What do we mean when we say Commonality and why did we name our Institute after that concept? We invite you to explore three foundational essays to the establishment of the Commonality Institute by Dr. Judy Grahn.


1. Commonality: Some New Approaches

“We were raised in vastly different places,
yet speak this uncanny, similar tongue.
Sometimes we’re different races,
certainly we’re different classes,
yet our common bonds and common graces,
common wounds and destinations,
keep us closer than some married folks.”

–From “Talkers in a Dream Doorway”

Commonality starts from standing in your own place, your being, looking across at others standing where they are in their beings, and noticing what overlaps, what can be in common.

Commonality in origin stories means including both sexes and all genders, and the contributions to culture and human evolution of all peoples. Everyone is equally evolved, equally in relation to nature, equally descended from the earliest common ancestors of our evolutionary past.

People set themselves in place through telling origin stories. Origin stories may be group-specific, claiming cultural beginnings from only tool-making hunters, or only people expelled from a garden, or only those who surfaced from underground or walked out of a lake or survived a river flood or sailed in from the sea or arrived from a distant planet or constellation. Yet as contradictory as these and other such stories are to each other, they are also true starting points for each of the ancestral lineages that created them.

Life is both inclusive and exclusive at the same time. Life does not care much about our stories of difference; life holds us in common. Each of us is a confluence of intelligent streams that make up who we are in any given moment. Physical body, ancestry and history, emotions, thinking habits, social pressures and definitions, sense of spirit guidance and lifetime goals, the matrix of other lives with which we continually interact—each of us is a complex network of streams. Each of us has elements that are good and bad at the same time, within differing value systems. Each of us is who we are in relation to others.

“Using the idea of commonality means standing exactly where you and/or your group (of whatever current definition), are, and noticing what part of you overlaps with others who are standing exactly where they are. 

Commonality differs from universality by having infinite numbers of changeable centers, where “universal” by definition and by usage has only one—“uni,” one.  When universality is the principle, we search in another’s work for that portion we can identify with—and dismiss the remainder as not relevant because not “ours”. When commonality is the principle we search for what overlaps with ourselves, then learn what we can from the remainder and leave it alone with respect as a whole that belongs to, that is, is centered in someone else, not ‘us.’”  

–From “Really Reading Gertrude Stein,” pp. 8-9.

Oppression comes about in part by trying to universalize: one true religion, one true economy, one true set of values, one important sex, one “superior” group, one definition of “human”.  

Commonality is multiple by definition.

Oppression also comes about through concepts of hierarchy—especially of value, of power (and lust for power), or even hierarchies of martyrdom, who is “most oppressed.”

Oppression comes about through our projections, especially projecting our fears and angers onto people defined as “others,” as “not us, not now, not ever.”

People trying to control their projections and working in commonality, learn to be aware of where their own fears and rages come from.

The conceptualization of hierarchy is actually imagined as a fantasy concept of up and down that comes from an archaic and false idea of the shape of the earth as flat, topped by a heaven that is “above.” We are not up and down, sky is not “up” but “out” from the surface of a sphere. We are infinitesimal lumps moving around on a rolling ball. We are not up or down from anything.  

Outside the eyes of an abstract and “ideal” law, we are not equal to each other nor to other beings in various ways: accesses, skills, powers, dangers, vulnerabilities, geographies, histories. We are in a web of common differences, across which we can often find bonds. We are in the pulse of common hearts. We are in patterns of commonality, in the arms of life.

We are not equal in our histories, including those of oppression by another group or groups, and through the unbalancing effects of distorted origin stories: righting this is an ideal that requires efforts of social justice.

We are not equal in our skills, interests, and sense of life mission.  An individual may devote a life to a common good yet be deprived of access or succor; someone else may excel at acquisition yet contribute little or nothing to common good; we could also say that all who are born have certain inalienable rights to sustenance of life; righting this requires efforts of economic justice.

We are not equal in our approaches to the earth, the appetites of our cultural habits, the unbalanced effects of distorted origin stories: we could also say that lives of creatures and plants warrant respect and care; righting this is an ideal that requires efforts of ecological justice.

We are not equal in personal, familial, and work relationships that are subject to enforced hierarchies of gendered superiority: both sexes have contributed uniquely to human cultures, both need to be witnessed and given emotional support: righting this is an ideal that requires efforts of sexual justice. 

We are not equal in the functioning of our bodies, minds, emotions and interactions with spirit, and can be quite different from others even within our own families. New origin stories show that persons who fall along a spectrum of gendered and other traits and definitions hold social and evolutionary positions of value that have yet to be broadly recognized, sparking needs for neurological justice.

When equality before the law is not working: we need commonality to band together and exert power. Equality is one thing, commonality is another. Commonality can help us thrive in a joy of everyday life and flourish in community. Equality enforced by law can support this. 

Commonality and equality overlap, but differ in that equality is an ideal that has to do with distribution of the public good: resources and access. Commonality works to see how we are uniquely different and how we can cherish and respect those differences. With respect to people, the underpinning is our common humanity. We are all metaformic. With respect to creatures and plants, we are all alive and share qualities of life. 

Commonality is paradoxical and pragmatic, doesn’t try to be perfect, can be messy and uncomfortable, yet moves toward learning and joy.

Boundaries can be strong yet permeable at the same time, enabling common bonds, common destinations, common differences, and common graces.

© Judy Grahn 2018

2. Commonality and Community

I am so tied to community for my writing, that if I don’t have one I will go create one, just to have a community to write into; to connect with; to write from. To some extent this has been the primary way I have gotten my work to be understood; then community people of all descriptions carry it into the world, write it on walls, take it into classrooms, put it to music, put it up on their websites, and simply refuse to let it disappear. The people who love it put it to “use.”

That may seem strange to still need this conduit given that “accessible” is the number one description for my poetry. But I am not talking about style or form – I am talking about content. The content of my work has always been controversial, especially for folks who just don’t want to engage with the necessity for social change. But what is love about if not looking after others?

Commonality holds individuality and difference within a context of possible unity. Commonality holds that we are at the center of some groups and the margins of others; overlapping boundaries of affinity and mutuality help us form alliances; our differences create a tension that stretches, teaches, and demands continual negotiation and occasional revolution.

Commonality is the overlapping of circles; there is not just one single circle with margins and center. While there are circles with fewer of certain kinds of resources and access, there are also “wealthy” circles that are “poor” and bereft of community or time or social values; there are “unwealthy” groups that have artful, dignified lives, and so on. Commonality ask people to look for what we have in common, and to respect and acknowledge differences. Commonality makes of every person a subject, not an object. Ideas and practices of commonality are not about trying to find one thing which we all must hold in common, like a common dream, or a common language. or a common set of ideal behaviors. Alliances are about different kinds of practical commonality, commonality of experience, need, purpose, intention, or direction; common cause. And within the multiple circles of commonality, common differences are not only allowed, they are expected, including differences in dreams, desires, and language; in economies, histories, psychologies, and spiritualities.

© Judy Grahn 2018

3. Cultural Obversity

The category “culture” is in question today, as so many diasporas, migrations, and invasions occur, and as we watch globalization of education and economies, and other ways of mixing, matching and relocating shred relatively stationary ways of life that were formerly understood as intact cultures. Even leaving aside the extremes of warfare, cultural differences remain real, contentious and dangerous…… click here for full essay

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