He said, “Kid, whadja get?”
I said, “I didn’t get nothing, I had to pay $50 and pick up the garbage.”
He said, “What were you arrested for, kid?”
And I said, “Littering.”
And they all moved away from me on the bench there, with the hairy eyeball and all kinds of mean nasty things, till I said, “And creating a nuisance.”
Then they all came back, shook my hand, and we had a great time…
—Arlo Guthrie, “Alice’s Restaurant”
Every work morning, I cycle onto the Buiksloterwegveer, the ferry that runs straight across the IJ from Amsterdam Noord to Centraal Station. Getting to it is a story in itself, an epic in miniature: the long straight ride toward the boat, usually into the teeth of the wind; the suspense in the way the signs block the countdown so that one can’t see how long it is till departure. The pilots often wait a minute or so past zero, picking a break in the incoming cycle traffic, delaying for a hurrying foot passenger or two. I always feel lucky when I’m one of the last to reach the deck before the red lights flash and the siren signals that boarding is over.
Then it comes, as the heavy clunk of the ramp coming up echoes through the vessel. All around me the people glance at one another, quickly, furtively, one flick of the eyes and away. And I taste the koinopoiēsis in the air, like the first rain after a hot week.
“Koinopoiēsis” is part of my idiolect. It’s a combination of two Greek words, κοινόν (koinon, community) and ποίησις (poiēsis, making). It refers to both the moment when a crowd becomes a community and the processes which create that transformation.
The ferry crossing takes about two minutes. We’re a mayfly of a community, and we know it. Our koinopoiēsis is so faint as to be unnoticeable unless you’re sensitive. Unless you’re addicted. It’s like the ghost of sweetness one gets from the nectar of a violet: enough to whet the appetite, but not enough to satisfy it.
We dock at Centraal. The alarm whoops, the front gate goes down, and I leave our ephemeral community for the murmuration of Amsterdam cyclists.
But that’s fine, because at the other end of my ride is the office, where I am swimming in community: the two teams I work with, the team I line manage, my department, my former teams, the loose communities of expats from the various countries I have allegiances to, the foreigners who speak Dutch, emergency responders, the complex network of long-term employees who move about the company… The Venn diagram of my workplace communities looks like a puddle in a heavy rainstorm.
And these groups are forever recreating themselves. There’s something called the Tuckman model, which lists a number of stages a new team goes through: Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing. (The naming is terribly twee, but I find the model useful as a way to reassure teams that the initial conflict they experience is normal and not permanent.) But the model goes on to point out that whenever a team gains or loses a member, there’s a Mourning stage, and then the whole cycle repeats, because it’s effectively a new team. This is true and necessary on every level of community: nal komerex, khesterex.
So even when I don’t find myself in a new team (as I did a month ago), I am surrounded by the low murmur of social and organizational change, and with that change, little increments of community formation. If the ferry was a single droplet of koinopoiēsis, the office is a slow, wide river of it.
One of my roles is to tend that river the way our waterschappen tend our physical waterways. Sometimes it’s easy: a word here, an email there, a private chat over coffee or on a bike ride home. Sometimes it’s a bigger job, which usually means cookies. (I’ve talked about food and community before.) I have the good fortune to work with some gifted koinopoiēsis engineers: kind of a meta-community. We hold baking contests.
Although it wasn’t until I started moderating a long-lived and articulate community that I named this thing and made it a separate concept in my world, I was raised in an environment that values it, celebrates it, tells stories with it. We all were. My defining high-school movie was The Breakfast Club, which is basically an hour and a half of slow-motion koinopoiēsis with a Simple Minds soundtrack. But even if you weren’t a Brat Pack eighties kid, the thing is pervasive: it’s what turned Han into someone who would come back and help Luke destroy the Death star; Mal was looking for its traces before he let Jayne out of the airlock; Maia learns it in The Goblin Emperor; it’s the Scoobies and Leverage, Lethal Weapon and The Matrix, the larger arc of the Avengers movies, The Fellowship of the Ring, Fury Road.