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I’ve written before about what it’s like to live on an island of just around 800 full-time residents. I’ve written about how community is the core of survival here, and I’ve written about the ways I’m trying to show up for my friends with kids and (my friends without kids!). I think about the hard work of community formation all the damn time. But it does not come naturally or easily to me — not at all.
I’m good at being in community with my existing friends here on the island, but I have struggled to reach beyond. Part of the problem is that a lot of my social life gets sucked up into those friendships (I’m not mad about it, part of the reason we moved here was to dedicate more time to them!) and part of the problem is that the vast majority of people who live here (or anywhere) either 1) have kids, and make connections through said kids; or 2) are retirees, with a different organization and order to their lives. My partner and I are neither of those things, which I personally think kind of rules, but it can also mean less immediate access to the same sort of low-key community infrastructure.
And then a huge part of the problem is good old fashioned social anxiety, nervousness, and fear of awkwardness…all the stuff that looms large in your head when you’re trying to convince yourself to show up for something and it’s a lot easier to stay put.
For example: I had plans to make cookies for some of my neighbors before Christmas and talked myself out of it (they would think it’s weird, what if they don’t like the cookies I made, blah blah blah). I allow regular old daily fatigue to trump plans to actually show up to a nature walk. I think about how weird it will be when I walk into a meeting and everyone else knows each other and what they’re doing and who they are and why they’re there. All of these worries are somewhat irrational, and I know from experience that when you force yourself (and/or are forced) to do something low-stakes like showing up, you very rarely regret it. People are kind and welcoming, and mild awkwardness is not a tall price to pay for setting the building blocks of relationships and future care. I know this! And yet, and yet.
I’ve realized I need more accountability to actually do the things I want to do — and I know, from discussions I’ve had with many of you, that you need it too. Call it a prompt, call it a challenge, but I want to do it with a bunch of you, too. In a month-ish — on Sunday, February 26th — we’ll check back in with all manner of celebration, struggle, and support, because those are things we do very, very well here.
So here’s my own Small Community Challenge:
Show up to at least one community event, and go on a walk with one person on the island I didn’t know before moving here.
Now, if you’re up for it, tell me about yours. The goal is making it something that requires reaching out, showing up, and/or doing more than making a donation.
Some very basic ideas that you can take in any direction:
Leave a note on one (or more!) neighbors’ doors with your contact info or offer of specific help (if you ever need me to pick up an extra grocery item, if you need help with your lawn, if you ever need an extra egg, you name it)
Set-up a playground date with a fellow caregiver that you see all the time but never actually set anything in stone
Create a specific offer of childcare assistance (“I can do these times, on these days, what would work for you?”) for a friend who hasn’t had regular help
Offer to double a soup or dessert or dinner recipe and bring it to a friend or neighbor
Show up at the community event or activity group or knitting circle or public book club you’ve been meaning to show up to
Set up a volunteer training at the place where you’ve been meaning to volunteer
Text someone juggling a lot of care responsibilities and tell them where you’re going on errands, and where — anything you can pick up?
Actually sign up for Meetup.org, or the friend version of Bumble, and do more than just browse
Sign-up for a group class and then show up
Ask someone you met in a class to go on a coffee walk, or an art show, or something tangentially related to the focus of said class
Google your city’s Mutual Aid group or community fridge organization, send the email to get on the contact list, and commit to a shift
Introduce yourself to at least TWO of the dog owners you see on your walk every day and casually nod towards
Reach out to someone in your peer/friend group who’s dealing with chronic illness or disability and ask how you can support them this week — and make a plan for more consistent, weekly support
Again, you can go far afield of these basic suggestions, but writing the thing (and asking for/receiving support on how to actually make it happen) will (hopefully) help keep us accountable in building the community we crave.
If a lot of these things sound like doing things for others — of course they do. Caring for others is part of how we create the sort of bonds that make it possible for us to be cared for in return.
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I had to kind of laugh at myself here, because my instant response to this was remembering how many years I’ve tried to cut back on these small things. Which might sound odd, but I’m: incredibly introverted while being dedicated to community in so many ways, including as a form of citizenship that I wish many more people would understand the need for; and a person who consistently brings soup to a friend who’s sick or other things for someone going through trauma and always, always follows through on what I’ve committed to no matter how draining I’ve found them. I am constantly out of time and overcommitted and sacrificing a lot of my own needs.
The more people who do these small things, though, the more it all gets spread out in the community and the less pressure there is on a few people who always show up. AND it builds community bonds, social capital, and healthy interdependence.
My strategy has been to choose two areas I really care about (for me it’s walking and education) and do things that serve those. Show up at school board meetings now and then (this is something I’ve let slide during Covid, but I also pair up with some other people and we trade off), find ways to talk to city staff or city council about missing or impassable sidewalks, play math games with elementary school kids, try to build momentum around creating a community where kids can walk and bike to school safely (this seems to be taking the rest of my life). And just be there for people.
I keep trying and failing and trying to cut back. But one thing I’ve learned is how much time and showing-up-ness it takes to make change in a community, or make things happen. It’s very inefficient while also building connection. Maybe the more people who can give these things a tiny bit of time, the more things can shift for the better.
Going for walks with people is never a bad move, IMHO!
I have one that I will not need help or support on because it's going to happen. In a word, it's stairs.
As I've mentioned a couple times, I live in a cohousing community. Well, starting probably next month, our single elevator will be being replaced, a seven-week process during which all of the most elderly and frail people who live in the elevator building part of the complex (where I also live) will be needing a lot of help just doing stuff like getting groceries or mail up to their front doors. And I'm right here and work from home. Our community is organizing more than an ad hoc call your neighbor, but outside of the scheduled times when people will be available to do that stuff, I would expect to be getting a lot of calls for help, as I have during the recent elevator outages leading up to the replacement project.