I learned something about community from the dogs in Nicaragua. Thirteen years ago, Bob and I found ourselves managing a vacation lodge on a 3200-acre Caribbean island without police or doctors. We lived in small house inside a large chain link compound. Six dogs served as security guards.
The first time one of the dogs got outside the fence, we tossed her back in. The other five turned on her as if she were any other intruder. We were shocked. Occasionally all six of them would escape and become a snarling mass of teeth and flying fur. The rest of the time they were backyard pets, goofy and polite.
Their hierarchy was completely territorial, the lone pack member instantly turned outsider by a few millimeters of fence. The humans were equally insular, separated from the mainland by miles of water, and therefore connected to everyone on this little island. At one point we had a problem with someone who was interfering with our staff and wanted to ban him from the grounds. But the lodge owner stayed our hand with, “You can’t write anyone off on an island.”
Another thing about this island; although there were no elected officials, everyone knew where to bring their troubles. We took our problems to a handful of elders who could be counted on to shoulder the burdens of dispute. Every social ripple ended up at their doors.
It’s easy to see how people sort themselves into groups on an island. You are either on the island or not, resident or visitor. Within the group of residents are levels of belonging based on time. On Maui we were often asked, “How many years have you lived on the island?” “One,” earned a sniff, “Two,” a nod, and “Four,” the hint of a smile.
Likewise, down here at the bend we hesitate to write anyone off, there are a handful of elders, and concentric circles of belonging. Tami and Lyle are the center of our community for all three reasons. They’ve been here the longest, actually sold many of us our homes, and never shrink from the difficult work of keeping peace. Radiating outwards are those who have lived here and been actively involved in the community for fifteen years or longer, then ten, then five. Populating the outer circles are renters, interns, and future homeowners.
But, unlike dogs inside a fence, or islanders strapped to a rock in the sea, our community members are far more mobile. Regardless of what I want to think about my connection to my neighbors, the truth is I am often outside the fence. I hop in the car and join other tribes for a time, then come back home and try to get back inside the fence.
It’s a challenge to behave in a tribal manner despite our jet-setting lifestyles. No way did our tribal ancestors move freely in and out of other tribes, yet we often find ourselves in communities dozens or hundreds of miles from home. We are constantly reconnecting. Despite our mobility, we do our best to mimic the bond we imagine tribal members had with one another. I have to say, we’re doing a pretty good job.
‘Read Part II: The Almighty We – Expectations