As I shared in previous articles (like this one), I'm on a personal mission to make my neighborhood a caring,
connected place. Besides the enjoyment I get out of it, I've also seen and experienced what a drastic change these connections can make in how we live, and in how our communities function overall, from increased safety and economic thriving to better health, education, and use of resources.
This is all tied to my work as a community-builder, but I feel it's something that anyone can do. To that end, one of the things I like to do with my little-big quest is finding "little changes" in my ordinary routines that help me connnect with my neighbors and connect neighbors with one another--things like walking downtown rather than driving, making eye contact with neighbors and smiling, or even taking that moment to stop and chat when I see a neighbor on the street.
A couple weeks ago, I turned 30. I love hosting parties, and I really love dancing. So, I threw a "Dance Like a Monkey" party at my house. Out of concern for not wanting to get noise complaints, I made a point to let my neighbors know about the party. I also decided to add in a "little change" that would add some warmth and some chance of connecting better with them -- an invitation.
Day-of, as always happens: running around like crazy. "Notify Neighbors" was the last task. A bit harried,
I stuck with the plan and went to each neighbor's door.
A few of neighbors were home. I knocked at one house that had always intrigued me because I never saw a car in the garage or people coming in and out [Willy Wonka's factory comes to mind].
To my surprise, not only do people live there, but they're just about the most gracious couple I ever encountered.
A woman I soon learned was Pat opened the door to me. As soon as I let her know there'd be a party, she expressed her regret that she could not come, then immediately invited me in to see the house. She introduced me to her husband Wayne and showed me around their amazing home, explaining that they had designed the whole thing with a Mediterranean style in mind. She shared that they had lived in a gated community previous to Gillespie Park, and made a conscious decision to move here because it's diverse and not homogenous, with a rich variety of incomes, ages, races and cultures. I felt extremely gratified to meet someone who has that as a reason, like I do, to live in and love Gillespie Park.
Tight on time, I excused myself and was again pleasantly surprised when Pat said, "It's so nice to meet you! We have cocktails every night at five o'clock, please feel free to come over anytime." Really? And all I had to do was knock on the door. I continued my notification route, wedging hand-written notes in the doors of those who weren't home.
The next surprise came well into the party. A few hours into the great hubbub, an unfamiliar, bright smiling face appeared and forthrightly introduced herself: "Hi, I'm Anisley. I'm your neighbor. I got your note!"
Well, I just about peed for joy. While I left the note on neighbors' doors I hadn't officially met, I didn't actually expect anyone to show up. I mean, who does that? Only someone abnormally neighbor- and community-focused would do such a thing. Apparently, this little note was all it took for me and Anisley to meet.
At the party that night, Anisley and I clicked so well and were both so excited to meet a neighbor that we promised to stay connected. We became Facebook friends and exchanged phone numbers. My life is crazy busy, and I love to merge things with each other to save time and discover synergy and new combinations of things, people, projects I have going on. So, since I have committed this blog in part to documenting my adventures in "HoodRoving" (discovering, celebrating and connecting the gifts and talents in
my neighborhood), I decided to merge the "let's hang out" with "I have to write an article this week." Anisley was completely obliging when I asked if I could write an article about her for my TWIS blog, so one Thursday night found me poking around our other neighbor Holly's backyard to be welcomed by Anisley at her back door. As I obliged her invitation to get comfortable on her ample living room couch and enjoy a beer with her, I was totally flabbergasted with how much we have in common, and what an incredible young lady I have living next door.
Anisley is natural community connector with a huge heart for people and an infectiously bright attitude, energy and enthusiasm for life. Her home, which she shares with two roommates, reflects these qualities --- the kitchen, dining room and living room are contained in one large room that's expertly arranged to hold a space that feels welcoming and comfortable ... perfect for a party or a leisurely chat. Which is what we had. Well, it was more of a surging happy train of a chat as we took off swapping passions that matched creepily well --- for community, people, travel, philosophy and Buddhism, and speaking Italian.
Anisley grew up in Cuba and has noted the lack of a sense of community ever since her move. A recent graduate of the
University of Florida with a degree in Psychology, she was an RA for three years and loved how that role pushed her to figure out how to make all students feel welcomed and supported by other students --- to basically build a community from a group of strangers. Her dream is to go back to graduate school and become a practicing psychologist for marital counseling. We discovered a shared passion for gardening --- before I left, she showed me her garden, which she admitted was struggling to survive the summer heat. We also swapped knowledge about our surrounding neigbors. I shared my story about meeting Pat and Wayne, who she hadn't been able to connect with as well, and she told me about Barbara across the street, and that a neighbor couple we both know also gardens. Of course, I also told her about my friend Leo's amazing chocolate micro-factory just a block away.
I mentioned to her that I've been wanting to start one but keep not doing it, for whatever reason. "Well if you want, we can
make one together and you can also share in our compost pile," she said. Bam! Suddenly gardening is half as daunting a task and twice as fun-sounding. I also mentioned to her that I have a couple of friends who live in the neighborhood who are as excited about connecting neighbors as I am --- upon which point our thinking converged once again --- "Let's have a potluck and get to know each other."
We were both sad to end the conversation, but I had no choice as the deadline for writing this article was just a couple of hours away. We now have plans to go together to a musical jam in Bradenton's Village of the Arts and keep this delightful conversation going.
I end this evening with one of the best birthday presents of all: a new neighbor, whose energy I adore and whose parallel interests to mine make what I want to do seem so much more do-able ... and fun. I also am reminded by my encounters with Pat, Wayne and Anisley that building community is not rocket science. It comes down to "little changes" on which each of us can improvise within our every day lives.
Because it's community, the exact results are unpredictable. But in my experience so far, the good surprises come in abundance along with all the benefits I gain as I know more about those around me.
Perhaps, if these little actions can continue and spark one another, one day a young girl will move here from her own tight community and, instead of a bunch of isolated houses, find what she left behind: a place to live where people know one another, do things together, share resources and care.
It's amazing what a little note can do.