Every workplace has one: that well-worn, under-sung lunch spot that everyone goes to but few brag about. At one of my previous jobs, it was a Quiznos near a Canadian Tire in a strip mall. At another, a Subway towards which we darted across Burrard Street at midday, pausing while requesting shredded lettuce to have a moment with Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” playing on the tinny speakers.
At The Tyee, it’s Rice ‘N Spice, a hospitably unpretentious lunch counter in the basement of Harbour Centre in downtown Vancouver. Its reliably delicious, nourishing selection of affordable curries on rice has fuelled the bulk of our Vancouver-based editorial output for the better half of this year. One day this fall, a few of us walked there together. As we joked around down Pender Street, we breathed a collective sigh of relief. This is what we’ve missed for so many of these early pandemic years: the casual company of the people with whom we share a community.
This is so simple that it’s easily overlooked. But when Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter published his landmark paper "The Strength of Weak Ties" in 1973, everyone knew he was onto something, then and now. His analysis makes the case that casual friends, colleagues and acquaintances — what he calls “weak ties” — are central to personal well-being and to the potential for affecting social change.
For many, the isolation of the early pandemic destroyed those crucial, casual connections. And we’re still reckoning with what’s been lost.
We closed out 2022 with fewer public health restrictions than we’ve had in years, ostensibly to facilitate a return to a life lived socially. But many remain terribly alone, without the supports and, crucially, friendships that mark the difference between the slog of survival and a freer kind of joy in life. Writers Kaitlyn Fung, Mandy Len Catron and Anne Helen Petersen have been examining these issues extensively. What to do about this rumble and fracture in our social fabric? What does it take to build a kinder, more inclusive city known for its community connectedness, not its residents’ unhappiness and loneliness? Is the road towards a shared ethic of community care paved with Google Docs that detail the specific ways in which everyone could use some help?
At the core of this all is a wish for greater ease. Greater ease in moving about the world, greater ease in giving and receiving care. It’s a deceptively tall order. When people are feeling down and strained, the prospect of looking up and holding space for those around you can seem ludicrous, even odious.
But I wonder if part of the way out is through those weak ties, bridges all, that remind us how the only thing we have is each other.
Moments of funny intimacy
In her recent article about the unlikely solidarity that exists between Vancouver’s Chinatown and Downtown Eastside, Kaitlyn Fung writes about everyday acts of “small care” that bring people together.
It reminds me of the aunties working at my local grocery store who I came to know during the spring of 2020, when playgrounds were closed, our daycare shut down and we had few other places to go. They saw my son more often in those months than just about anyone else in our lives. We gave each other little gifts to mark the holidays: homemade cookies, cards, Ferrero Rocher.
I also think about the funny intimacy I now share with the parents of kids who are in my son’s kindergarten class. To parent young children together is humbling and humanizing because of its necessary mess, its stressful chaos and silly delight. I feel bonded to these people in a way that I can only imperfectly describe. There’s something special about standing shoulder to shoulder through these daily moments of life with our kids, turning to them before we can finish our sentences, returning the next day to do it again.
I asked my neighbour if she needed anything from the grocery store one snowy Sunday. She was fine, she said, but could she come by in a few minutes so I could help her put on her coat to go outside? She has a condition in which she can’t always move her shoulder back to do the job herself. Of course, I tell her. Anytime and always. We chat about her date last night. Is it weird that I’m asking you to put cigarettes in my pocket in front of your small child, she asks. I laugh.
‘Trust that others will also step toward you'
In an essay this month, Vancouver writer Mandy Len Catron wrote about the possibilities that transpire when we become practiced in both asking for help and expecting to be asked in return.
“Maybe it’s that we think of a request for help as a single ask, a moment of taking advantage of someone else’s goodwill,” she writes. “But this isn’t the only way to think about it. The other way, the more interesting way, is that a request for help is a step toward community, a way of tramping down the brush and the brambles. But you have to trust that others will also step toward you.”
That’s where it’s tricky sometimes. It’s not easy to trust that people, especially casual acquaintances, will step toward you when you’ve practiced the impossible art of being fine on your own your whole life. The problem is we need each other.
I’m still learning how to do this. I don’t always know what I need or even how to ask those closest to me for help sometimes. But the “small care” in my life is an excellent teacher. It’s a daily ethic of connection, with quiet and pauses that make for an ongoing exchange, not a one-for-one trade. It’s a slow, instructive build towards something great and enduring.
Happy holidays, readers. Our comment threads will be closed from Friday, Dec. 23 until Tuesday, Jan. 3 to give our moderators a well-deserved break. See you in 2023!