On tribes

I recently visited a woman in an assisted living home in Texas, near Fort Worth. I remembered how, as a child, I visited my great-grandmother and her twin sister at their shared home in Fort Worth, how I tentatively touched the folded skin of her ancient hands and throat and how small, even then, their house seemed to me.

The assisted living place was nicer. Clean and replete with coffee on demand, nice chairs to sit in. But surrounded by miles of freeway and urban loneliness. The woman talked about how much she missed Fairbanks, her home of many decades — a place where the winters sink to -60 degrees, but where she had her circle of friends and her activities.

Now, currently, has got to be about the most lonely time of human history. We take care of people by putting them in nice places like this — whereas in so many other cultures, in our own country once in other places still — the old people stay as mobile as they can and participate with family life as one enclave, part of a tribe, part of something.

Tribes have all but disappeared now, although we still hunger for them. We join cults because we hunger for tribes. We collect friends on Facebook because this is the closest thing we have: the clamor of superficial support for a selfie or some musing about a bad day. Of course, we could not stand tribal living: we have adapted to being lonely, solitary, independent, having everything just-our-way, dishes loaded thusly, everything under our control. Some large families come close, maintaining their ties over the years through sibling loyalty and shared holidays. My own family comes pretty close. My parents bought a house next to my sister and her four daughters, and my youngest brother lives there; the remaining three siblings visit frequently. We all watch the girls so my sister can do things, maybe go on a date with her husband, maybe run to the grocery store. We all teach the girls things, like how to be strong in the woods. We have a running group text we post videos to, because we live over a hundred miles apart: my other two brothers are in Denver and Minneapolis. When we are together, we make fires and sing songs that my dad wrote for us as children. We cook food. We remember things. Growing up homeschooled in a rural area with no TV, no internet, we were a tribe. We invented our own tribal structures, rules, language. Not all that many of them, but we still had them. We had tribal conflicts — lots and lots of fights, shifting loyalties and alliances. We protected the younger ones, but they were always the younger ones until they proved themselves strong. There were rules from above, from outside us, that we had to follow, but these did not affect us nearly as much as our own codes did. And none of us could force any of the others to do anything: pragmatically we were anarchists, and our egalitarian democracy lead to many compromises and yes, more fights. Our play clothing was often unisex, passed down from sister to brother and worn full of holes. We learned to climb trees quickly to evade attacks, walked over gravel to make our feet tough. We tried fishing; my brother hunted birds in the woods and we cooked them. But more than this, we knew we were blood, that we would take care of each other and band together against outside danger — I was a scrawny child, but as the oldest, if anyone did anything to my younger brothers, even yelled at them, I confronted them. The first boy I ever liked — an eight-year-old who gave me a tape to listen to and who was almost-my-boyfriend for a whole day — said something disparaging about my sister and I instantly dumped him in my mind.

I am very grateful that I have this tribe, that I have essentially the closest modern equivalent available to the urban whitey, short of some kind of unhealthy situation where group conformity is the price for group acceptance.

Of course, it’s normal on some level to want to band together with people who “get” you. The jocks, the preppies, the cowboys. The metalheads, the potheads, the skinheads. These are artificial tribes people pick in order to belong. A particular church can be an artificial tribe, and the more conformity is demanded, ironically, the closer the circle draws; like any artificial tribe, if you’re a little persecuted or misunderstood by an outside group, to the inside group it means you’re not “just a poseur.” You’ve earned your admittance. You belong. If you have to give up certain ornamentation, wear a limited array of clothing, do a limited number of things with your hair, that sets you apart as a member of the tribe.

The rules themselves remind me of when I ordered my brother not to part his hair down the middle because I deemed it stupid and overly trendy. And our family was not stupid and overly trendy; despite the holes, we were classy. He ignored me because, as I mentioned, we were anarchists for all practical purposes: I couldn’t actually order him how to wear his hair. The same went for when I told him he should not wear shoes that looked like toilets, or wear bent staples around his ear. I made rules, and he didn’t obey them, because they were abstract and dictatorial despite all my best intentions to just tell him the best possible way to live. I mean, I was older and wiser in every possible way, but he grew up and pierced both his ears anyway, and they looked good and I was wrong. And I didn’t kick him out of my tribe.

In Biblical times, as in the Middle East currently, hospitality to those outside your tribe was a big deal. And it meant that people could survive in strange places. If people attacked outsiders, outsiders died; if they welcomed them as guests and recognized them as being part of some other also-established way of life, different and perhaps without all the same cultural mores, then the outsiders would live. They would not starve, or suffer from lack of water, or be forced to seek shelter in a cave inhabited by a she-bear and a dozen snakes.

I remembered this as I listened yesterday to a story of how a boy moved in sixth grade to a new state in the south, to a new school where everyone, and especially the self-professed Christians, dressed in 501 jeans and polo shirts, where the boy’s clothes set him apart as an outsider. Where his accent set him apart as an outsider. Where his innocence and inexperience set him apart as an outsider. Where every instance of being an outsider meant a threat of physical violence from the insiders. Where the only way of surviving was to join the tribe of other outsiders: those with the weird hair and the piercings. To grow tough and challenge the bullies, make them think twice about hitting him; laugh when they struck, scare them away with his skull t-shirts. To find somewhere to belong, even if it came with suffering. To find psychological resilience rather than succumb to being bullied.

There’s a well-known Bible verse that says Let your adornment not be braided hair and gold jewelry and fine apparel. These were not the signs of an outsider in the ancient middle east; they were the status symbols of the wealthy insider. If you will, the polo shirt and the 501 jeans of the 1980s; the pencil skirt and tastefully trendy bird jewelry or chaste pearls of the current conservative Christian. Do not be defined by the status symbols of your day; do not let them define the edges of your tribe. All are welcome into the tribe; beware of yourselves and your own conceits, not tribal outlines you do not understand and that are foreign to you.

3 thoughts on “On tribes

  1. Always worth reading. Wish you posted more often, although very glad you obviously don’t write unless you have something to say.

    I was a homeschooled kid in a large family myself, and would be interested to hear more thoughts on that aspect of your life – the positives, the negatives and the way it shaped you. It’s something I’m doing a lot of self-evaluating and analysis on right now.

    Keep up the good work.

    1. Thanks, Tristan! I’ve written quite a bit on homeschooling on here; not sure if you’ve found those earlier posts. If you search for “homeschooling” they’ll come up.

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