Knowing my interest in different kinds of personal communities, a friend recently gave me a copy of Isabel Allende’s 2008 memoir, The Sum of Our Days. She thought I would appreciate what Allende calls her “tribe.” She was right about that. Allende has all manner of important people in her life, including her grown children and the people dear to them, her spouse (the second one, Willie), her grandchildren, a pair of lesbian Buddists who become parents to one of her granddaughters, a stranger she meets in a bookstore, people who work for her and the people around her, a circle of close friends she calls her “sisters of disorder,” and many more. She doesn’t just keep in touch with those people – she wants as many of them as possible living in her own home or nearby.
I wouldn’t want to live like that – too many people around too much of the time, sometimes appearing uninvited and unexpected. But I do like to read and think about personal communities that are more than, or different from, a self-contained nuclear family. Isabel Allende seems to draw deep sustenance and creative energies from her tribe. After reading this memoir, I find it hard to imagine her living in a conventional way.
And yet, the memoir ends with her and her husband alone in a hot tub. To me, that’s just wrong.
Here are some excerpts from the last two pages:
“From the time I was a little girl, I had looked after myself. In those games in the cellar of my grandparents’ house where I grew up, I had never been the maiden rescued by the prince, only the Amazon who battled the dragon to save the town. But now, I told Willie, all I wanted was to lay my head on his shoulder and beg him to take care of me…”
“Arms around each other, floating in the hot tub, bathed in the amber light of the candles, I felt that I was melting into this man with whom I had traveled a long, steep road, tripping, falling, getting up again, through fights and reconciliations, but never betraying each other. The sum of our days, our shared pains and joys, was now our destiny.”
The juxtaposition of a story about a tribe with a discordantly matrimaniacal ending reminded me of Ethan Watters’ Urban Tribes (which I discussed in Singled Out). As the dust jacket promises, Watters describes his experiences in “an intricate community of young people who live and work together in various combinations, form regular rituals, and provide the same kind of support as extended family.”
Here are some excerpts from the last page of this book, when he has married Rebecca:
“The ‘us’ in my world has shrunk to mean Rebecca and me…”
“I could go on about this fantasy future, but why imagine future joy when your life is full of happiness in the present? Right now the sun is shining, I can hear the ocean crashing about, and my new wife waits.”
Wake me up when you find a book about a “tribe” that does not end with a couple clinging to a treacly cliché.