Heidi Isern

writer. thinker. whiskey drinker.

Why You Don’t Have Community (and How to Build it)

Cities are like swarms of independent ants. People scurry to and from various engagements, prodded by an overbooked calendar and FOMO – Fear of Missing Out.  Crowds roll over like an incoming set of waves, and we easily lose one another.

Our constant buzzing through disparate social webs make any consistent get-together with a set group of friends as likely as God giving you a toothy grin and passing you the winning number to MegaMillions in a lucid dream. We ask ourselves, have we lost a sense of community?

“Everyone is too damn busy,” laments one friend

“It’s like people are disposable,” says another. “Here today. Gone the next.”

It’s San Francisco.  We are not disposable. We are recyclable.

We are forever shape shifting our identities, shimmying out of set obligations, disappearing when people bore us and magically reappearing, recycled, somewhere else.  Somewhere “more fun” or “more important.”  We are infatuated with the possibilities of a new group (the libertarian cyclist club), a new date (Tinder swipe #234), or a new event (the dominatrix squirrel exhibition).  Cities offer a ceaseless supply of ‘new’.

Small towns are different.  In small towns there are no shiny objects to distract us.  We wake up to the same ol’ dusty, comfortable, sameness each morning.

The magical city cloak of anonymity, a necessary clothing item in large cities, doesn’t work in small towns. You cannot hide from the neighbors (after all, they have keys to your house) and no one morphs into an alter-ego for fear of upsetting the entire community who count on you to be you, and Marty the grocer to be Marty the grocer.

In the small town I grew up in, Marty the grocer had a small television next to the register where he would watch football and neglect his customers, convinced that his steadfast attention to the game would supply another touchdown for the Buffalo Bills (which was far more important than ringing up customers in a timely fashion).  Marty wore alternating Bills sweatshirts every day except on Sunday, the Sabbath, where he wore a white button-down and reread bible passages to us all, unless the Bills were playing.  Then he took the Lord’s name in vain.

Marty was loud and opinionated and really lousy at customer service but we forgave him and loved him because what choice did we have?  It wasn’t like Marty was going to pick up, buy property in Hawaii, and leave us without fresh produce.  So we learned to love him for the imperfect person he was.  On the day our dog Mischief died he brought us 2 bags of groceries filled with Nestles bars and a dozen glossy New York Empire apples.  This is what people in small towns do.

 How can we build a small-town sense of community in the large, transient, busy metropolis that we find ourselves in?

 

1. Find your Marty.

In the sea of transience, there are always a few stable anchors. Find the anchor in your neighborhood. You know, the one person that has been there for 20 years and has another 20 to go.  Perhaps it’s the dive bar bartender.  Or the slow drip coffee barista on the corner.  Or the receptionist in your building. Get to know them. Learn their birthday. Tell them yours. Be loyal to them even if they charge you $1 more for glass of wine and or talk your ear off about their crazy ex-spouse. Familiarity is worth a fortune.  And on that bad day, when your boyfriend dumps you and you lock yourself out of the house and feel like a total failure, they’ll buy you a beer and listen to YOU talk THEIR ear off.

 

2. Forgive your friends.

Like you, they are totally imperfect. Remember the one who is chronically late to every engagement? She breathily enters, catapulting explanations while we all roll our eyes. Like the time the major ‘dog fire emergency’ happened right before your birthday dinner at Gary Danko. After giving her dog Puddles a bath, she decided to blow dry him, and a stray puppy hair got caught in the motor of the hair dryer, turning the appliance into a flame-spitting gun that, against all odds, ignited Puddles on fire. After calling 911 the fire brigade arrived at her door, one wearing nothing but bright red suspenders.

Sometimes you want to recycle this friend, and pick up a more punctual replacement.  But in small towns people don’t have this luxury. There is no one to replace them with. So they are forgiven, their tall tales accepted and even treasured.  So forgive her, know that she’ll always be like this, and focus on her positives. Like her scantily clad firemen friends.  She’ll then forgive YOU when you , longing for a drinking buddy, get her dog Puddles drunk on Cabernet.

 

3.  Get less busy.

If there were one word I wish I could erase from everyone’s vocabulary, it would be “busy.” Everyone has a thousand engagements stacked on top of each other like mattresses in the tale of the princess and the pea.

I’m guilty.  When I ran the grand experiment called “American dating” I treated my calendar like it was the Queen’s, carefully evaluating every prospect to ensure they were worth the allotted hour.  But because I was “so busy” I had to plan them out 2 weeks in advance and sandwich a frisky date in between yoga practice and fancy salons on topics like “hedonistic eating.”  My dating experiment failed.  Eating however, didn’t.

In small towns, calendars are not stretched quite so thin. People actually hang out at home and are available, ready for the impromptu “visit.”  Remember “visits?”  When people would drop by for no other reason except to sip some tea and gossip about the neighbor’s dog? We should all plan 2 days a week to be unplanned. And then go make an impromptu visit.

If you do any one of those 3 items, I promise you will start to ignite a community. Social belonging is a key slice of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that is actually MORE IMPORTANT than the next slice, esteem.  Basically, we need others, (and they need us), more than we need ourselves.  If you take the first step and give people attention, people will flock to you with open arms, happy to be included in your home-grown community

“When we get too caught up in the busyness of the world, we lose connection with one another – and ourselves.”

― Jack Kornfield

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