Week of Joy, Day 7: Connecting with Strangers

Somewhat unintentionally I’ve saved the most difficult, but arguably one of the best, joyful things for my last Week of Joy post.  It’s best because in many ways, connecting with strangers encompasses most if not all of my other joys.  It’s the most difficult because it demands a deep vulnerability that is absent from the other items.

I am crazy passionate about hearing about the passions of others.  I do not need to share those passions to feel this way.  Example: my high school boyfriend got excited about physics on a regular basis, and barring abstract science-fiction like concepts such as black holes, other dimensions, and dark matter, this most mathematical of sciences makes me snooze.  But watching him light up talking about the subject was glorious and inspiring, no matter how quickly I lost the contextual thread of the conversation.

Everyone has something they love, something they can talk about with any number of people for any amount of time with boundless enthusiasm.  Or, if they don’t, they should.  Because it is these kinds of quirky passions that make people interesting, and make connecting with strangers about those passions one of my absolute favorite things to do in life.

But to address the deep vulnerability component.  In order to authentically connect with people you don’t know (ie, actually talk about something meaningful rather than the kind of small talk that is so common in any sort of polite society) you have to share a piece of yourself as well.  Exchange passions, so to speak.  One must balance listening with sharing, debating with relating.  Connecting with strangers is invigorating and terrifying at the same time, because by opening ourselves up to a new authentic relationship and the accompanying joys and synergies, we risk being rejected or taken advantage of.  But how often do the latter two happen anyway?

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For whatever reason I am hard pressed to come up with a particular example of an especially insightful moment connecting with a single stranger as of late.  However, in continuing to expand my interest in the Transition Town movement I have had a plethora of interactions with strangers who often become friends, or at least acquaintances.

Conversations around the Transition Town movement demand even more of an immediate connection and vulnerability than other chance interactions, largely because the movement is so personal and community-based.  For those who aren’t familiar with the concept of Transition Towns, the short version is that it’s a movement that started in England to brainstorm and practice solutions to build community and local resilience as a response to climate change and peak oil.  The long version involves a lot of creativity, diversity, balance between academic knowledge of likely the most challenging environmental issues our world has ever faced and practical, on the ground solutions.  To truly discuss these issues and how we come to care about them, it is absolutely necessary that one bare one’s soul a bit.  Sharing stories of the past and hopes for the future is integral to creating that future holistically, communally, and completely.

I’m now connected with the Transition Town movement through a multitude of ways- the group in the neighborhood I community organize for, the group in the neighborhood I live in, the Sustainability Conference, and occasional attendance at a weekly, informal Twin Cities Transition Town group.  Each and every time I attend a gathering I see at least one person I’ve met before and have a meaningful conversation with at least one person I’ve never spoken with.

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As with birds, connecting with strangers is a rather serendipitous joy.  Planning such a thing ruins the authenticity of the conversation- one cannot go out and hunt for strangers to connect with, luring them in with the sheer magneticism of one’s personality.

The vulnerability component, however, can be intentionally lived more deeply for sure.  I absolutely love it when strangers comment on something I say, something I’m wearing, or something I’m reading, but somehow forget that it is likely that others enjoy when I do the same.  I must remember, remember that everyone is looking for human connection, that we all need something like six interactions with different people per day to stay sane (a smile will do, a conversation or hug is better).

Above all, I must remember the importance of asking questions, for everyone has a multitude of stories to tell.

“I think people are trying to find a way to sit around and tell stories. I think that’s all any of us wants, is a place to tell stories to each other.”
~man at a party with The Rejectionist

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Knowing Who is Here ::a public brainstorm::

I’d like to try an experiment.  I’m going to call it a public brainstorm, and tag it as such for future reference.  So often I have ideas that I get excited about, let roll around in my head, and once in a while jot down on paper via scraps in the office or one journal or the other, but I rarely share them in any public way that would encourage accountability.  So here’s the first; I would appreciate any comments, criticisms, brilliant ideas for follow through, or public brainstorms on your own blog linked in a comment here.

Now to the subject of the title.  Data frustrates me.  Numbers and measurements certainly have their place, particularly to establish importance or relevance on the scale of a country or continent.  But when it comes to the neighborhood organizing level (and my line of work), statistical data leaves me not only cold, but bored and unmotivated.  While census information may tell the viewer of the income, education level, and racial breakdown of a particular neighborhood, it and similar purely quantitative studies lack one essential aspect of what makes a neighborhood vital and vibrant: stories.  Thus I return to my collegiate honors thesis (a phenomenological study of student activism) and the haven of qualitative information for a community organizing brainstorm on how to collect, connect, share and persuade with the colorful stories I am certain exist in my workplace neighborhood.

I should first explain that there are two exciting community building movements of sorts occurring in the ‘hood that up until my brainstorm this morning were entirely distinct projects, both in practice and in the minds of the participants.  The first I am only peripherally involved in, though it was the original impetus for my desire for qualitative research and creation.  This is the establishment of a Creative Enterprise Zone in the neighborhood, a place both material and abstract that will foster artists, artisans, and other creative entrepreneurs in the neighborhood.  The recently formed steering committee for this project is releasing their action document at a celebration event next week, which will hopefully blossom into enthusiasm and support across the neighborhood.  The biggest obstacle to this project, however, is not knowing who is here (ie. what artists and artisans are presently working in the n’hood) and what they want/need.  Several strategies for ‘outing’ these creative types have been suggested, usually orbiting around a quantitative (and sometimes web-based) survey, which I think is the wrong strategy entirely, or at the very least is merely a piece of a larger puzzle, but I’ll get to that.

The second movement is hope and action for a neighborhood Transition Town, spearheaded by our very own Energy Resilience Group (ERG).  Though they like to spend quite a bit of (and I would venture to say, sometimes excessive amount of) time thinking and discussing before taking action, ERG recently passed a resolution through the board of the community council supporting a community-based inventory and action plan to move toward becoming a full-fledged Transition Town.  For those of you who haven’t heard from me or read in past posts, the basic gist of Transition Towns is relocalization of everything to create more resilient communities and prepare for the inevitable effects of climate change and peak oil.  Serious stuff indeed, and inevitable too, which is why I’m excited that the neighborhoods in which I live and work have groups to discuss and implement the Transition Town ideas and action plans.

So, in summary: the Creative Enterprise Zone movement is too qualitative and the Energy Resilience Group is too methodical.  What can both connect and usher the two movements along?  Stories.  Stories elicited and shared in a way that is compelling to local residents, business owners, and other community members, as well as to politicians and grants organizations.  This is where my qualitative-research-based brainstorm comes in, inspired by the stories in Spark: How Creativity Works and the interviews and structure of the International News Station program Studio 360.

For those not familiar with Studio 360 (I wasn’t before reading Spark), host Kurt Anderson interviews various artists, from Kevin Bacon to Yo Yo Ma, on their craft and creativity. Spark is a compilation of essays distilled from those interviews and organized into various themes on how one finds and retains creativity.  These essays are brilliant not only in their insight into the minds of some of the most interesting creators of our era, but also in their simple authenticity.  The artists talk about what they love, why they do it, and what keeps them coming back, and sometimes even how they see their work existing in the larger creative sphere of present day culture.

I want to replicate the wonderful experiment that was and is Studio 360, because I am certain that we have similarly passionate artists and artisans in our own community that would be just as enthusiastic in sharing their story of their art and their lives.  But maybe instead of a radio show the product of similar interviews is a series of videos (we have filmmakers) or a zine (we have printmakers and bookbinders), or at the very least a monthly column in our wonderful local newspaper (that is actually read by a majority of the residents, mind you).  These interviews would not only highlight artists for the sake of inventorying the local Creative Enterprises, but would build a foundation of local creation and production that would be the basic of a community Transition Town.  Any movement must be built beginning with what already exists, and we are lucky enough to have an abundance of creative and intelligent individuals and enterprises in our community.  Now all we have to do is collect and share their stories to show everyone else what we can and will do.

What needs to happen to make my brainstorm reality?  I need to find people to interview, and come up with basic interview questions and/or interest-peaking conversation topics. I probably need someone to help me conduct the interviews as I am only at the Community Council for 23 hours a week.  I need to decide on a way to record said interviews, whether it is video (in which case I would need to find a videographer, preferably within the community) or print.  And, arguably most importantly, I need an audience for the end product that will sign on to creating the Creative Enterprise Zone and Transition Town community that the interviewees envision.  This audience must include community members, but need not be limited to people who live and work in the neighborhood.  In fact, it should be the City, likely the County, and possibly the state.  Heck, let’s send it on to the country while we’re at it, assuming there’s a venue to do so.

So there you have it, my first public brainstorm.  It harkens back to the Dreams Accountability Collaborative in a way, though this particular idea is work related and much more concrete than many of my dreams.  Now it’s up to me to follow up on my vision, and you, dear bloggers and internet browsers of the world, to give your feedback and share public brainstorms of your own.  The virtual podium is yours.

Beautiful things: February edition

February is almost over.  A month that in past years distressed me to no end (see  Valentines Day and the agonizingly long winter) and this year February redeemed through the magic of Vitamin D and varying weather that, dare I say, was almost pleasant.  Between continuing to create, the slow return of spring, and a singularly adorable cat, it’s been quite a lovely month.

The return of the chives!  I had though them dead for certain, but lo and behold the green stalks have begun to emerge through the remnants of last year to make delicious seasoning for my morning eggs of the future.
Recent record purchases and the ensuing well soundtracked project time has given my days off a new feel.  Now I can spend my time quilting, blogging and reading to the tune of Brothers and Sisters by the Allman Brothers!  Or the epic that is 2112!  ::commence geek out on orchestral and Southern classic rock::  Even though vinyl isn’t sustainable persay, I figure used vinyl has a smaller footprint than new cds, hence the inclusion of a record player on the wedding gift registry 🙂

Handquilting!  I’m taking a class at Glad Creations Quilts and feel like I’ve discovered the perfect project in many ways.  It’s useful, it’s portable, and it starts loads of great conversations with strangers.  The project for the class is a sampler quilt wall hanging, but I hope to make a full bed sized quilt using one particular block pattern and all recycled/reused fabric in the not too distant future.

This little cat has squirmed her way deep into my heart.  Su-Su (or Sioux-Sioux as I spell it in my head) looks like a kitten, occasionally acts like a dog, and is maybe the best example I’ve ever encountered of a cat that could melt that heart of any supposed cat hater.  There’s a great quote on a mural on the animal hospital I pass by frequently that says something along the lines of “Until one has loved an animal, one’s heart is not fully opened”.  Su-Su is living proof of that.
Transition Towns and sustainability/community building work have been particularly inspiring this month.  I plan to write a more comprehensive post on this in the future, but for now suffice to say that parties and potlucks and canning and backyard chickens make any impending apocalypse due to climate change seem that much less terrifying and that much more an opportunity to truly know your neighbors, live lightly on the earth, and build authentic community.

What have you been loving this month?