Lately I’ve been thinking about community. Not like the Left Bank, more like the places where “the plain folk” are, to quote Ken Saydak’s paean to Chicago neighborhoods.
The news has been full of the Turpin family, whose suburban California home hid from view the parental abuse and starvation heaped on 13 children from 2 to 29 years old. Neighbors said they didn’t see or hear anything. CBC recently aired a story of a teenaged babysitter who rescued a 2-year-old and a 6-year-old from torture by their mother in Toronto. They needed surgery to repair the damage. In our own county of 40,000 people, a four-year-old was rescued by a neighbor’s dog from freezing naked in the snow outside her home.
Where are we? I wonder. I’m sure terrible things have happened all along. I’m not so sure that the proportions aren’t changing a bit.
My youth featured a neighborhood in town and then one in the country. In each case, we knew who lived in the area. People on our block had names (beginning with “Mr.” and “Mrs.” usually). They had front yards they watered and mowed in summer and cars that backfired, and gardens in the back yard, down the alley. My siblings and I terrorized the neighborhood, riding invisible horses wherever we went.
When the washing machine broke at Freitag’s, we all went over and bailed in the basement. I babysat for neighbor babies. When I ran my hand through a window, the veterinary student next door stabilized me. From our front porch, we kept tabs on everything that happened in our world.
Moving to the country meant larger lots, but we still knew who our neighbors were. The Glass kids, the Emersons (Trick riders! With horses!), Barb – we kept an eye on what went on.
I love the privacy of my current home. We’re a mile off the road, and I do know my nearest neighbors, even the ones with two legs. But we’re also part of the small community of a few hundred souls who live on Stonington.
Steven had long hair and a beard when we moved in. I thought he looked like Jesus, but not everyone saw the resemblance. People were naturally curious about this couple who wanted to live WAY BACK THERE and were probably up to no good. I didn’t really mind. If they wanted to know who their children would interact with, who had their back in an emergency, who was bringing what ideas into their world – that seemed reasonable. I talked to them, telling them who we were so they needn’t worry.
I’m afraid we’ve lost much of that neighborhood feeling. We are a mobile society, and restless with it. Our homes, shiny with gadgets as they are, isolate us within their walls and within the screens that increasingly dominate life. Sure, watching a movie together raises issues for discussion. So does washing dishes together. And while you’re washing the dishes, you’re interacting with another human being, perhaps looking out the window to the neighbors’ house… and the dishes are getting clean. And you’re learning to work together. Building a network IRL*.
Even in our most mobile forms, we are a society that values community. The newest nomads – RV, van and tiny house residents who take their turtle-shell homes wherever they go – form communities where their lifestyle can be supported by like-minded others. The benefits include shared wisdom from elders, new viewpoints, and the got-your-back aspect of fellow travelers on a similar path of life.
Neighborhoods mean never getting away with stuff. Without the accountability of a neighborhood, people don’t know that that’s the youngest Smith kid, and don’t question what he’s doing way over here in the Murphy’s car until it’s too late.
It’s hard to say times are scarier now than when I grew up. After all, I was one of the kids doing the “under the desk and kiss your ass goodbye” drills in grade school to prepare for the time the Cold War would turn hot. The scary parts now involve the unknown, and the apparent willingness on the part of our government and industry to exploit our fear of it. We are encouraged to look at our country as a whole and eliminate the “threats” to its well-being, NOT to watch our neighborhoods and carefully evaluate all the players.
If we did, watch our neighborhoods I mean, we would have a far better chance of positively impacting our world than when we learn to hate other humans as part of a global drama. We could know which were the bad and good guys (most of the time, anyway) and not rely on such cues as age and skin color to make that determination. We could know our elders and our youngers and understand that a difference in language or musical taste does not mean a lack of humanity on either side.*IRL is In Real Life, for those of us who mostly live there..
WHERE I LIVE
Where I live, autumn is a blaze of color.
Where I live, summer’s not too long.
Where I live, life just stops for hunting season. People smile without a reason,
where I live.
Where I live, drivers don’t know where their horns are.
Where I live, we’ve ALL met the mayor.
Where I live, tourists fish for trout and coho. Snowplows throw that silver rainbow,
where I live.
We have way more trees than people. We drive for miles and see no other car.
We all talk about our neighbors. We know who our neighbors are!
Where I live, we breathe the air and drink the water.
Where I live, kids ride the bus to school.
Where I live, Northern lights hang shimmering And rivers come alive in spring, where I live.
If you decide you’d like to live here, we don’t want you complaining of the cold.
It’s not legal till you’ve lived here for 25 years… or until you’re 67 years old!
Where I live, hockey’s why you order cable.
Where I live, we have one coffeehouse.
Where I live, sandy beaches stretch for miles by sparkling lakes with wooded isles,
where I live.
Where I live, sandy beaches stretch for miles
By sparkling lakes with wooded isles,
Northern lights hang shimmering,
And rivers come alive in spring,
Tourists fish for trout and coho,
Snowplows throw that silver rainbow,
Life just stops for hunting season,
People smile — you know the reason, where I live!