When we moved to Puerto Rico, we left behind a strong, connected community.
Well, we’d already left behind a community, in a sense, when we let go of the church. But we still had friendships and connections. Our relationship with that community had lessened, shifted significantly, but it was still there.
We also had a lot of family in the area. Lifelong/since-middle-school best friends. A decade’s worth of professional connections. A little neighborhood quorum of families. And a hybrid, hilarious, immensely supportive group from all sorts of backgrounds who came together once a month for potluck dinners.
Our first year in Puerto Rico felt, in comparison, like a friendship desert.
Oh, we met people. So many people! And we liked many of them. But meeting people—and liking people—is not the same as feeling connected to people. And feeling connected to people is not quite the same as living in community.
Connections, while meaningful, can be brief, situational. They can come and go.
Community, on the other hand, is a daily thing.
It shifts over time, but it doesn’t disappear. It’s the invisible structure you depend on. It’s the essential support framework you don’t notice until the foundation starts sinking, the walls begin to lean, and the roof cracks.
In other words, you often don’t notice the lack of community until you really, really need it.
At that point, it’s not like, “Oh, that would be nice to have.” It’s more like, “Oh shit. How do we make it without this essential thing?”
After we’d lived in Puerto Rico for a full year, we noticed a shift.
People we’d met—and liked, and maybe connected with—started appearing in our lives more often. There were longer, deeper conversations. More connections. Invitations and inclusions.
Our town in PR is, among other things, a surf town, a tourist town, a transient town. Many, many people come every year, and—in the space of a year—most of them go.
In our second summer here, despite reeling from quitting our jobs and being really really broke (or maybe because of that?), we began to feel a welcome, an openness, a safety that we hadn’t felt before.
Then María swept through, with her violent cleansing. Many terrible things resulted, much pain, much suffering. I don’t want to make light of that, or of the negligence that caused even more suffering and loss, worse because it was preventable.
But when things get cleaned out, they get cleaned out. And in the open space that María gave us, we found our community.
I can’t type those words without beginning to cry.
(DAMMIT, I AM CRYING IN THE LIBRARY AGAIN. I HAVE GOT TO STOP WRITING THESE ESSAYS IN PUBLIC PLACES.)
Crisis brings pain. Crisis can trigger suffering. But crisis can also bring a cleansing that sweeps away all the bullshit weighing us down. Crisis can change your life if you let it.
Crisis—large or small—demands your attention. All the unimportant things must be forgotten.
You must focus.
In the mental/emotional space created by that focus, you have the freedom to notice what you’ve been ignoring: experiences of magic and meaning, moments of beauty and love, expansive common ground. There’s the space we need for forging connections, for truly seeing one another, for choosing and creating community.
May we see each change, each moment of crisis, as the opportunity it is.
We all need community.
In the pain, in the suffering, in the tragedy, in the drama, in the crisis, in the experiences we want to avoid: here are the moments of opportunity. Here are the points of connection.
Nothing bonds like shared pain, so let us be conscious of that. Let us reject the temptation to bond tribally, to use shared pain as a means of rejection, isolation, or judgment.
Let us seek and seek and seek until we find our common ground, and let us stand firmly on it.
We do not need to find community: we simply need to be honest about how much we need it. Then we can sweep out the clutter, open the windows, unlock the doors. We can make the space. We can shift our attention and let community emerge.
It will fill all the space we give it.
Annie Mueller is a writer, reader, seeker of growth, and transplant to Puerto Rico, where she lives with her best friend and their four children. Her crash course in self-discovery came from experiencing job loss, financial devastation, Hurricane Maria and its aftermath, and major surgery—all in less than a year. She writes about creativity, personal growth, and spirituality; runs Prolifica, a content management consultancy for small teams and solo professionals; and sends out a popular weekly newsletter about feelings and freelancing. You can find more of her work on her website.
Image courtesy of Hannah Busing.