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TBT: The Freedom in Tribal Connection

Way back in the day, I dropped out of grad school. I was doing well academically but not, let's say, spiritually. I asked several people in my chosen field what we could do about catastrophic injustices in the systems we were becoming experts in, and I received the same answer several times: "Uh, you could call your senator."

I was smart enough to know I didn't need a master's degree to do that, so I quit school and began my career working for social justice-seeking nonprofits. For six years, I worked for a statewide activist organization that sent me on some long trips to reach out and connect with people across county and state borders to work toward common goals. One summer, my boss and I took a road trip from the "palm" area of Michigan's lower "mitten" all the way up to the tippy-top of the beautiful Keweenaw Peninsula. We went into mostly rural areas and met with local church leaders and people of faith in humanity, and we gathered signatures on a petition for universal health care. It was a remarkably successful and beautiful journey, and later we celebrated the passage of the Affordable Care Act. It wasn't everything we had wanted, but it was something, and it transformed (and saved) the lives of many Americans.

Meanwhile, we made all kinds of connections on a personal level with people who live very far apart. We stayed in volunteers' homes, ate at their tables, and had deep conversations in their living rooms. We met lots of people who don't fit the stereotypes of "city" or "country," people who were beautiful and fascinating in many ways both expected and unexpected. One of our hosts split her time between the Keweenaw and Kerala, India, a small but mighty little society that has stood out recently as a shining example of community care during a pandemic.

Sometime after I returned, I wrote the post below about the paradoxical freedom that exists within a tight tribal connection--a supportive community that gives people the confidence and the safety to live fully and without fear or unnecessary struggle. I tied in some references to the song "Tribal Connection" by Gogol Bordello, which now strikes a weird chord in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The song was written in 2007 and had nothing to do with pandemic, but listening to it now sounds like a timely expression of frustration that we cannot go out in public spaces and party together.
Where there's a music should be comin' out of every car
There is a silence all over downtown
Where community celebrations should be aroused
I walk the sterile gardens, life is on empty, life is on pause

No can do this, no can do that
What the hell can you do, my friend?
In this place that you call your town
It bears repeating: This is in no way an active rebellion against community-supporting actions to avoid unnecessary tragedy in a plague. Gogol Bordello has canceled their spring 2020 tour dates until it is safe to have concerts again.

The song, written in the Before Times about social restrictions having nothing to do with pandemic, offers an artistic prescription for getting through a tough time of isolation (likely derived from band members' experiences and family histories in repressive Eastern European regimes):
We gonna turn frustration into inspiration
Whatever demons are there, we gonna set them free
Such is the method of tribal connection
Of our fun loving restless breed

Loving our freedoms and our communities and our nation requires that we think about how our actions affect other people. It requires figuring out, together, how to create communal health protections so that individuals can live freely. It's tough when we can't hit the road and occupy the same physical spaces, but we can take time in this moment to remember how it was: rich, humbling, complex, deeply interconnected, and never as simple as politics and stereotypes would have you believe.

The Freedom in Tribal Connection


I want to walk this earth like it is mine!


So say Gogol Bordello in their song "Tribal Connection." It may seem counter-intuitive to us individualist Americans, but to be truly free, independent, empowered, healthy, and happy, we need a supportive community. Human beings are social creatures. The latest research on happiness even suggests that our friendships are far more integral to our well being than our marriages or family relationships. Each one of us needs the support of a loving community, a tribe of our own choosing.

I just returned from an amazing community organizing trip to Michigan's Upper Peninsula. For anyone who hasn't been there, the UP mainly consists of vast, majestic forests with small villages nestled in the woods and along the rocky coastal hills. Many of the "Yoopers" are descendants of Finnish farmers and miners. Tourism is a major industry today, though my journey from Escanaba to Marquette to Houghton was unlike any other tourist experience I have had.

Small towns are sometimes stereotyped as being backwards and wary of outsiders. But at the roadside diners and homes along my way, I found an incredible sense of welcome, hospitality, openness, and friendliness that I am not used to experiencing in Lansing. At the sight of a tanned face (obviously not a local) or a confused expression, someone was always ready to jump out of their seat to ask visitors where they came from and offer spontaneous travel advice and bits of UP trivia. You can't go anywhere without someone enthusiastically explaining to you the history of the pasty (a local dietary staple made from beef and vegetables cooked in a pastry), the surrounding architecture or agriculture, the old railway systems, or the significance of the bear in Finnish folklore.

One point of pride is that in Finland, there is a national health care system that takes care of its citizenry far better than ours in America. Working for national health care is not altruistic; we all benefit from a healthier society that wastes less money and supports its children, elderly, and everyone in between as a precious human commodity.

From my brief observations over the weekend, the Yoopers seem to be very interested in each other's personal business. They unabashedly talked about people who were in the room, speculated about their relationships, and offered loud opinions. There were many questions about who people were, what they believed, where they came from, what they liked, and whether they needed anything. But instead of feeling nosy, the mood was one of genuine interest and support, like a close family. There was intense pride in taking care of each other, listening, sharing, and making sure everyone felt comfortable and valued.


The last home that I stayed in was the energy-star show house of a retired professor in Hancock on the Keweenaw Peninsula, which extends north into Lake Superior. Dr. Merle Kindred gave me and my supervisor a tour of her beautiful, energy-efficient, built-from-local-materials home in the forest and told us stories of her travels to India over cups of masala tea.

She told us about Kerala, India, a poor but FABULOUS state where she recently had a house built. Communism is strong in Kerala's politics, and it is a welfare state. There are many, many poor people who live there, as there are all over India. The state is run by small tribal governments with 1/3 of council seats reserved for women. Though Kerala has little money or urban development, the standard of living there is very high. I pulled this inforomation from Kerala's Wikipedia page:

"Kerala's human development indices— primary level education, health care and elimination of poverty—are among the best in India. According to a 2005-2006 national survey, Kerala has one of the highest literacy rates (89.9%) among Indian states[1] and life expectancy (73 years) was among the highest in India in 2001.[91] Kerala's rural poverty rate fell from 69% (1970–1971) to 19% (1993–1994); the overall (urban and rural) rate fell 36% between the 1970s and 1980s.[92] By 1999–2000, the rural and urban poverty rates dropped to 10.0% and 9.6% respectively.[93] These changes stem largely from efforts begun in the late 19th century by the kingdoms of Cochin and Travancore to boost social welfare.[94][95] This focus was maintained by Kerala's post-independence government.[32][52]:48"

Where there is a culture of pride in caring for one another, there is freedom, health, happiness, and fulfillment--even without material riches. There is a different kind of wealth, a value in human life that cannot be bought or sold. There is a respect for humanity and a communal spirit that we all need to thrive, especially in hard times.

Our nation has a lot of fear attached to words like "communism" and "socialism." My business in the UP was to help organize people to support universal health care so that we can join the other developed nations (and many of those we call "developing") in a high quality of life for our citizens. Obama's plan for health care for all Americans is not a socialist plan. Our Veterans Administration and our military is socialist; that is to say, doctors and other profesisonals are paid and supervised by the government. Around 80% of the taxes we pay go to fund the military, so... it appears that our government is already pretty darn socialist, if you look at the economics of war. But under a national health care plan, the government would pay for care delivered in the private sector. Personally, I don't see why people are so afraid of "socialized" anything, because socialized nations tend to be wealthier, healthier, and happier than we are in America. But... we have never been a people who care to look up the definitions of scary words.

In any case, we need supportive community on a smaller scale, too, especially if we are struggling. Many Americans are making tribal connections, for better or worse. Some groups define themselves by who they exclude--racist hate groups, nationalist groups, etc. spend their energy battling a perceived enemy and keeping the outsiders out. These are tribes formed from desperation and fear. Other groups spend their energy caring for those within the circle and welcoming newcomers as friends. That is the kind of tribe that feeds the well being of a person and offers support in times of need.

Even in big cities, we can come together in supportive tribal groups. Liberal churches can be like welcoming tribes, as can smaller groups within large congregations. In a big city, there is something for everyone. You can choose the group or groups that fit you best. There are Buddhist meditation groups, contra dancers, belly dancing troupes, singles clubs, and young professionals bureaus. There are cycling commuters, neighborhood block parties, and nonprofit organizations.

Wherever you live, you can make an effort to develop relationships with your neighbors. Have a barbecue for the houses next door to yours. Or introduce yourself to the people in your apartment building. Talk to the other families in your trailer park. Share and borrow tools and food ingredients. Look out for each other.

Join a band! Take a ballroom dancing lesson. Go downtown for the next summer music festival. Just make sure that you surround yourself with a supportive community so that you can feel safe, supported, valued, and free to live the happiest and healthiest life possible.

Don't live in fear of the Other, and don't live in an isolation that leaves you vulnerable to abuse or neglect by authorities or those who wish to do harm. Stretch the boundaries of your self to include your community, and you will grow as an individual. Pay attention to the needs of your community, get involved, vote, and make sure your government knows what you and your people need and expect. We find strength in numbers and joy in positive relationships and freedom.

Make your world your own! Stand up for your neighbors, and sing that gypsy punk!

Comments

  1. ::I want to walk this earth like it is mine!::

    This is the story of my life. What a nice trip you had, and an excellent point you made regarding the economics of war...*sigh*

    People get mixed up with the stupid semantics and forget to see the big picture.

    Anyway, looking forward to seeing my tribe real soon.

    ReplyDelete

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