Friday, May 27, 2011

In Which the Publicist Ponders Community

By Jennifer Gravley

I’ve been thinking lately about community. I want this blog to connect us to our communities—our readers, our authors, other university presses, potential readers, our neighbors. When one stands (because, yes, I am standing at my laptop—sitting kills you, you know) in front of a blank screen and thinks “community,” one could spend hours making that list: the large communities one is part of, overlaps with, desperately wants to be a member of; the subcommunities that one could divide and divide and divide oneself into; communities both real and imagined.

How does one imagine oneself into a real community? I hear the science on visualization is bunk, but we all know the seductive pull of that daydream, whether it’s sitting at the lunch table with the cheerleaders or selling a million copies of a book. And we all know the feeling of a real community turning out to be imagined—the overheard slight by a friend, the legislation that betrays our deepest held convictions about humanity, the return to a place that confirms it never really existed the way we remember it at all.

A couple of days ago, we staffers gathered in the designated safe hallway to wait out a storm. We waited with the separate knowledge of where our loved ones were and what they might be feeling but with the common knowledge that the building had been hit before. We fiddled with our smartphones and talked about tornadoes past. At least we weren’t in front of a TV, watching the tornado head right for us, as I had watched tornadoes advance toward me in Tuscaloosa, Alabama; the office environment spared us that.

It’s been a tornado season that almost can’t be comprehended—the widespread destruction and devastation, the scale of the loss of life. I spent some of the most important years of my life in Tuscaloosa, years where the safe space of graduate school created a ready-made community: everyone I knew was a writer, by default a reader. We all cared about, roughly, the same things. When I realized what had really happened there, I couldn’t tear myself away from the internet. I stayed up late trying to get videos to load that just wouldn’t because there were too many others like me trying to get at them as well. When I woke up the next morning, I tried every video on Facebook from my phone over and over before I would even attempt to get out of bed. Once at work, I locked myself into a bathroom stall and cried; during lunchtime yoga, while the wind made the roof scream, I pushed my hair over my face and cried again. I hadn’t stepped foot in Alabama since I drove away six years ago, and I had never harbored any illusions that Tuscaloosa, as a city removed from my experiences there (and Tuscaloosa seemed very much one of those small cities easy to separate from one’s experiences in the university bubble), was a place I was attached to. But I was wrong. And I still can’t say how. Or why.

My sister told me about driving past the destroyed houses of her neighbors every morning and evening in North Georgia. She told me my nine-year-old niece held a baby for hours while the parents went out in search of their loved ones who they hadn’t heard from yet. My heart grew to take in this new image of my little niece—she was so much stronger than I knew, and I was numb. I’ve lived in Columbia, Missouri, for a longer uninterrupted stretch than any place in my adult life, but “home” doesn’t mean the same thing when I’m talking about my apartment here. “Home” in the break-your-heart kind of way can’t mean anything other than the place where my mother and aunt spent their summers roaming the mountain with cousins while their Grandpa Padgett worked the fields and Grandma Padgett went fishing, the place where I first heard Nirvana on the radio and coveted the Dirt album the way I’ve never coveted anything since, and now the place where I have the imagined memory of my niece, tiny and big and, well, unimaginable yet real.

I couldn’t even look at the videos from Joplin, try the New York Times before-and-after feature that I had obsessed over with Tuscaloosa, even when the images wouldn’t load and I stared at a mostly blank screen. I’ve struggled with what I can do, what part of these tragedies I can attach myself to, since they aren’t my tragedies except in a secondhand way. And yet the feeling that I am a part seems enough to make me not apart. Something inside me is tied to Tuscaloosa, to Pickens County, Georgia, and to Missouri. I don’t have to do a close reading, untangle how or why. These are my communities.