This I Believe

Susan - Gig Harbor, Washington
Entered on October 8, 2006
Age Group: 30 - 50

I Believe in Community

I grew up in a town of 4,000 people in Arkansas. If you think the bar at “Cheers” is the only place “where everybody knows your name”, you haven’t lived in a small town in the South. The one time I cut class in high school, I ran into at least four people who knew that I was not where I was supposed to be, and made sure that my mother knew about it, too.

As a teenager, I felt confined by this scrutiny. I wanted to neck with my boyfriend out behind the courthouse without my best friend’s mother driving by. I wanted to skip Sunday School without getting a phone call from a concerned congregant wondering if I was feeling all right – after all, I must have been ill to miss church!

Now that I’m the parent of a teenager, living in a not-so-small town near Seattle, I appreciate the concern this attention demonstrated. I want my neighbors to watch out for my daughter, not out of nosy-neighbor syndrome, but out of affection. I want her to know that she is surrounded by people who love her. I want her to feel confined – but supported. And I want to know if they catch her cutting classes – or if she does a generous act of service that I don’t observe.

The philosophy “it takes a village to raise a child” has fallen out of favor recently, but it’s still a true one. In my small Southern town, I could go anywhere safely. If something did happen – a flat tire on my bike, a stranger hollering from a passing pickup – I knew that I could find an adult who would help me. Grown-ups asked me about my grades and gave me “the look” if they weren’t up to par.

But times change and people move, and I no longer live down the road from my sister, who lives next door to the house my grandparents built and that we grew up in. I live in a much more urban area, among people who can be too busy to visit on front porches or in line at the grocery story.

I’ve learned to build my own community. I’m active in my church, which has given my daughter a whole clan of surrogate aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins. I’ve been a Girl Scout leader for more than ten years, which puts me in touch with young women who will be our future leaders – and who are a lot of fun to hang out with.

But most importantly, I talk with my neighbors. I visit with the lady next to me in line at the post office. I ask the owner of the corner bookstore for his recommendations, and I read those books and recommend them to my friends.

Yes, striking up conversations with total strangers takes nerve. I might be rebuffed by a blank stare or a cold shoulder. It’s so much easier to stay behind my computer and chat online with someone I’ll never see in person. But the cost of not knowing my neighbors is simply too high. If civilization as we know it ended tomorrow, who would I reach out to – my internet service provider, or my next-door neighbor?

So I take the risk. I smile at the people I pass on the street. I volunteer. I attend community events. I’m getting to know the people around me, and letting them get to know me.

I believe that being neighborly is not a lost art. All it takes is a smile.