Engaging with my local community is one of the delights of my life. I love that I can walk or ride my bike to the small grocery market, post office, pharmacy, farmer’s market, library, coffee shop, bakery, brewery, and many other small businesses in my neighborhood that sell everything from spices to candles to garden supplies.
My experience of my neighborhood is connected to the seasons. The first time I really fell in love with my neighborhood was a late afternoon in December about eight years ago. We had just moved to Philadelphia in August, and were renting an old stone twin a couple of blocks from the main street. I had bought some evergreens for the fireplace mantle from the garden center, and was carrying them home in my arms when it started to snow huge, slowly wafting flakes. I looked around at the other residents going about their errands in their heavy coats; they also looked up at the snow, then turned to smile at one another. The trees lining the avenue were strung with sparkling lights that shone in the early darkening sky. The door of the bakery across the street barely stayed closed for people bustling in and out for their winter treats. And, as always, the streets were full with children holding their parents’ hands, groups of teen girls, couples– young and old– adult daughters walking slowly with their elderly mothers, and some folks in fancy wool coats and some in worn denim jackets.
Looking around, I felt connected to this web of people, all going about their business as I was. My armful of evergreen boughs connected me to the seasonal habits of this place. The snowflakes falling on my face connected me to the wider cycle of seasons, as well as the water cycle. And my ability to, in this moment, grasp these connections and value them, connected me to whatever divine spirit undergirds our world and binds us all together.
I have felt that deep and true sense of connection and love in many other times and places: listening to someone play the violin late at night on my college campus in Vermont, walking in the woods on a Sunday in spring, riding my bike on the sidewalks in my suburban neighborhood, and swimming in the lake at my babysitter’s house. I know that this internalized knowledge of connection is both a gift and an invitation. Knowing we belong to a community brings us real and measurable health benefits, including lowering our risk of depression and our risk of heart disease, and even adding years to our life. People who know and talk to their neighbors report higher feelings of well-being than people who feel isolated. Being supported by our community and supporting them in turn also increases our sense of well-being.
The 2010 book Bowling Alone surveyed the decline of in-person personal connections in America. Compared to the 1950s, Americans belong to fewer social organizations, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less often, and even spend less time with our families. This disconnection and isolation can lead to the impoverishment of our communities and of our own quality of life.
There are many ways to connect to your local community. Opportunities may exist at work, a place of worship, at school, organized around a hobby, at a volunteer organization, and within walking distance of our front door. A benefit of investing in a sub-community within your local community, as opposed to spending your time and effort in a community that is farther away, is that it enriches your immediate environment and the people with which you share that environment.
I have lived all over the country and in a lot of different types of communities: small apartments, suburban neighborhoods, sleepy beach towns, on a busy street, in old established communities, and in brand new communities, including one on the grounds of an old abandoned psychiatric hospital. They each had different things that they offered and things that they lacked. The only food I could walk to when we lived in the apartment on the grounds of the old Camarillo State Hospital was a vending machine in one of the buildings that they had already begun to redevelop into the new campus of California State University: Channel Islands. But what that old and purportedly haunted campus lacked in walkable culinary options it made up for in atmosphere. And there was a swimming pool, as well. My community there included neighbors, the employees and patrons of the used bookstore I owned and ran, other parents at my young daughter’s classes, and friends I still have to this day that also volunteered to host foreign exchange students from Belgium. We only lived in that apartment for a year, but I did my best to make it a home while we were there, and to connect to the needs and blessings that were revealing themselves in the community around me.
All communities have needs and blessings. The community blessings we benefit from are invariably the result of someone else’s effort to address a need. We don’t have to feel responsible for taking on all the issues in our community. We can trust that if we do what we can and what we are called to do, others in the community will do the same. And the research shows that we will personally feel better off for engaging in our local community and helping it and our neighbors to thrive.