I live in a community where I have not experienced a strong sense of community. Having come here in later life, after living in other states, Southwest Virginia has not been all that welcoming or hospitable to me. I find the Confederate flag at the United States’ Independence Day parade to be a reminder of the worst division this nation has ever known, one that almost killed us off as nation, and not a symbol of any proud heritage, for instance.
In the face of these divisions, my friend Maggie who was born here, although her mother is from New England, and identifies herself with this town, invited people she knew to come hear her read at a local café on the evening of July 4th. I was the only one who showed up. When I arrived, at the open mic night, a band was playing, too loud for me to stay inside the café. Others came in and quickly left as well. The place was almost empty. I though that someone should tell the band to modulate their amplification to fit the space, because they had great energy, but the sound was overwhelming what they were playing. Maggie and I talked outside and I said I would walk up and down the street until she came on. At the same time, on the street, people were gathering for the city’s fireworks.
About a half hour later, the band of young men, who appeared to be in their twenties, stopped playing. I went back inside, to find I was to be her audience, along with potentially three new customers getting drinks at the bar. Maggie asked the band to stay to listen to her. They went backstage. Now, Maggie is a large, young woman who it turns out has a “schoolteacher’s voice” I didn’t know about. She said she’d wait. One of the band members came back out and she asked if the others were coming. He said no, he didn’t think so. I felt for her at this point, but thought, hey, just go ahead.
As she began to read, the other band members came out and sat at the table right in front of her. They were talking, quietly, among themselves, but as she continued speaking, they began to listen. She read and spoke from memory and improvisation about a locust tree in her backyard that was full of vines, and the vines were killing it. She cut the vines to give it a chance to live. At some point she sensed she heard the tree thank her. She saw the leaves of the vines yellowing, in time. Then she talked about July 4th and freedom, and how we as Americans are free, and when we see someone else in shackles, we have to emancipate them; it’s our civic responsibility to cut their shackles.
The band members applauded when she was done and one young man came over to her and talked to her a while. A young woman who had been sitting with the band eagerly reached out to her. They spoke as well, and then she and I walked toward the door. I said, “You knocked their socks off.” I was proud of her, and what literature, poetry, and thinking, can do, and most of all, having the freedom – and the courage – to express what you are feeling and thinking.
I drove home as the city’s fireworks lit up the sky. So maybe community is when we have the courage to create it, no matter the odds against us.