Community doesn't need you

But you need community.

Community doesn't need you

Kayla Webber made this comment during a presentation last week at the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) conference in Toronto. The conference was great. Also exhausting as conferences are. Too many thoughts and over the next few weeks these essays will be reflecting on things people said and how they combine with whatever I’m reading or thinking about, like maybe Octavia Butler since I’m reading her these days. Or maybe Bad Cree since I just finished that. Yes. Let’s think about community and need in the context of that book by Jessica Johns.

First I’ll tell you a little bit about the book. MacKenzie, the titular Bad Cree, is a millenial who has fled the grief of her family for the anonymous chaos of Vancouver. She has abandoned her family. That’s what makes her a bad Cree. I hesitate to describe what comes next in terms of spiritual made tangible, or blurry boundaries between worlds, because the colonial west is the only thing so obsessed with boundaries that it feels the need to draw them everywhere. We know that things aren’t that tidy. Unresolved things need to be resolved and monsters demand confrontation, so when the monster reaches out for Mackenzie she reaches out to her family. She needs her community. It’s this idea that Webber advanced, which I believe she credited to Rinaldo Walcott, at least I have his name jotted down beside this note. I also scribbled a quote she attributed to Erica Violet Lee: We do not live on our own.

The context of her comment was a workshop titled “Breathing Together Through Collective Dream Weaving: Black, Indigenous, and Afro-Indigenous Solidarities.” It posed the question: What are the conditions for Black and Indigenous people to dream weave together? And that was really interesting to me because in Bad Cree, not only do some of the cousins and siblings inhabit each other’s dreams but the monster reaches out to MacKenzie through her dreams and pulls her into a layered reality. We dream together. But we need to think about the conditions in which we dream, and what we will do with the monsters.

Community doesn’t need us.
We need community.

Community doesn’t need us. We’ve all experienced people going on without us and it’s rude. I once ran into an old boyfriend who had gotten married and wtf. Ok, I was married too and had one or two kids by that time so clearly I had moved on but somehow I expected that he was going to what, pine away for me forever? Anyway, in Mackenzie’s case her family does go on without her, which is not to say that her absence wasn’t missed. It was. And I’m not even suggesting that her absence didn’t cause harm. It did. But they went on without her. And they would have found a way to keep going on even if she hadn’t come back because that’s what systems do. In college I studied group or systems theory and how there’s a few key roles in every system no matter how large or small. If somebody leaves the group/system then the system adjusts and somebody else takes on that roll. The absence might be missed, might even cause harm, but the system adapts and continues in it’s new configuration.

We need community. The monster that reached out to MacKenzie was more than she could manage on her own and she needed her family, so she went home. Because it wasn’t just the people that she needed, she needed the community itself. This isn’t a story about how the whole town comes together and saves Christmas. The focus is on her mother, aunties, and cousins. But her family lives in a larger community that keeps them tethered. They live on land that knows them. There is a lake that holds memories. Abandoned buildings and dusty roads. Karaoke nights. All of these things are part of the community that does not need us and will go on without us but you can’t tell me that you haven’t gone home and felt that place envelop you.

This idea makes me think of the Anishinaabe creation story, which proceeds much like the Genesis account. Thoughts (and prayers) become light and dark, become mass and sky, become land and water, become plant and animal, become human. And it makes a kind of evolutionary sense. You can’t have plants if you don’t have somewhere to plant them. In the Anishinaabe story each layer of creation promises to take care of what comes next. And as each layer forms it is complete, it does not need what comes next although what comes next certainly needs everything that came before. Humans are the last thing created. We need everything that came before but there is nothing that comes after. Nothing for which we are responsible in the same way.

and yet

The earthseed religion developed by Lauren Olamina in the Parables of the Sower and the Talents declares that God is change. We shape God and are in turn shaped by God. Community shapes us and we shape community. There is a reciprocity of longing that evolves with relationship and that is much different from need. Could the world exist without us? Yes it could. Would it grieve our loss?

Yes, it would.

Because although each stage of creation was complete in itself and capable of caring for what came next, what came next shaped creation and was in turn shaped by creation. Just like a community or a family is complete in itself and capable of caring for what comes into it, what comes in changes it and over time that change becomes permanent. Which is why we grieve. We’re capable of carrying on, but for a while we don’t want to. The system needs time to reshape and re-form itself so that it can.

We do things from community
not for community

~ Kayla Webber

What a profound reframe. Lately I’m thinking about creating spaces that we can organize from. It could be that I’m not good at organizing people or maybe people just don’t appreciate being organized. So I’m thinking instead about creating circles or collectives or just spaces where community can take shape and grow into a place that people can organize from. Because when I do things for community I’m operating under the misconception that they need me in order to function and they don’t. The community may love me, may long for relationship with me, it may even grieve my absence, but it does not need me.

Isn’t that liberating?

People go to therapy to deal with the depth of emptiness and predatory hunger that fuels a need to be needed. In Bad Cree the monster is a wheetigo, what the Anishinaabe call a windigo and it is a monster of consumption and greed. Johns writes about it being drawn to our grief and pain and isn’t the distortion of thinking I am needed, or believing that I do everything for community, a kind of hunger that preys on those made vulnerable? And there is a parallel process of distortion when communities think that they need particular people, the reciprocal shaping that happens means that the community starts to look like the person we have come to need, who does everything for us. Our communities are not vulnerable, they are made vulnerable.

Text within this block will maintain its original spacing when published“But what does that have to do with us? If the wheetigo feeds off greed, shouldn’t they be haunting the oil companies or whatever is left of them?” ”That’s the point. There isn’t much left of them.” Mary-Jane sighs, then says more gently, “The hungry will eat anything when they’re desperate. Greed isn’t the only thing that can sustain a wheetigo. They’ll sink their teeth into any type of sorrow. The lonely, the sick.” “The grieving,” Aunty Doreen whispers the realization, but I hear it plain as day.

I suppose that’s what I’m really talking about here. What Webber and Walcott are talking about. What Johns is talking about in Bad Cree. The power dynamics between the individual and the group. The need to fill somebody else’s void requires them to have a void. Doing things for the community centers our own needs and we can talk about our sacrifices as noble, but think about what it says about how we see our communities.

In the story of the windigo that I have heard and written about, it was a father, a husband who became the original monster. The family was starving, and he sought help from a sorcerer but the potion he was given transformed him. In that state, he went to a village, a community, and instead of seeing people he saw beavers. He saw something he could consume so he did and instead of easing his hunger it just got worse. Which is what we do when we think our communities need us. When we see our communities as a thing we do something for. We no longer see them.

The community and the landscape that MacKenzie returns to is damaged by the windigo spirit. Witches broom, a parasitic plant, is destroying the trees. Homes are abandoned. Relationships damaged. It is only when MacKenzie nestles herself within community that she realizes that she can’t do this alone. No matter how much she wants to protect her family and take responsiblity for her past failures, it is only when she understands her family and community as a place that she can do this from rather than a place she can do something for that she is able to confront this hunger and become simply Cree.

Community does not need us.
We need community.
We do things from community.
Not for community.