Regular readers know that I have a great fascination with the problem of isolation and the breakdown of communities in modern America. As I was talking about in my post where I compared the internet to the village water well and in our great discussion about how we at-home moms can combine our socializing time and our housework time, I think that the isolation of modern suburbia is having a huge negative impact on our society.
Throughout these discussions, every now and then I’d get the suggestion that perhaps there’s something I could do to foster a sense of community here where I live. I’d always shake my head and think, “You don’t know my neighborhood.”
I live in a typical high-turnover suburban area where people keep to themselves and don’t really know their neighbors — sometimes people don’t even respond if you say hello when you walk past them on the way to the mailbox. I once described it here. Almost no other adults stay home during the day and our family weekends tend to be busy, so the possibility of forming any kind of bond with the people who live around me seemed bleak. However, I figured it might be worth a quick prayer since my blog commenters have been right so many times before. “It would take a miracle, ” I said very skeptically and half-heartedly before Vespers one day, “but, Lord, if there’s any way to get a community feel going here in my little corner of suburbia, let me know.” And I thought nothing more of it after that.
Meanwhile, there have been some very interesting developments with the girls.
Every one of their parents/guardians eventually began to express concern about the amount of time they spend over here, worrying that they were bothering me. I was half tempted to explain that at any other point in my life I would have had a nervous breakdown long before now, that it is entirely thanks to the grace of God that this situation is working so well, but I ended up just assuring them that it’s fine for the girls to be at my house. In each conversation my assurance led to a long pause, and then to a grateful but hesitant response like, “I know you have three little ones yourself…I mean…are you sure?”
And ever since these conversations, the girls have been even more forthcoming about their willingness to help me. Evidently their parents implored them to be as helpful as possible if they’re going to spend so much time over here. Yesterday, for example, Riley* and Catherine insisted on cleaning the kitchen during the kids’ naptime while I finished up a couple things on my laptop. Afterwards, they helped me straighten the living room and played with the kids while I started to cook dinner. The house looked so nice, my husband commented that it was like coming home to a hotel.
The other day was a rare occasion when the girls weren’t here during lunchtime, and I found myself struggling. I realized that I’d gotten used to having them around. Actually, I’d come to depend on them. We had even developed a little lunchtime routine: Catherine helps the baby eat her solids, Carmen amuses the toddlers and gives them snacks, and if the other girls are here they help me prepare the food. It occurred to me that perhaps their parents had come to depend on me as well. Most of them have single mothers who have to work long hours, and quality summer care for kids doesn’t exactly grow on trees.
I thought of what a beautiful scene this was, families helping one another in the ways that they are able, and it occurred to me: maybe this is how you build a community.
Back when I was reading through those discussions a few months ago, it all seemed so complicated. As usual, I had my head in the clouds and was focusing more on crafting theories and grand plans rather than looking at how I could take action right here, right now. I was so mired down in the details of how to work out a cohousing model or a small church community plan or a walking neighborhood concept with all the increasing diversity of lifestyles and values of modern-day America, that I didn’t stop to notice that I was surrounded by neighbors in need.
It’s been interesting to see what’s happened these past few weeks. Nobody set out to engineer some master plan for our little suburban street…and yet, it’s starting to feel awfully “community-ish” over here. The families involved have completely different setups and lifestyles and values from one another. Even as mothers, we’re not able to come together the way women traditionally have — I’m married and stay home, some of the moms are married and work, others are unmarried and work, etc. We don’t even know one another very well. And yet, as families, we’re helping one another. I have a safe, free place where their children can spend their time while they’re out of school and their moms are at work. They have older children whom they can encourage to help me around the house. We are united by the fact that we all have more on our plates than we can handle alone, and that we have a great need for one another’s help.
One of the hallmarks of a true community is mutual dependence on one another. If that is the case, then I think we have the beginnings of a community over here in our little corner of suburbia.
Could it be that easy?
Could the secret to revitalizing the American community be as simple as turning to God to ask for his guidance, and then looking around to see how we can immediately start giving help to — and accepting help from — the people who live around us? I really don’t know. As with everything else in life, there are complicating factors, and I don’t have a crystal ball to know exactly how it will all play out. But, so far, it’s looking good.
It all synthesized for me yesterday afternoon while I was loading the dishwasher while one of the girls took over feeding the baby. Catherine took a break from playing peek-a-boo with my delighted ten-month-old to turn to me and say, “Miss Jennifer, it’s going to be so fun to watch your children grow up!” And I couldn’t help but think: this is how you build a community.
* Not their real names.
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