going to be the oddball, the only childless woman hanging out with moms and dads, or the only 20-something singing 1970s classics around the campfire with a bunch of buddies in my parents' cohort, I'm going to feel somewhat left out. I might ENJOY myself at these activities, but I'm not going to SEEK OUT those activities instead of doing something else with my time. There is a difference between making something TOLERABLE or even PLEASANT for a demographic and making something ATTRACTIVE to that demographic. It would not be fair to ask a 50-year-old to hang out with me and my friends every weekend, without anyone else their age, and imply that they don't like 20-somethings if they'd rather do something else.

In my honest opinion, this is kind of like the problem of racial diversity in the same churches. If we make an effort not to be racist, why don't people from other cultures come flooding into our Godless-Protestant-based hymn sing-alongs, academic lectures, folk music concerts, and bland potluck dinners? Gee, what a mystery. I've even heard some people saying things like, "Well, if THEY wanted to come, THEY would come. I guess THEY don't want to be here. If THEY wanted programming here, THEY should come in and organize it themselves." (Speaking about racial or ethnic groups or age ranges.)

Um. I'm sorry, but if there is a demographic of people almost completely lacking in an organization, there is a reason. We must ask ourselves, WHY is this place unattractive to THEM? And, do WE honestly want to integrate THEM into our community? If we do, it is WE who must make the initial effort to welcome THEM in. Simply allowing THEM to come over is absolutely not the same as actively welcoming and attracting people. When people say things like, "Well, you can always drop in at our party, but we're not going to expend any extra energy or expense on anything designed just for you," then I feel that I am valued less than the established populations. I feel that they are not sure they want me there; I must prove to them, first, that I won't cost them anything. The play-acting of wanting more diversity in ages and cultures, yet not making any effort towards welcoming the missing elements, feels downright insulting--It's like the public school teacher in a miserable fourth-grade classroom who posts "Happiness is a choice" on the wall and punishes the kids who won't stop moping. It's not helping; it's not empowering; it's not giving a real choice; it's just passing along the blame to the excluded to alleviate guilt.

In sum, I am saddened today because I have been made aware of what I am missing. I have watched a video of women my age dancing together and talking about childbirth. I have attended a conference in which I was one of a few--or perhaps even the only person--in my 20s, listening to people talk around the "problem" of inviting my kind into a community that nurtures every other age group, in particular, besides mine.

So what can I do? I'm not really sure, except to shut off this dang computer and take advantage of more real interactions with peers when they come along. There isn't much in the way of dance troupes around here, and I have no idea how to meet childbearing women until I get pregnant and find a prenatal class or something. As far as spiritual community goes, I've just plain given it up for now.

But I am using this feeling of disconnect and loneliness in some of my novel characters. Princess Rosemarie is cloistered and has no friends who are peers; Thorismud is so obsessed with his lost love that he spends his life trying to interpret everything that happens as a sign from her but has no real, direct communication with her; and Prince Gustav is bombarded with social information about the people in his castle but is cut off from having any intimate connections with them.

When I find myself in a sad or upsetting situation that I don't know how to solve, I tend to push my negative feelings into my writing. At least there, I can get some use out of them.

I have a couple of questions for you, readers, some of whom I know in "real" life, and some of whom I am pleased to interact with online, even though we are not in the same physical location.

1. Do you ever feel this disconnect from people of your generation or culture? How do you cope?

2. How does writing help you deal with negative emotions or frustrations in your personal life?


  1. Very pertinent comments all along the line. As far as feeling disconnected from women my age - I do, generally. In college it was great cuz I lived with ladies (you know that, you were there) but my female community now lives in many different places and I haven't completely connected with other women where I live. I have got a great community at my work place, including a few women that I enjoy spending time with. I've had two great 'community' experiences since moving to where I am now (Europe) - the first was a master's program where 18 of us spent most of the year working closely on projects together. I'd never felt that close to such a group before. The second is my work place - a web development team, mostly made up of 25-35 year olds. It's wonderful to feel unconditionnally part of a group.

  2. Hi, Elizabeth! It was so good getting a call from you earlier. :D Sorry I can't call you--I don't have international calling. Your work sounds like a blast. It also sounds a bit like Esperanza's job in Mexico. I have such fabulous international friends! But I miss you guys. The world is a big place for us all to spread out in.


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