I came home one day just in time to catch my neighbor planting flowers in my front garden. I had admired several of his plants, and asked him if they would do well in shade and among tenacious tree roots. Little did I know he'd be so obliging!
The neighborly exchange of plants, recipes and tools is as old as human history, but to many modern city dwellers seems as remote as the horse and buggy. Even in areas where neighbors do have reciprocal relationships, they are often limited. In his book, "Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future," Bill McKibben notes "studies have shown that as urban neighborhoods became more heavily used by cars instead of pedestrians, the average person saw the number of friends and acquaintances she had in her neighborhood drop from nine to four."
This truly is a loss. McKibben identifies the problem as a kind of "hyper-individualism," resulting largely from the same industrialized lifestyles that have contributed so strongly to climate change. Loss of community also takes a personal toll. "The body reacts to community in measurable ways. Staggering ways," McKibben notes. "According to Robert Putnam, if you do not belong to any group at present, joining a club or society of some kind halves the risk that you will die in the next year." Pretty impressive numbers, eh?
We chose our neighborhood because of its reputation for being an old-fashioned neighborhood, where kids run in and out of each other's houses. Since we've been here, we've been to ice cream socials, a children's talent show, and all kinds of seasonal celebrations. One family hosts an annual August "Kid Wash," where children in swimsuits soap up, and enjoy being sprayed by adults with garden hoses. To stave off cabin-fever this winter, another family organized a bowling party. It was heart-warming to watch dozens of neighbors, ages 3 to 83, knocking down pins in lane after lane of the Playdium.
On a more serious note, last year 10 of us met for nine months to discuss sustainability issues, using a course packet from the Northwest Earth Institute. (For more information on the institute, click here.) As a result, we started a neighborhood vegetable garden. A book club formed this year, as well as a "band" of about eight, who gather to play guitar, ukulele, hammered dulcimer, fiddle and flute.
"Safety in Numbers" is one of the band names we've considered. Suggested as a joke to help quell our nerves at our first public gig - a neighborhood festival celebrating local merchants -- it nevertheless speaks to my point about community.
We're living in interesting times. The prospect of peak oil, and the reality of global warming, are challenges better faced in solidarity than alone. To have the "durable future" that McKibben writes about, we're going to need to build it from the ground up, working with the folks next door.
Granted, certain features of my neighborhood facilitate community. Houses are close together -- we can't avoid frequent encounters. One resident says it's "like dorm-life for grown-ups." And, most of the homes on our street were built to the same circa-1925 blueprint. As another homeowner remarked, "these houses are the 'working man's dream:' no one has anything better than anyone else." You feel at home nearly everywhere you go, with intriguing exceptions in decor and renovations. In fact, we recently held a block tour of six look-alike houses, to see what people had done with their attics, kitchens, additions, etc.
Obviously, community building works in other contexts: places of worship, schools, clubs. But I think we do best when we know each other in various capacities and have multidimensional relationships. This is what attracts me to the eco-village and intentional communities movements, and to cooperatives, like Albany's Honest Weight Food Co-op.
During three hours in the store recently, I had a set of experiences that parallel those in my neighborhood. While staffing an informational table on Fair Trade, I touched base with someone who's starting a writing group, discussed exchanging healing services with a body work practitioner, and hooked up a tense coworker with a source for stress reduction classes. Though crowded and bustling, the store still facilitates mutually beneficial connections. In the community room, for example, you might find a parenting group, a knitter's circle, or a senior fitness class. It's not unlike Bill McKibben's descriptions of farmers' markets, where people "have 10 times as many conversations ... as they do at supermarkets."
Chinese medicine places a premium on these interpersonal networks, calling them "personal circulation vessels," to indicate how essential they are. People who have not developed them are sometimes referred to as "dead doors that lead to nowhere" (Yanhua Zang, "Transforming Emotions with Chinese Medicine"). A disturbing, but apt, metaphor.
It takes extra effort to be a "living door," but we need these now, more than ever. Such connections ground us in our communities, refresh our relationships, and open up new possibilities for friendship, collaboration and support. For your health and that of the planet, I encourage you to find your opening!
Ruth Ann Smalley, Ph.D., is an educator and a certified Eden Energy medicine practitioner with a practice in Albany. She's also an Honest Weight member worker, and writes a monthly column for the coop's newsletter.
© The Daily Gazette Co. 2008