The title question of today’s post—where is your tribe?—will be nonsensical to those over a certain age, and irrelevant to those under. The notion that community and physical place are interwoven was once taken for granted and is now bewildering.
Geographers talk about relationship “friction,” as in a force resisting movement. For a long time, physical distance offered huge amounts of friction. When it took four months to get from New Hampshire to the frontier in mid-Ohio, very few people did it, and hardly anybody did it more than once. Now I could drive that in one long day. in 1907, the British ocean liner HMS Mauretania set a record from London to New York, making the trip in just under six days. Now it’s closer to six hours, on any air carrier you like.
Private couriers became public mail. Physical mail became telegraphs, telegraphs became telephones, telephones became email and text. Each of those innovations reduced the friction of communication, allowed distance to be overcome more easily.
Economists also talk about friction, in similar ways. That ticket on the Mauritania to get you to New York in 1907 was a luxury item: a second-class one-way ticket, adjusted for inflation, was about five times more expensive than a coach-fare flight today. So the cost of travel is also a diminished frictional force. Superfast internet connection enables everybody with a phone plan to be in contact with anybody anywhere, and the idea of worrying about “long-distance charges” is long past. (My mom was a telephone operator, and “long distance” was a big freakin’ deal when I was a kid. Calling my aunt Martha, from our home in Michigan to hers in Ohio, was a twice-a-year event. Now my writing group meets every month by video, from Vermont to North Carolina to Sweden, at no per-conversation cost.)
So the friction of distance is almost gone… or is it?
Where are you? Right now, as you’re reading this, where are you? Open Google Maps and figure out how far away you are from Middletown Springs, Vermont. If you’re Tom, you’re about 2,100 miles away. If you’re Jenn, you’re about 1,850 miles away. If you’re Diana, you’re about 185 miles away. If you’re Hugh, you’re about two miles from our porch; if you’re Sudeshna, it’s 7,100 miles. Aimee’s usually 550 miles away, but now 6,800 for a few months. All good friends, all over the map.
I have lots of friends here in town, but when I think about their networks, the geographic circles are different sizes. One of the fundamental divisions in our town are the old Vermonters and those who’ve come from away (even if they might have come from away forty-five years ago). If you don’t have generations in the cemetery, you’re more or less a newcomer.
For the old Vermonters, geographical friction is stronger. Sure, they’ve got Facebook friends here and there, but the circle of conversations for lots of families is concentrated between the poles of Granville NY and Rutland VT, an hour’s diameter. They get their news from the Rutland Herald and the Lakes Region Free Press, and more fundamentally from friends at the store and through the car window.
I received eleven personal emails today. Five were local within five miles, the other six ranging from 320 miles to 3,100 miles away. I read articles in the New York Times, the New Yorker, New York Magazine, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Atlantic Monthly, Inside Higher Ed…
Where is my tribe?
I bought a cauliflower this afternoon, some blackberries, some turbinado sugar. I bought some onions, some cherry tomatoes, some lemons. I’m betting that those six produce items collectively traveled well over fifteen thousand miles to get here.
I would not do very well to be local. I would have less of interest to read, a different community of friends with a more enclosed body of interests and experiences. I would eat more seasonally, and less interestingly.
But I would know my local environment far more deeply. I would understand seasons in a completely different, full-bodied way. I would eat berries for three weeks every summer, and treasure them. I’d eat venison from the freezer for six months every winter, and remember where I’d shot it. I would know the same body of people from grade school to senior-citizen day at that same school eighty years later.
Where is my tribe?
I’ve learned to be multilingual over my life, to be an ambassador traveling between communities. I’ve learned ways to make my academic and professional skills beneficial to my small rural town, just as I had earlier learned to make my working-class upbringing a powerful tool for my scholarly and professional life.
But I think that’s left me globally alien, never quite at home anywhere. I read things like yesterday’s academic abstract and I roll my eyes, scarcely able to believe that anyone anywhere actually uses that heightened language. But I can tire quickly of local gossip at the general store, the unmediated conversations about I was gonna go into Rutland but then my sister called and she needed me to tell her how many eggs go into Aunt Sally’s squash bread, and I said, well, it depends on whether you’re using store eggs or fresh eggs… Honest to God, I’ve heard people fill twenty minutes without a single idea.
I don’t know who my tribe is, exactly, nor where. My very closest friends are from my life in higher education, spread across the United States… and from my life in Middletown Springs, within five minutes’ drive and in the same houses for twenty and thirty and forty years.
This blog is bilingual. It carries large ideas in small words, big concepts demonstrated through small examples. It shuttles back and forth between communities.
Let’s think about that word “alien,” and its paired idea of alienation. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes alienation as “the problematic separation of a subject and object that properly belong together.” It is a psychic state of disassociation between things that ought to be associated. We can be alienated from our family, or from our work. The hobbies that had once brought us pleasure can now feel remote and cold. In the most troubling sense, we can become alienated from ourselves—that we no longer recognize who we’ve become, can no longer make sense of ourselves. Every life crisis is a mode of self-alienation, that the story we’ve told about ourselves no longer hangs together but a new story hasn’t yet made itself evident.
Am I even part of my tribe?