Community and Alienation, 4 Vignettes

A Community of Sufferers*

I’m having a meal with my husband at a pub in Bristol, delighting in the warm and jovial conversation of the three older men having a pint at the neighbouring table. By their camaraderie, I  assume they’ve had a long history together, probably meeting at this very pub over many years. As I finish my chicken salad, I notice their glasses are almost empty, and so I think it a polite time to tell the men what a pleasure it’s been to be sitting with them. It’s a wonderful thing to see that community still exists, I add, since so many people today are without one. There’s a brief silence as they soberly look at each other, then one quietly tells me I don’t have it quite right.

We’re retired dock workers, he explains, although none of us have worked together. In fact, he says, exchanging another sober look with his table mates, we’ve only recently met. All three of us are recent widowers, another continues, that’s why we’re here. We meet for drinks and company. I’m sorry, I say, worrying I’ve intruded. But I’m wrong again. There’s not a single pause in conversation as we cover everything from local history, to family, to grief and loss. And then, of course, all those general observations about the world. We’re still talking as the waiter clears our glasses, gently pressing us to make room for the people milling about waiting for a table. We say our glad-to’ve-met-you’s, shake hands, and make for the door.

While we walk, my husband and I go through our affectionate routine of checking each other over for crooked collars and forgotten items, when one of the trio abruptly stops in front of me. The tall, burly and bearded man looks down at me, his eyes brimming. And with a gaping expression, he implores me to understand. I’m going home to cook supper, he says. It’s so hard to eat alone.

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*I take liberties with Charle’s Fritz’s conception of a “community of sufferers”;  roughly, a positive phenomenon of disasters where people, often strangers and irrespective of differences, are drawn together by their common experience of the disaster, providing for each other support and social reorientation.

Small Town Diaspora

Are there any, like myself, the diaspora of a small, rural town.

Are there any, like myself, who yearned to know where the gravel road led. But, now that it’s gone, wish I could follow it home.

Are there any, like myself, who used to think the open spaces were like walls that kept me from the world. But are now the space that once embraced my world.

Are there any, like myself, who can find only traces of my home. And beneath the overgrowth of brush, discover hard-packed remnants of roadways dotted like scabs on the healing earth.

Are there any, like myself, who feel displaced. Prodded like cattle to keep pace with an impatient world.

Are there any, like myself, who move like a ghost through the crowd.

A Road Sign for the Labourer

During our recent visit to the UK, I snap a photo of a road sign (see below). It catches my eye because British English is so delightful, with so many common words just different enough from my Canadian dialect that I have to do a little interpreting. Instead of ‘no waiting or overtaking’, I note, Canadians say something like ‘no stopping or passing’. And the ‘at any time’ is redundant.

The next day, we, my husband and I, arrive at our summer home in Italy. I’m sitting at my desk, tired from travel and a little homesick. In this state, I’m contemplative, subdued by waves of nostalgia tinctured with the blue-mood palettes of guilt and anxiety. I worry about how each and everyone is making out back in Canada, my aging parents, my kids, my pets, and my friends. And on the flip side, I wonder how and why this ‘girl’ from a rural remote sawmill camp is so privileged to fly to wondrous places? As always, my class sensitivity sits on my shoulder like a surly owl, its talons steadfastly gripping me with sharp reminders of where I belong. In this perfect storm of memory, emotion, and exhaustion I review my photos. And, lingering over the road sign, I see more than words.

Labourers, I think to myself, road construction workers, put the sign in place. And I wonder, What is it like for the labourers to work in such a big city? Where do they live, is it hard to get to work, and what do they do in their off-time? Maybe they have a union, decent pay, and good benefits, I conjecture. Maybe these are jobs people fight for, that provide a comfortable life. Or, maybe the pay scarcely covers the cost of living, holidays are rare, and the workers’ joints swell and permanently knob from manual labour. My current melancholy anchors me in this latter sympathetic, and certainly more pessimistic, possibility — closer to my own formative experiences. And it’s through this lens that I figuratively reinterpret the words on the sign to mean 1) ‘no waiting’ as in there’s no chance for rest, I can’t afford to stop, and 2) ‘no overtaking’ as in notwithstanding I’m working all the time, I just can’t get ahead (or get ahead of my betters). 

This sentiment was certainly common where I grew up, often expressed jokingly in phrases such as No rest for the wicked. But it was also expressed as a feeling of futility and frustration. Well, what do you do? What can you do? No point complaining. I use the past tense, but there are people right now, everywhere, working non-stop just to make ends meet. And my thinking about them doesn’t ease their burdens. As much as I wish it could.

Dinner For One

Photo and painting by Pam. 2019.

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Categories: Catch-All

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