Sunday, March 27, 2011

Building Community


Everyone wants a village. In fact, I'm convinced that it takes a village to raise us all - not just our children. When I tell people about the neighborhood I live in, (six houses, fifteen kids, eight dogs, three miles from downtown, neighbors who are willing to wait for your kids at the bus stop if you're running late...) they turn all shades of envious. We aren't nosy or in each other's faces, but we do know that if someone is hurt or sick or in need of a good book to read, there's always someone willing to share. When Bubba was in the hospital, they brought meals, mowed our 1.5 acre lawn and offered to watch the girls. We carpool from time to time and have communal garage sales and care for each others' pets when someone is out of town. It rocks. And when Bubba and I discuss moving from time to time, I am struck with worry that I might not find this again.

So when I was listening to an interview with Peter Lovenheim, author of the book pictured above, I was glued to my seat. His book chronicles his own attempt to create a tight-knit, invested community in his own neighborhood and the changes that came about for everyone as a result of it. Later in the conversation, the NPR commentator brought in a social anthropologist (forgive me, I forget his name) who pointed out how American communities have changed over time, citing commutes, distance from family, and dual income households as some of the reasons we have grown distant from our neighbors. Whatever the reasons for this phenomenon, it is clear to me that most Americans want what I have, but not many of us know how to go about getting it. And beyond desire, it is even more clear to me that we all need this kind of connection in our immediate backyards. Who couldn't raise their families better with support from their neighbors?

One comment made during the program that struck me was regarding women as the social center of the family. The social anthropologist noted that, before women went into the workforce in vast numbers, it was their "job" to connect with neighbors, join the PTA, volunteer for civic organizations and plan social engagements for the family. They were the ones who spent time in the immediate vicinity of the home and had the greatest opportunity to become engaged in the life of their own community. I think that that is still true for most of us. While there are many fathers who volunteer as coaches for their children's sports teams and who join the PTA, it is the women who tend to find ways to get entire families together to socialize or help one another out. Bubba might initiate an invitation to his co-worker's spouse, but it is me who puts together an invitation to dinner at our house. It is me who arranges carpools to sports practices and hears about the cancer diagnosis someone's mother just received. It is the women in our neighborhood who call around and set up meal calendars to help out the family suffering from illness or injury. I might recruit Bubba to help out, but it isn't in him to organize a community effort like that.

I am not saying this to be disrespectful or disregard men's efforts in social engagement. I simply know that, if Bubba were in trouble, he would not reach out to another guy for help with meals or carpools or household chores. He might, maybe, possibly ask his mother (who lives 300 miles away), but he wouldn't think to approach a neighbor. And while he would have no problem helping a neighbor out, he isn't likely to flat-out ask if one of them needs help. Whatever the reasons, I learned long ago that people are more than happy to help when asked. I used to feel 'weak' or 'pathetic' when I couldn't manage my own life every second of every day and it was for that reason that I resisted asking for help. But when I was forced to, I noticed that my neighbors felt better about themselves when they could pitch in. And my kids learned to trust these "strangers" because of their willingness to help out. They also learned to ask if they could help when they saw that someone was in trouble.

It is satisfying to send a check to the Red Cross for relief efforts when some natural disaster happens. But it is so much more rewarding to head over and mow your neighbor's lawn for them when you know that Dad is away on business for two weeks and Mom has her hands full working 40 hours a week and raising three kids. There is no tax deduction for that, but there is the knowledge that you've done something tangible for someone who really needed it and, without keeping score, the next time you could use an extra hand, you know that another neighbor will be there.

Beyond pitching in to help each other out, the trust that is established between neighbors like this leads to fun as well. In the summer, I often look outside to see that an impromptu soccer game has begun on our back lawn and the bucket of sidewalk chalk is splayed across the driveway as a street mural is created throughout the cul-de-sac. On any given summer evening, the girls might be out riding bikes with some of the other kids from the 'hood and I can bring out a bottle of wine and some extra glasses. The next thing you know, there are a few other parents sharing the lawn with me as we catch up on each other's lives and watch our kids goof off.

I'm certain that growing up with this village around them will help my girls to feel connected to their wider community and continue to seek this kind of neighborhood throughout their lives. I know that they will think nothing of asking for help when they need it and offering it when they see someone who could use it. Learning so early on that we are stronger together is one of the best things I can teach my kids. Learning to trust others and know that you have a safety net close by is so valuable.

2 comments:

Wanda said...

Neighborhood! Priceless....

Deb Shucka said...

What a wonderful post, Kari! And what a blessing of a life you have in this neighborhood. Thank you for sharing it with us.

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