Thursday, April 4, 2013

Do You Know Me? Finding Community in a Big City

On our block there are three houses. Our next door neighbor is one of Brady's teachers, her son is one grade ahead of him and her two daughters play with Brady each day at the preschool/after-school care. Next door to that is the town's mayor, whose wife also works at Brady's school. Their grand-daughter is in Brady's 1st grade class, and that girl and her younger sister also go to the preschool/after-school.

Around the corner is Brady's great-aunt via marriage. A few houses down from her is my best friend's cousin who has two kids that are at Brady's school and he is friends with. We can walk to our cousin-via-marriage's house in 3 minutes (his grandson is at the preschool too) and grandma and grandpa's house in 6.

We see his teachers at the grocery store and in church. We see our pastor and his family (who also double as Brady's babysitters in the summer) at school functions and around town. Brady is scared of the grocer but loves his wife. He had the bank employees in stitches the other day as he traded in his money for larger bills. As outgoing as Brady is and as notorious as he has become from his struggles in school, EVERYBODY knows him. More people know him in this town of fewer than 1,000 than know me and maybe even my husband, who grew up there!

This web of inter-connectedness is just beautiful and something lacking in big-city life. But as I look back, I realize that I tried to create this type of small-town feel even when we lived in bigger places. Here's how we did it.

The number one way I can think of to create this feel is to get the kids and just walk. Each day walk a different direction, and then when you've gone every which way, start over again. Walk to every store, library and park you are able to. Talk to people. Learn their faces. Make a connection.

When Brady was young, birth to age 3, we lived in Red Bank, S.C., a suburb of Columbia, which nears 500,000 in the metro area. We didn't have any family at all nearby and my husband at the time, Brady's father, had a job that required extensive travel. I stayed home with Brady, and the kiddo and I got restless a lot. In fact, I took to calling the hours of 2 to 4 p.m. as the "Cranking Hours." Oh my gosh did he get grumpy and so did I!

So we'd walk. We met all the neighbors in our immediate vicinity, and several more around the nearest couple of blocks. One family included a lady who had worked at my son's day care when he was age 2-7 months before I quit work. She had several young children and we often stopped by to see them. Another I learned was a member of a church I was considering joining and we would stop and talk to her. We found every family with young children or grandchildren for several blocks. And they knew who Brady was, which gave me a sense of security that if he ever wandered away from me, they'd know where he belonged.

We shopped at the Piggly Wiggly every opportunity we got and became familiar with the cashiers. Let me tell you this makes shopping with a young child MUCH easier. If they know you, they are more likely to be patient and helpful.

We also frequented every park within 10 miles. We gave them all pet names: "Baby Swing Park," "Dirt Clod Park," "Sprinkler Park," and "Horsey Park." It made it seem like our own little world and we often saw the same kids at each one. We made our neighborhood an intimate place and would watch neighbors mow their lawn, the trash men take the garbage, the ice cream truck and its operator come down the street (there's nothing as exciting as hearing that sound in the distance and listen as it gets louder and louder until you finally see it). We would wait outside on our front lawn for the very instant the streetlight would come on (I had figured out the exact time). We knew which house had a fountain or a goldfish pond or a cool mailbox. We watched a neighbor's dog while they were out of town.
And then we branched out too. We found two Parents as Teachers playgroups within 10 miles of us and went to both each week. We joined every library story time we could that was nearby. We practically lived at the Burger King play place on cold winter days. We formed our own little community that way, and I even organized a little monthly playgroup of our own for awhile. That interaction with other kids and parents was crucial for us, and we felt like a part of a something in this large city where it was so easy to get lost.

Next, we lived in Port Charlotte, Florida, an area with about 150,000 people, with one of the highest average ages in the country. So again, we walked. A golf course sat behind our house and I think we canvassed every inch of that place in every weather imagineable. One time we were walking one direction, completely unaware that a rain storm was moving in behind us. That can happen in Florida. The wind picked up and we turned around and about 50 feet away was an honest-to-goodness WALL of rain. Brady started to panic and I said, "Well, kiddo, there's only one thing to do." I picked him up and we walked into it and were drenched by the time we were home. We talked about that for a long time!

But our daily forays onto the course brought us in contact with neighbors from several different blocks. We met their kids, their dogs, even one guy with a pigeon aviary. They looked for us and talked to us when we were out. Some gave us fruit from their citrus trees. Some let Brady pretend to golf using their clubs. We watched snakes, turtles, bees in a hive, birds of every kind. We made our own little world in that big, big place.

I hope that you can find such a small-town feel wherever you live, a place where people KNOW who you are. That is missing so much in our world, I fear. We turn inward to our own little families, our own little needs and routines, or people who are far away via the computer. But to know and be known in person is such a deep part of the human condition, to find it increases our sense of belonging and fulfillment and security, and vitalizes a neighborhood. Without it, it is easy to feel small and forgotten, maybe moreso for a kid.

Brady went through a phase where he would ask everyone we met, "Do you know me?" It perplexed me at the time, but now I see he was expressing a basic human need. And now, he doesn't have to ask it anymore. And neither do I.

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