Community living is loud. At any given moment, doors are slamming, kids are shouting, sirens are blaring on the streets below, the sounds of guitars and violins fill the spaces between songs hummed and whistled down the hallways and around corners. Pots and pans bang in the kitchens, water turns on and off, skateboards pound and clank against various obstacles on the sidewalk, neighbors catch up in doorways, dogs bark, the elevators signal arrivals and departures. In short, living in community is a near-constant reminder of one ever-present truth: You Are Not Alone.
When I was young, I was keenly aware that my birth had tipped the symmetry of my family. Two parents, two girls and then four years later, me. Perhaps it was my order in the family as the end cap, or maybe it was already in my nature, but from the time I was very small I wanted my own space. When I was eight or so and shared a room with my older sister, I remember taking the box of our new refrigerator and putting it on top of my bed, then crawling in with my pillow and blanket, and sleeping in it every night for a week. In the fifth grade while my girlfriends were drawing horses and their future stick figure families, I sketched out blueprints to a one-bedroom apartment complete with furniture layout. When my eldest sister moved away for college as I was turning 12, I claimed her room with gusto and promptly I covered the walls with changing tastes and collections, personalizing every inch. I even remember taking advantage of its slanted, dormered ceiling where I tacked up a sheet to create an even more private space within a private space, just for my bed. I think it’s fair to say that I relished having air to call my own.
Then college came and so did the roommates, when my escapist tendencies got a workout along with the 24-hour art studios on campus. When college finished, I was happy to begin salaried work and could afford that one bedroom apartment I’d dreamed of for so long. It was in Rogers Park in 2001 when I learned not to look out the window to the sound of gunshots, and to skip the highly inadvisable walk to the Morse red line. House rules established, kitchen decorated and stocked, alone time relished. Several times throughout my solo apartment life, I remember thinking, “no one knows where I am right now”, along with the occasional realization that I’d not heard the sound of my own voice during particularly long stretches of days off in a row. Depending on my state of mind, those thoughts were either lonesome and troubling or incredibly liberating. Usually the latter, unless I’d had a choking fit or injury.
Fast forward to Easter weekend, 2014. My boyfriend Dylan, who was born and raised at JPUSA, invited me to stay for Fest for Us, an excellent food-and-entertainment-filled few days at the house, where I stayed in a guest room and met even more people than he had already introduced to me. During that time, I got a better idea of the community and was frequently reminded of the lyrics to “Our House” by the English group Madness:
“There’s always something happening / and it’s usually quite loud”
While thrilled to make so many new acquaintances and having a better idea of where Dylan comes from, in truth there were times I was relieved to go to my room and shut the door. Fest for Us is, in a lot of ways, the introvert Olympics, but we overcome. Dylan informed me at some point on Easter Sunday that the guest room I was staying in wasn’t scheduled to be used for another few weeks, and I was welcome to stay longer. Given my flexible freelance design schedule and that I suspected I was beginning to overstay my welcome at a friend’s home where my bedroom existed, I gratefully took him up on the offer.
The next morning, I took note of what I would describe as “a hitch” in my lower back. I laid on the hardwood floor where I planned to stretch and bend using what little yoga I retained from my classes a decade prior when suddenly, shooting pain decided for me that I would not be getting up without a struggle. After what seemed like an hour, I finally made it to the medicine cabinet for some Aleve and then to the couch where I attempted to get into a position that would not cause more pain. This proved impossible, so I sent a text to Dylan. He sent Carolyn, who coordinates housing and is typically and conveniently often nearby, in with more Aleve and looked in on me as soon as he could. The following days brought the most pain I’ve ever experienced in my life up, and I often found it interrupting prayers for relief. It was during this time that my as-yet-unlearned community lesson began to materialize with the reminder: you are not alone. People, strangers to me then, checked on me directly and indirectly. Dylan’s friend Rebecca spent a whole day sitting with me while I writhed in tears and pain, speaking calm and soothing words when I was barely able to tolerate breathing. She ran out to fetch medicine for me and sat with me while I finally slept, and then her husband Don brought me Gatorade and later, dinner. I had met them only once before, during a whirlwind visit to JPUSA where names and faces barely matched up and I was sure I was a blur to them, as much as they to me. They were virtual strangers, and yet they took care of me as my own family would have.