Community: anytime, anywhere

Eve and I were approached this week by Focus, a local community magazine, to be interviewed for an article on the Shedders. We do get a fair bit of publicity, and each time, I am reminded about what a smart (not to mention interesting) phenomenon we have created here in Shedders-land. Day to day, we just go about the business of living and getting along, so every now and then it’s good to stop and reflect on how we arrived here and just what it is we’ve got.

At any rate, the experience of writing a response to the editor’s questions had me extra sensitive to the power of relationship—exactly at a time when I came across an article about an interesting development in Bologna, Italy. Here an urban neighbourhood has come to life as a big-hearted community. I found myself captivated by a familiar old theme.

Via Fondazza

Via Fondazza, Bologna, Italy

What happened was this: a pair of lonely newcomers to the area put out the word that they’d be interested in creating a closed Facebook group for neighbours along their street. People responded quickly and positively, and the result is a thousand people who now feel like they live in a small town. They now know each other, exchange greetings on the street, socialise, have adventures and help out.

Here’s a sample story from the article:

A few months back, Caterina Salvadori, a screenwriter and filmmaker who moved to Via Fondazza last March, posted on Facebook that her sink was clogged. Within five minutes, she said, she had three different messages.

One neighbor offered a plunger, then another a more efficient plunger, and a third offered to unblock the sink himself. The last bidder won.

“Can you imagine, in a big city?” she said, still in disbelief at the generosity. “It’s not about the sink, it’s the feeling of protection and support that is so hard to find in cities nowadays.”

And another:

This year, a young woman expressed a concern for her safety and proposed a neighborhood watch.

Another resident, Luigi Nardacchione, responded that she should just call him if she was on her way home late at night, and he would come and meet her.

“I am retired, I have time, why shouldn’t I help?” said Mr. Nardacchione, 64, a former manager of a pharmaceutical company.

According to one resident:

“It’s the mental habit that is so healthy. You let people into your house because you know some and trust them enough to bring along some more. You open up your life.”

I like that last comment: you do open up your life when you let people in. Fear climbs into the back seat, displaced by trust and goodwill. We all know that sometimes trust will be abused, but how preferable it is to have our heads populated by positive expectations rather than wariness and isolation.Random acts of neighboring

If you’d like to read the entire article – which I’d recommend, especially if you’re an urban dweller – click here. Beware. Drop off a few flyers and you could find yourself in the middle of a social avalanche.

***

On an identical theme, yesterday I received an email from a dear friend who lives here on Mitchells Island. He and his wife have purchased 40 acres, and moved up from Sydney about a year and a half ago. They’re renovating their house and have built up a nice little farm with a bit of livestock. They’re slowly creating a new home for themselves, very different from the one they had in Sydney.

Here’s what my friend said in his email:

On this Sunday afternoon our neighbours (two farms up) held a luncheon at their jetty.  This was a splendid occasion on a beautiful sunny afternoon with one of their own pigs on a spit, cooked to perfection with fantastic crackling.  It was a party for the neighbours and we got to know everyone on our road. Gradually, we are really becoming part of our very local community.  

The significance of a community in a rural area really becomes clear after such a lunch.  All the people involved become important in one way of another in just being there and you know that you can call on them.…Out of this we might have access to a ram for our ewes, and we may provide the services of our bull to our neighbour’s cows…I know such a network will become more and more important for us in the future.

So, in much the same way that the Via Fondazzians built their community, my friend is part of building one among his neighbours. He’s enjoying the camaraderie (as well as the pork crackling), and he’s setting life up so it can be easier, more economical and fuller.

***

Bear with me for one more quote. I’ll give the last word on building community to housemate Eve, from her contribution to the Focus article:

In balance, I can say that our arrangement is the best outcome I could have possibly imagined for my retirement and ageing. We Shedders spark off each other and support our divergent interests. In some areas, we collaborate—that is, in our communities, in teaching, in networking. We support each other in staying healthy, encouraging physical activity and good diets. We have learned so much from each other, not always easily or gracefully. But most rough edges have been smoothed out over the years, and as a result there’s gratitude and love.

Welcome to the neighborhood

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Refugees are good at community

This must be a community!  It was a packed auditorium, with rows and rows of extra chairs set up alongside the stage. We were there to hear Hugh Mackay, a social researcher and commentator well-known in Australian circles. The theme of his talk paralleled that of his new book, The Art of Belonging.

Here’s a quote from Hugh’s website, to give you an idea of his worldview: “A good life is not lived in isolation or in the pursuit of independent goals; a good life is lived at the heart of a thriving community, among people we trust, and within an environment of mutual respect.”

As you might guess, he led an enjoyable and well-developed session. Hugh talked about how deeply seasoned we humans are in community, and about the forces that are interfering with the way our communities have always taken shape. He talked about how most suburbs are failing in their role as agents of community – and about what it might take to get us back on track.

At one point in his talk he acknowledged the little town of Bellingen, where we were gathered for our annual pilgrimage to Camp Creative. He described it as an old-style “thriving” community, and asked the audience why this was so. A woman took the bait and stood up. “Because we are mostly here by choice,” she said. “We visited here, fell in love with the town and countryside, and moved in. We chose it, andCommunity 4 events like Camp Creative are an expression of our appreciation for this community.”

“Ah, a refugee camp,” replied Hugh, as the woman sat down. “Yes, refugees are good at building community.”

Well, that made me stop and think.

It started me reflecting on our own community on Mitchells Island. Over the seven years that Rick and I have lived there, we’ve got to know many of the 250 or so people who live on the island. Many have become good friends, including several who have moved here in more recent years. Without even breathing hard, I counted up to 30 Mitchells Islanders I know well and love to spend time with.

But here’s the thing I realised: not many of those people have been here much longer than ten or twelve years. They’re pretty much like me: newbies, imports, drop-ins.

…Or as Hugh is calling us, refugees. We’re all escaping from a less desirable place and have chosen this delicious part of the world. Then, once we arrive, as human beings we’re hungry for community – and of course we can’t take it for granted, as we’ve left our known world behind. We’re forced to look outward to find “people we trust…and an environment of mutual respect”, as Hugh says in his new book.

And then I started to consider what I think of as real refugees: people who have left behind traumas I will never be able to understand, dragging their hopes with them along with a motley collection of meagre possessions. In one of Hugh’s lives he is a patron of the Asylum Seekers’ Centre. So although he didn’t talk about that role, he’s someone who knows something about refugees, the lives they’ve lead and the lives they’re leading now.

Refugees establish their family, find a place to live, and begin to get a handle on services available and the cultural mores. Simultaneously, to help them in that process, they begin to find a community. There are no doubt many like-minded people in the neighbourhood, people who are also keen to leave behind the trauma or the lack of possibility, people who want to share a cup of a familiar beverage in an unfamiliar environment.

As I sat there in the lecture (multi-processing quite well), I reflected on my doctor, a GP, who asked me one day what I was writing while sitting patiently in his waiting room. I told him about my book, Shedders. One thing led to another, and, with tears in his eyes, he revealed to me a snippet of his own story that he longs to write some day. As a teenager he’d travelled from North Vietnam to Singapore in the hold of a decrepit boat, dreadfully sick and frightened for his life – at the hands of pirates or an incompetent captain or terrifying competitors for the little space he had. Years later, he’s a respected doctor, head of the Medisense medical clinic in Taree, with a happy family and a blossoming community around him. The doctors in his clinic have accents and names like Patel and Echano and Kang. He’s chosen people who have an edge, who don’t take life and comfort for granted. I look forward to someday reading the story of his escape, but meantime he’s focused on building a great life for himself in the here-and-now.

And a few miles away, on Mitchells Island, we too have created a community for ourselves. Like us, most of our new friends are leaving behind the stresses and anonymity of the city. As Hugh says, I’ve found people I can trust and respect, people who “take responsibility for the places where they live by engaging, volunteering, joining up and joining in.”

We animals are tightly programmed. Ants, lions, water dragons, bower birds – each species has its way of surviving and thriving with its own kind. And creating community is the human being way.

Hugh Mackay

Hugh Mackay

So there in the auditorium in Bellingen, Hugh Mackay was speaking to the converted. We attended not so much to learn, as to be validated and inspired, or more accurately, to gain distinctions about community that would sharpen our ability to create and use it well.

Seeking refuge or not, I reckon you can’t ever get too much of that.

How to create community