This picture from 1987? This was my tribe.
Of the people in this picture, I am “Facebook Friends” with 15. Of that 15, I have physically hung out with 4 in the last six months. Of that 4, I talk almost daily with 2. Because they are in my tribe, and I would be lost without them.
What defines a tribe? In the strictest of terms, it’s “a group of persons having a common character, occupation, or interest.” But for me, it goes a little beyond that. There’s an instinctual recognition that someone is meant to be, and/or remain, in your orbit.
Growing up, I had friends. I even had a couple of “best friends,” in that borderline-obsessive little girl way. I went to a private grade school in which I was part of the same couple of dozen kids from 1975 to 1982. I was, for better or worse, part of a group. For most of my childhood, I felt fairly confident that I would receive little store-bought cards in the “mailbox” on my desk every Valentine’s Day, be invited to birthday parties, and have stuff to do on weekends.
But when I was around 11, all the rules changed, and everyone in the group but me were privy to those changes, and I was left to my own devices. My weirdness could no longer be overlooked, nor forgiven. School became a nightmare. My grades plummeted, my stomach lurched every morning at the thought of going there, and the taunting was merciless and relentless. Faced with a hysterically depressed kid, and an utterly apathetic administration that flat-out refused to address anything other than my purported “refusal to make an effort to fit in,” my parents removed me from the school, and put me in another. I spent another couple of years shell-shocked by the novelty of my surroundings, and the fear of creating more enemies with my apparently unacceptable personality. I was a thirteen-year-old nomad, alighting here and there with temporary companions, never really knowing where there was safety, or solace.
I longed for connection in that period. You don’t realize how much you need people until you are denied their company.
In high school, everything changed. I found my tribe.
It’s totally cliché, but clichés are clichés for a reason: there was refuge to be had in the Drama Club. The weirder you were, the better, apparently, so long as you pulled your weight and pitched in wherever you were needed. For a few hours a day, nothing else mattered, not the withering looks in the hallway, not my chaotic home life, not the uncertainty of what my future held. The kids I met, and worked with, in every sketch and play and festival for the next three years, had my back, and I theirs. This is still the case; when terrible things have landed in my lap or hit me square in the face, Jon’s been there to take me out for “white trash nachos” and listen to me cry, Michael’s been there to give me a hug and put things into perspective. This has been going on for nearly 30 years. Because they are my tribe.
I remember my first week or so in college as being desperately lonely. Despite filling out a fairly detailed housing form over the summer, I found myself paired with someone who was so unlike me it transcended any obvious “Odd Couple” references and nosedived straightaway into “intolerable.” She immediately acquired a boyfriend one or two days into Orientation Week, and I found myself spending a great deal of time away from my room (and this was 1988, youngsters, so I couldn’t while away the hours on my iPhone or an “internet café”). We’d received a little publication in our Orientation packets introducing us to our fellow “frosh,” and I’d noted that a girl a few doors down from my (perpetually inaccessible) door had noted that, among other interests, she liked “people.” Hoping to find someone to distract me from my misery, I darkened her doorway to make small talk. She eyed me up and down and gave enough monosyllabic responses for me to get the message that she didn’t “like people” so much as she preferred the company of “people who don’t dress like old men” (I was in my “plaid grandpa shorts worn over long johns” phase at that point).
Bewildered, I thought back to the previous Spring, when I’d been accepted to this college and had traveled with my mother and sister to speak to the head of the English/Fine Arts department about securing a small scholarship. After I’d succeeded in charming said administrator into coughing up a couple of thousand a year, we took a quick trip to Disneyworld before going back to Boston. I stood in various long-ass lines with my sister, contemplating my plaid grandpa shorts and fantasizing about returning to this very place, with all my new friends, taking pictures and having all sorts of wholesome fun.
An aside: As it turned out, I very rarely ventured onto the Disney compound in the four years I lived in Central Florida, and when I did, it was with my friend John – we’d toke up in the Chip & Dale parking lot before embarking on what we called “The Drinking Tour Of The World Showcase” at EPCOT (you know – beer in “Germany,” sake in “Japan,” and so on), and then – our insides fairly sloshing with overpriced, inferior alcohol – hop on the monorail to the Magic Kingdom, to see how many times we could ride Space Mountain before vomiting. (John, being a member of my tribe, is still my friend to this day.)
I was quite convinced that I’d been dropped off – with my bed-in-a-bag, my illegal hot pot, and my Smiths cassettes – in the middle of Hell, where every five minutes someone played “It Takes Two,” and the stench of Obsession hung like a caustic, ammoniac pall over everything. I missed my tribe. I was quite sure they were all making new, fabulous friends and would never want to speak to me again. Desperate, I found myself knocking on the Resident Assistant’s door, sobbing, and she couldn’t have been more excited to take on her first case of homesickness. (I mean, it was sort of unsettling how happy she was about it.) I sat on the edge of her bed snotting all over her throw pillows, convinced I would never have friends at all, ever. And as pleased as she was to be dealing with a textbook Sad Freshman™, she did manage to give me a solid piece of advice, and that was to wait another week for the rest of the students to arrive.
So I did. And in short order I met Katie (with whom I moved in as soon as I verbalized my dissatisfaction with my living situation), who would be my roommate for the next couple of years. Then I met Cris, Brian, Kaarla, and several Davids. Dane, Jeff, Mike, Darren, Annie, Chuck, John. And I was never without any combination of them for the next four years. So my tribe grew.
When I hit my twenties, things changed somewhat. When you’re not in an enclosed, semi-controlled environment, it becomes harder to find your tribe. I think “real life” also throws up enough distraction that it becomes….maybe not less important so much as backburnered against your better judgment. My friend Lisa put it this way: “After a certain age (22?) new friendship stops being exciting or something we devote time or energy to, so we forget it exists.”
I did find a few more members in graduate school (David, Sydney, Ben), and in the music scene (Chris, Jess, Susan, Lynette) but as I got older (and fell into the abyss of my alcoholism), my “tribe sense” got blunted. I mistook all the wrong people as being part of my tribe, or overlooked them, or alienated them (Kevin). I have never felt more alone, and lonely, than I did when I was drinking. It was like middle school and the first week of college combined and amplified to Dante-esque proportions. And when I crawled out of the nifty little grave I’d been digging for myself, I grabbed the hands of kind people who gave me coffee, their phone numbers, and their shoulders to cry and lean on.
The fog lifted, and I looked around the rooms I was sitting in. I saw Nick and Tattoo Chris. And I thought, “Tribe.” It was magical. Like finding a beloved toy after believing it to be lost forever. So I stuck around, and I stayed sober, and I met Niamh, Alex, Jen, Rhea, and Brendan.
Connection is always there if you’re willing to plug in. Your tribe is your tribe; time and distance makes no difference. Paula’s in Los Angeles. John Michael is in NYC. I wish I could see them more often, but that doesn’t break the connection.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you’re isolated when you’re not. Easy, too, to believe that you are less able to cultivate the deep friendships you had when you were younger. There was an article to that effect not long ago, and I saw it make the rounds on Facebook, and while I get the gist of it, I don’t entirely buy it. If you are comfortable with yourself, if you can find the courage to put your insecurities away (and that can be tough; 30+ years away from having been bullied, I still struggle with feeling like I am not worthy of anyone’s quality time) and be open to the messages you receive (“This person is interesting; I think this person is in my tribe”).
I’m not done finding my tribe. Far from it.