Ten years ago this month, my sweetie and I moved in our current home. Within a few weeks we had met our immediate neighbors, and over the next few months I made an effort to stop and chat with a handful of them whenever our paths crossed. Fragile-yet-positive connections were being forged… then winter came. With the arrival of frigid temperatures and heavy snow, everyone hunkered down inside their homes – and I didn’t see some of our neighbors for the next five months.
When spring appeared, I resumed my outdoor activity, and saw some neighbors in their yards from time to time. But because I didn’t really know them, I felt uneasy doing much more than smiling and waving. I usually received a grin and a nod in return, but then the neighbor continued with whatever they were doing. So I kept walking.
As a result, a decade has passed and I still don’t really know any of our neighbors. I know the faces of the people who live on our street, and I know who has kids, who has dogs, who works, and who is retired; but I am ignorant of any details beyond these very basic, easily observable facts. I don’t even know the names of the majority of the people who live within a few hundred feet of me, as ridiculous (and sad) as that is. I don’t feel comfortable asking these people for help, even when I need it. (I.e., my car battery dies and I need a jump, or I can’t get the snow blower to start when my sweetie is out of town, or he and I go on vacation and need someone to just keep an eye on the house and pick up the mail…) I don’t feel like I live in a community; I feel like I live in a nice neighborhood, but one that is populated with strangers. As “nice” as this state is, it can be a very lonely place.
And I don’t want to feel isolated and alone on my own street. Ideally, it would have been great if a Welcome Wagon approached my husband and I those many years ago, warmly introduced us to the neighborhood, and offered us opportunities to meet people and get involved with them. But that never happened. And I haven’t offered that service to any of the families who arrived after we did. So while I didn’t ‘create’ the issue of community isolation, I certainly am not taking action to address it. As a wise man said, “If you’re not a part of the solution, you’re a part of the problem. Quit being a part of the f***ing problem!”
Yet if reaching out to my neighbors was an easy task, I would have done it already. I’m not an overly shy or fearful person, but for some reason when it comes to trying to connect with the families who live around us, I struggle. I don’t invite anyone over for dinner, for drinks, or even for a walk. Some part of me believes that my efforts would be received as advances or intrusions, and that I would be labeled weird, awkward, bizarre. I worry that I would become known as that strange lady on the corner with the dogs, the one kids should learn to stay away from. I feel uncomfortable with making myself vulnerable, so I stay ‘safe’ by doing nothing.
However. One day each year, every citizen is given the opportunity to take action in the name of public service to try and lessen existing community isolation. National Night Out is a “community-police awareness-raising event”, with the goals of strengthening neighborhood spirit and reducing incidents of crime. Citizens are asked to organize a gathering for others in their community, anything from a neighborhood parade to a potluck dinner. Big events have contests and prizes and get visited by a fire truck; smaller affairs are content to have people share some burgers and chat for a while. For the past several years I have considered hosting a National Night Out event for our small community; but as each August approached I talked myself out of the idea, saying I was too busy, or that I might be on vacation that week, or that I wouldn’t want to inadvertently compete with an event that someone else might want to organize… Of course, these were all just excuses. (And lame ones at that.) When push came to shove, I was just afraid. Afraid that people would think I was odd. Afraid that no one would come to my gathering. Afraid that I would be ridiculed. Afraid of not being liked. Afraid of not being accepted. Afraid that all of the insecurities I have would be validated by people that I would have to face every day, year after year, potentially for decades. I wanted to remain protected, even if that meant also remaining isolated.
The only way to be released from a fear is to face it. As much as I didn’t want to put #15 on my 101 list, my heart knew that I had to. If I didn’t make a public commitment to try and do my part to address the lack-of-community problem, I knew I would never take action. And if I didn’t take action, I would continue to be bound by fear. And fear sucks. So with some anxiety, last September I wrote the words, “Participate in National Night Out” on the list – and began to prepare for the day when I would have to actually do them.
Last week I realized that National Night Out was quickly approaching – and instantly I felt a small-yet-hard knot form in my stomach. Ugh. I considered pushing this task out another year (as my deadline to complete the entire list is still over 600 days away), but I knew avoiding the task wouldn’t make it go away; in fact, ignoring what was in front of me might actually permit the uneasy feelings to intensify. After taking a few deep breaths and engaging in some powerful self-talk, I decided to suck it up and have this be the year for me to bring National Night Out to our street. This being the ten-year-anniversary of our arrival to the neighborhood seemed like an auspicious time, too.
In planning for the occasion, I opted to keep the affair low-key and simple. I would buy some snacks, make a poster, set up a table on the corner of our yard, and encourage any neighbor who happened to pass by to stop for just a few minutes and enjoy a free refreshment. Once at the table, I would see if the person was at all interested in becoming a more integrated member of our little community, mostly by providing him or her an opportunity to share information about themselves. I would create a form that asked about basic details like the person’s name, address, and phone number, and offered options for the person to indicate if they were willing to watch a fellow neighbor’s house or pets when that family went on vacation. I would graciously accept any – or no – responses. I would do my part to lay possible ground work, then let nature decide what results might come.
So after I got home from work this past Tuesday, I changed out of my business attire and into casual summer clothes. I pulled our small folding table from the basement and carried it outside, placed bowls of cookies and crackers on top, and set a coolers filled with chilled juice boxes and bottles of water nearby. I taped a hand-made poster to the front of my make-shift “stand”, and let my community know that I was a part of National Night Out.
It’s go time.
So… What happened? How did I fare?
The short answer is not well, followed by pretty cool.
Here’s the long answer:
From 5-6 pm, I sat behind the table in our yard. I smiled and waved at every car that passed, at every biker who peddled past, and at every person who walked by. In those 60 minutes, 21 cars, 2 bicyclists, and 3 pedestrians all traversed the road in front of me. Of those 26 individuals, four of them made contact with me. All three pedestrians acknowledged me (mostly because it would be incredibly awkward if they didn’t), but our interactions weren’t exactly “positive”. Here’s the standard exchange that took place:
Neighbor: “What is this?”, indicating the table of free goodies.
Me (smiling broadly and responding with a happy tone): “It’s National Night Out! People in communities in every state are getting together tonight to talk; so I thought I would, too. Would you like some free snacks, or share some information about yourself?”
Neighbor: “No, I really don’t.” And they continue walking.
One driver did stop her car long enough to roll down her window and ask, “What are you doing?” – and when I explained my purpose, she answered with, “Well aren’t you sweet!” Then she drove away.
After an hour I was incredibly hot and sweaty (it was 88 degrees [F] and I was sitting in the blazing sun), a bit dehydrated, and a bit deflated. Truthfully, I kind of suspected that this is how the event would go – i.e., it would be one big non-event. Still, a small part of me had hoped that maybe what our little community needed was just a catalyst, a “reason” to begin to engage with one another, to start to form friendly connections. I’m not looking for best friends, I’m just interested in learning people’s first names, and maybe having someone offer to pick up mail a few days each year. But I guess that simply isn’t meant to be.
With a melancholy heart, I packed up all of the uneaten snacks, folded the table down flat, and crumpled all of the signs into a big ball of trash.
I toted all of the supplies back into our house, then got the puppies ready for our evening stroll. At least I can count on them for some cheer and love.
As the two dogs and I approached the entrance of the neighborhood park that we walk through twice a day, I saw three small balloons. As I got closer, I saw that the balloons were attached to a tiny white sign bearing the words, “NIGHT TO UNITE, 6:30-9:30 PM.”
As the puppies and I turned the corner and walked into the park, I saw three people lighting a grill and setting up a variety of games. When they saw me, they eagerly asked, “Are you here for the Night To Unite party?”
Without hesitation, I answered, “Yes I am!”
I quickly returned to our house, grabbed the bag of snacks that I had just brought in from my non-event, and carried them to this occurring-event. The puppies and I spent the next 45 minutes mingling with a variety of neighbors. I had meaningful exchanges with eight other people, and shared a quick, “Hello! My name is…” with a several more folks. I smiled, I laughed, I chatted, I wrangled excited puppies – and I even added my name to a neighborhood email/phone number list that the organizers had started. In short, I had a good time. And in the end, I got what I was looking for: a chance to connect with neighbors.
The night didn’t turn out as I had planned. My ‘vision’ (expectations) were quite different from the reality that presented itself. But the evening was a success nonetheless. And it was successful largely because I was flexible enough, and humble enough, to let go of “my” plan and to accept THE plan that formed – and to remain positive through it all. I really can’t explain how much emotional progress this is for me. It was an incredibly significant night, and gave me so much more than I ever imagined it would. Not only did I get to meet some new neighborhood characters, but I also got introduced to some new characteristics that have been quietly growing within myself.