Our community engagements are not set in stone, they are ongoing processes that flow both ways in looping fashion from perception to action, action to perception. As such, they are constantly changing, depending on current circumstances and events. After several rounds, we come to count on them as if they were stable, or at least fit within our comfort range.

Trust in other people and institutions builds a sense of loyalty to them as reliable features of our community. We go out of our way not to offend them. We give them a certain consideration by holding them in our thoughts.

If we sign a contract, we are obligated to hold to its terms as a kind of commitment to duty. But communities hold together not out of duty but from a mutual sense of caring, liking, and sharing of experience. Except in extreme cases, they do not form around a set of obligations or duties.

During my basic training at Fort Ord, several of my buddies would sleep on guard duty because, as enforcers, they could excuse themselves in their own minds and get away with it. But trust and loyalty build a sense of mutual responsibility as if we were all members of the same extended family.

Communities, that is, are stabilized by networks of shared, positive engagements. They aren’t planned so much as lived in the details of everyday life. In people meeting on the street, in the drug store, the Post Office, the bank. Schools build communities around themselves because parents entrust their children to their teachers and administrators. Children become invested in schools because that’s where their friends are, and where, if lucky, they learn helpful skills.

It takes time to build a community around ourselves, often many years of engagements of all sorts. But if most of those engagements are positive, then we make a place for ourselves at the intersection of our individual traits with our larger society.

I consider myself a member of the southern Hancock County coastal community, Maine community, New England community, Eastern community, in that order. Last of all I admit to being an American with New England roots. I don’t think of the U.S. as my homeland; I reserve my loyalty for New England generally, and coastal Maine in particular. Go Red Sox; go Celtics; go Bruins; go Patriots.

I am a Yankee, a Northerner. Beyond that, I dub myself Steve from planet Earth because that identity emphasizes Earth’s claim on me. If it were not for my home planet, I wouldn’t be writing these words. First and last, I am an Earthling.

Rules, too, are essential to my sense of community. I carry three library cards, Maine driver’s license, several ID cards, Social Security card, Veterans Administration card, Medicare card, and a credit card. I do my best to take library books back on time, to obey traffic laws, pay my bills, and uphold my end of the several memberships I hold. When flush, I sometimes splurge on a ten-show Big Ticket to Reel Pizza, the local movie house. I get to meetings on time, play my part, and leave without dawdling. Towns have ordinances, companies have rules of employment, games have rules of play. Caring for our neighbor is not written down anywhere as a rule, but our communities would collapse if we didn’t do it spontaneously on our own.

One of the basic rules of any community is to give each person an opportunity to do her thing. Taking turns is the first law of community. Giving everyone a chance to have her say. That way we come to feel we have a place in, and belong to, our community, and our common community belongs to us as an extension of our caring selves.

In this sense, we are similar to one-celled creatures in establishing a stable relationship with the environments that meet our needs, becoming inhabitants of those environs in the process.

 

This post is the second installment in a series about twelve of my engagements with the culture we put between ourselves and nature.

4. Walking Down Broadway. At the end of my sophomore year, I transferred from MIT to Columbia College, where I took up the study of the humanities in earnest during the last year in which that major was being offered. I studied cultural events in the city as extensively as books at the college. I needed a big dose of what the city had to offer.

On a spring night at a little past one o’clock, I was reading in my room, when suddenly I decided to walk the length of Broadway from 113th Street to the ferry terminal in lower Manhattan. Just me and my shadow, my solo wayfarer.

The signs, curbs, venting manhole covers, streetlights, water-towers, few cars, buildings, and people I met have now blended into an impressionistic collage of that walk, all of Broadway compacted into a single image distilled from my moving perspective, largely visual, partly made of sounds and smells wafting my way as I went. That and a sense of great adventure is what I have left. And of belonging right where I was. I can’t recall specific details—they’ve faded away. I must have passed through Columbus Circle, Times Square, Union Square. I can’t remember how long it took. I know I got to South Ferry at dawn, and took the subway to 113th Street. When I got back, I thought of doing it again in daylight, but went off to class instead.

5. Walking to Concord. Thinking about my walk down Broadway reminds me of another walk I made with my younger brother, Peter, a few years later, a cultural walk of a different color because largely rural, not urban. I met him at his apartment near Kenmore Square in Boston at noon on a Saturday, and together we headed west to place stones on the cairn at the site of Thoreau’s cabin twenty miles west in Walden Woods near the famous pond.

Once past Cambridge, we walked back roads the rest of the way, immersing ourselves in the region as we imagined it had been a hundred years ago, and in some stretches still was in the 1960s. Narrow roads, stone walls, farm ponds, and apple trees, which went on for miles, are what I remember. Our feet may have trod the modern ways of Lincoln and Lexington, but our thoughts were with Hawthorne, Emerson, and Thoreau in the Concord of their day. Time warps are available for the doing if you set your mind to it.

We got to Walden Pond at dusk, and I remember scrambling for stones to add to the cairn at Rolly Robbins’ reconstruction on the site of Thoreau’s cabin just back from the pond. Walking twenty miles to add a few stones to a humble monument in the woods seemed a sensible thing to do. We walked into Concord in the dark, sure we would find a bus stop somewhere along the way. Luck was with us, and we just caught the ten-o’clock bus back to Boston. Now that Peter is dead, that walk stands out as one of the highlights of our brotherhood.

6. Routine Engagement. In 1955, I worked as an engineering aide in the servomechanisms group at Boeing Aircraft in Renton just south of Seattle. I had a desk in a giant hangar of a building filled wall-to-wall with similar desks, an engineer seated at each one. That was in the days before cubicles and sound-absorbing tiles, just one big room with a sky-high ceiling. The only thing on my desk was a lever-operated mechanical calculator.

I spent six months making charts and plots on graph paper, a task I was used to from my year of mechanical drawing at MIT. One day my supervisor explained that one of two prototype B-52 airplanes was showing a tendency to veer (his term was yaw) to the side, and he wanted me to plot fuel consumption of all four engines to see if one engine was burning more or less fuel than the others.

The fuel consumption records consisted of a series of actual photos of dials taken during each test flight. I was told which flight to check, and sent to the large hangar where the records were kept. I got the photos in a thick file, read the dials for all four engines during that particular flight, went back to my desk and plotted the hundreds of points I had read from the dials. My graphs showed that all engines were burning the same amount of fuel.

What I remember is the bleakness of the days I spent on that job. Doing the duty I was assigned in a mechanical frame of mind. I was engaged to the extent of doing what I had been asked to do, being sure of my accuracy in reading, writing down, figuring, and plotting long series of numbers. But beyond that I was not personally engaged, just pulling the lever on my calculator again and again. I set up a routine to get through the day, effectively renting out my brain to help solve someone else’s problem. I was in a room full of people, but hardly talked with anyone all day, punching my time card when I left.

At the end of six months, I was drafted into the Army, and left Seattle for basic training at Fort Ord near Salinas, California. Ever since, wayfarer that I am, I have made sure to choose my engagements from among those that appealed to me as much as walking down Broadway at night.