We are in transition here at this old house. The first whiffs of autumn have floated by: that certain quality of air that will be more consistent as we move closer to September, trees loaded with green apples, warm days with very cool nights, a dark blue sky only seen in fall. The historic summer community is mostly gone except for those who own houses and are able to live here, out of the Texas heat, well into September and October. The tenants of the owners that rent their houses during the academic year have begun to move in. Those of us who live here year round will educate them to the ways of living in this community: Quiet Hours, though the afternoon ones will end in a couple of weeks, interfacing safely with the wild animals, respectful parking on narrow streets, not driving the wrong way on the thoroughfares, even though it can be faster and more convenient to exit the park that way “when no one is coming up.”
Living well in community has to be taught, especially in this day and age when too many children raise themselves in front of a screen. Also, when you are used to not knowing your neighbors, having people who interact regularly with each other, who watch what goes on in the neighborhood, can be an intimidating sensation. The “right to privacy” is an important part of the American psyche but we need to look out for each other, care for each other and we can’t do that if we don’t have any idea who is living next door. People with no experience of community either in their childhood neighborhood or with a close extended family are clueless as to what living in community means. Like lifelong urban dwellers who are frightened by wilderness, true community can feel like a negative to people used to living in virtual isolation in their homes.
Some of the characteristics of good community include:
Knowing your neighbors’ names and basic life circumstances (where they work or go to school, who their kids are, what kind of car they drive).
A sense of how they live. For example, does your neighbor come home every day at the same time or do their work hours vary? Do they always mow their lawn at 7 AM on Saturday mornings? Do they go to church on Sunday mornings or sit on their deck reading the paper? Would you know if something looked amiss at their house based on a sense of what “normal” means for them?
One cul de sac neighborhood I am aware of met each other for the first time at a potluck initiated by one couple. A map of the neighborhood was given to each attendee so that they could fill in the name, phone number and/or e-mail address of the occupants. This was not only for safety reasons but for working together, if desired. Who has a generator? Who has a very tall extension ladder? Who could be called to run check on your house in an emergency? The end result was everyone loved meeting the other people on their small street and having a sense of who was who. They couldn’t understand why they hadn’t done something like this before! A simple evening but one with potentially profound implications for future connections.
I know at this old house, whenever the bears are around in the fall, the phone starts ringing. Not only do we all want to see them (from a safe distance, of course) but we want to alert others to their presence so that doors or windows can be closed, dogs be taken in, bird feeders brought in, and the garbage cans secured. The next morning, we share stories of what the bear did in whose yard.
Our neighborhood is pretty safe, even as public as it is, and some of that is due to the fact that we all watch out for each other. We know what is normal on our streets. After the historic floods last September, we all gathered spontaneously and shared stories and food to comfort ourselves from the shock of Nature’s power in our little stream valley. It felt good to know that we were not alone, that there were people to call even in the night when the water was pouring over the road and threatening our house.
Community takes time and effort. It can be messy. Not everyone will like everyone else. People will be selfish and insensitive. Some people will just be odd and quirky but the overall benefit of knowing your neighbors, of having someone to look out for you as you look out for them, is priceless. Even when your community changes frequently, as it does here at this old house, the effort of being “neighborly” is well worth it. You never know when it might make a real difference in your life.