In college, I participated in a living-learning program called CIVICUS. I know any of my friends from the program reading this are smiling, because the impact of the so-called ‘”social experiment” we lived in for the first two years of college is indelible.
I’m speaking for everyone when I say, most defining in our collective memory is the program’s creator and director, Dr. Sue Briggs. She painstakingly taught us lessons about civility, civic engagement and other groan-worthy topics to any 18-year-old, but ones that are all-too applicable to an “adult” flying solo in the real world.
Sue’s favorite book to teach is undoubtedly Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone,” the 21st century account of how sad America is because we don’t hang out at the Bowl-a-Rama in groups anymore. At least that’s what it meant when I lived in a dorm.
But now, without warning, it has come to be a hallmark of my daily life. Living in a small town where everybody knows everybody except for you, it’s easy to feel out of place, and easier still to isolate yourself. But as a living, breathing human, I’ve come to know how badly I rely on other people to make me feel good, to make me laugh, to make my brain work — even if I’m not engaging with them.
I find myself, now, dying to fill my days with human interaction. The more time I spend alone, the more it feels like the only thing that matters. I walk into the local butcher shop where I buy my chicken and let the lady coerce me into picking up a quarter pound of horseradish Havarti because, “It’ll probably go great with those tacos you’re making!” I b.s. long enough for her to give me a taste of some fruity balsamic vinaigrette and strut out of the place gushing for her to have “a GREAT night” over my shoulder.
I joke with the big old dude at the Grapevine — our town beer, wine and all-things collectible store — about “Hot Tub Time Machine” and how John Cusack probably just needed the money.
The woman who runs the co-op says, “Hey girl,” when I be-bop in to pick up some spices and I feel that fleeting sense of attachment because she remembers me. I add avocados to the list just to spend some extra time there, but feel a little sheepish that I’m on the other side of the room when she’s leaving, so I don’t say goodbye. Shyness: 1. B: 0.
Finally, as I’m picking up limes and Cholula in the local grocery store, the check-out girl asks me what I’m making, and I joke that hopefully lightening will strike twice on my delicioso chicken tacos.
Pulling paper bags out of my passenger seat at home, I realize just how much I’m living in and living for these little moments. How badly I need to feel like I’m a part of something, and how stupid Robert Putnam was right for knowing that it might just be a human need to belong. I mean, it seems telling that I drive to four different stores just to buy the ingredients for one meal.
But when I unlock the door to my dark house and crack open the beers I just bought, I’m cracking open only one. I’m writing to the people I miss the whole way across the country, feeling guilty that I’m not at Tough Guy Lanes picking up pins and new friends.
So I’ll make my awesome tacos and drink my awesome beer, but it won’t taste as good with a side of discontent and the feeling that I should join a club or a knitting circle or something.
Stupid Sue. I really miss you.