Sunday, 20 February 2011

Disconnect Disease Part 2

Not long ago I wrote about "disconnect disease" has affected our society in that fewer people than ever have a connection with nature. We no longer see ourselves as part of the web of life, nor do we understand how interdependent we are with other forms of life.

After some reflection, I realized that people are also disconnected from each other. We no longer know the names of our neighbours. We no longer know the parents of our childrens' friends--or even the names of their friends at times. We fail to take the time to stop and talk with the librarian, grocery clerk, or any of the other people we encounter as we go about our daily tasks. We walk past the street musician without even hearing their music; we ignore the homeless, and we fail to make eye contact with passers-by.

Stranger danger is highly over-rated. Statistics show that crimes are much more likely to occur between family and friends than from a stranger.

We are busy, but does that business bring us any joy or fulfillment? Surely taking a moment to say hello and inquire about someone is worth slowing down a little. Life is not a race.

I have lived in ten different cities now. We stayed in the last one for ten years, but only ever got to know our neighbours by their first names, and knew very little about them. Everyone kept to themselves. We didn't try very hard to change that, and were not sorry to leave. Perhaps if we'd made some effort, things would have been different. Sadly, many others have similar experiences.

When I was in my teens, we lived in an unusual neighbourhood. It was a large city block of low-income housing. It wasn't pretty, but it wasn't terrible either. There was no graffiti or garbage lying around; it was just old war-time housing. There were no fences in the backyards, so all the back became a large field. The younger kids would play baseball there in the summer, and even cross-country ski in the winter. It was a perfect spot for huge games of hide-and-seek and capture the flag. Neighbours would sit outside on warm summer evenings and watch the kids play, or join in every now and then. As the mosquitoes came out, the women would often visit each other for a coffee while the men put the kids to bed.

One summer, our neighbour who had recently immigrated from Italy took it upon herself to teach us all how to make fresh pasta. We'd drape pasta all over the kitchens to dry. She also organized us all in a huge tomato canning weekend. We peeled and chopped  huge tub-fulls of Roma tomatoes together. Once the tomatoes were in the jars she added her own home grown basilica (basil) before the lids went on. Some of those tomatoes and pasta were used at my youngest brother's Christening party in a huge lasagna. Of course, the neighbours were a part of that too. I can tell you that after doing the same thing in my own home alone, that there is nothing like the camaraderie of friends to make such things not only faster and more efficient, but extremely fun as well.

My parents bought their first home a few years later. Their neighbours only speak to them if they have a complaint. The house is quite nice, and they own it, which is somewhat of a dream for them. But they have not been happy there. They now hope to sell the house and move back into that complex so they can once again be a part of the community. Although many of the neighbours we had then no longer live there, the sense of community lives on. And the friendships they made during those years have also lived on.

Community, although very rare, is still possible in the western world.

Former Canadian Olympian Silken Laumann is an advocate for unstructured family play. She suggests getting the neighbourhood together to play at a local park at a regular designated time. Including as many people as possible, and playing along with the kids every now and then can help get things started. Some tried and true outdoor games for larger groups can be found here:

Other ideas:
- organize a block party and/or street dance, being sure to invite everyone
- volunteer locally with your entire family
- organize tree planting at a local park and make it a potluck picnic too
- smile and say hello when you see a neighbour
- shovel your neighbour's walk
- mow your neighbour's lawn
- be sure to make a point of knowing your neighbour's full names and contact info in case of emergency
- organize a street-wide yard sale
- sit outside and chat with neighbours on evenings when the weather is nice (it will make you feel better than watching re-runs on television!)
- refrain from gossip, and always give the benefit of the doubt if you hear gossip from others
- include everyone
- be willing and ready to receive kindness from your neighbours too
- be quick to introduce yourself to new people in your neighbourhood to make them feel welcome

It is tough to get started, especially if you are shy like me, (I still never make eye contact with strangers!) but the effort is well worth it. Just ask my parents!