Sunday, March 20, 2011

Won't you be my neighbor?

What do we lose when we don't cultivate relationships with our neighbors? More than we might think.

I just read an older post by Peter Gray, and it brought to mind the class I taught last summer where we talked about what "community" means and the implications of having few or weak relationships with those who live closest to you. Often, we are content not knowing our neighbors because we don't see a need for it. In fact, many are thankful that we don't have to rely on each other for survival the way we used to, and now we can easily pick and choose our acquaintances. You never know what weirdos might be lurking in the house next door--better to stay inside, right?

Gray's article would have been perfect to bring up then. In his article, he links the decline of free play (basically, kids playing outdoors, generally unsupervised) with the increase in obesity, depression, and suicide. He goes on to say that the reason parents keep their children from free play is the fear that their children might be harmed by strangers.

It's no wonder; if you believe that your neighborhood is full of strangers, then you'd be crazy to let your kids run wild among them. But is the answer to keep kids in adult-supervised activities all day long? Or is the answer to decrease our feeling that all those people out there are strangers?

I live in military housing, and kids are everywhere: in their yards, in other people's yards, in soccer fields, on playgrounds, and sometimes in the street. One neighbor kid, who I learned later is autistic, even walked into my house uninvited in order to chase after one of my cats. For someone without kids, frankly, it can be annoying, but this annoyance is also reassurance. People around here obviously trust one another, and even though there might be some unsavory individuals here, the good ones outnumber the bad, and we look out for one another.

Gray's article includes some suggestions about having more community centers. I'm not opposed to that, especially in areas where yards and communal spaces are minimal, but I think the key here is to create environments where neighbors can meet and forge a sense of trust and alliance. For example, some community centers might still fail because parents don't trust that their kids are safe there with little or no supervision. Therefore, the community centers must be places that give adults, teens, and kids something to do and opportunities to meet. Only then will everyone feel they are safe places to be.

If no funds are available to create these places, then residents might have to work a little harder to get out there and meet their neighbors, but it seems like it's worth the effort when the consequences of continued isolation are obesity and suicide. Additionally, I don't think it's a stretch to say that adults (parents or not) would feel safer and less lonely if they had stronger ties to their physical communities. So, what can we do to strengthen our relationships with our neighbors?

1. Recognize that people (Americans especially, I think) fear rejection and often won't make the first move; however, they will probably respond positively if you initiate friendship.

2. When new residents move in near you, welcome them. Introduce yourself and give them a card with your name on it (phone number, email address, and family members' names if you're comfortable with that) and a list of local businesses that you recommend. Also, if there's anything you wish you would have known about the area when you moved in, let them in on that information.

3. When you move to a new area, because of #1 above, don't wait for your neighbors to make the first move. Go door to door and introduce yourself. If you're having a housewarming party, invite your neighbors as well.

4. Be helpful. An invitation of "let me know if you need anything" only works when you truly mean it. If you see someone who looks like they could use a hand, go over and offer your help. If you know you have an elderly neighbor, go over once in a while to see how s/he is doing.

5. Be visible outside your front door. This can take different shapes depending on your living situation. If you have a front yard, mow it or work in a garden. Set up some chairs outside. Walk, jog, or ride a bike in the neighborhood. Take advantage of communal spaces or community activities.

6. Overall, take initiative. If you'd like to see a change in your neighborhood, then start it. The more people there are participating, the more that will want to join. It's all about taking the first step.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Running & simplicity

Yesterday, I ran a 5k with a friend, and it got me thinking about the way my relationship with running has changed recently. What started off as something that kept me from accepting myself has turned into an activity that helps me participate in my life more fully and connect with others.

When I was a teenager, my brother got me interested in running. I didn't take it seriously, usually only running for about a mile at a time and only in the summer months. In college, I didn't run very much because I was busy juggling school, work, and friends, but I always thought I should run more. After college, though, I started running regularly, gradually working on running longer distances. I worked up to running 3 miles (5k) and eventually 5 miles (8k). I even ran a couple races.

In all these early years, even though I knew I was doing something good for my body, my relationship with running was not particularly good for my body image. My thinking was, "I want to be skinny. Running will get me skinny." I hated running aside from the hope that one day it would make me "skinny." Well, I never did get skinny, and the devastation of not living up to that unrealistic goal fueled my dedication to running. The more I felt disappointed in myself, the more I ran, and the more I ran, the higher the expectations became. Participating in races was kind of fun, but mostly it was just tense because I felt like the slowest person there. Overall, running was about hating myself and others (for being better than me) and being out of touch with everything around me.

After being a runner in one capacity or another for several years, I woke up to what it was doing to me emotionally, and I stopped running for about 5 years. It was a great 5 years. I focused on exercising in a way that allowed me to respect my body and not compare myself against others too much. I literally slowed down. I paid more attention to my body and to my surroundings, including the people I exercised with. I tried a variety of activities and learned a lot more about health and fitness than I ever did running on a treadmill mile after mile.

Then, in November, I suddenly felt like running. And so I did.

I saw a friend of mine out for a jog in our neighborhood, and I felt pride for her. I didn't compare myself to her, judge her, or think, "Boy am I glad I'm not doing that." I didn't know it at the time, but I think watching her run struck me suddenly as being utilitarian--using something that she already had that was essentially free and using all of it. It just seemed so simple, and I thought I'd give running a second chance.

This time around, it hasn't been about any particular goal. I run because I genuinely want to, because it feels good. The result has been that I'm more in touch with the earth, with fellow runners, with my fears, and with my body. Running used to be a symptom that I was out of control; now it helps me to be in control. Fear is less of an issue because I have respect for myself. I can more easily accept who I am, and I also accept and care for others more instinctively. Yesterday, during the race, some people near me tripped a little. In the past, I might have just kept going without much thought, but this time, I actually paused and made sure they were okay before continuing. Running is a great way to participate in charity events and explore new landscapes as well.

I know for a lot of people running certainly does not feel good, so I would never say that everyone should do it, but I do think it's important to use up what we have physically, mentally, and emotionally, so we know what we're capable of as individuals and as a whole. When there is a challenge, there is a potential for community and understanding.

[The above photo was taken before the race. This was my fundraising team, and we raised $3,000 for Camp Okizu--a camp for kids with cancer and their families. Because of the 6 of us, 2 more kids will get to go to this great place.]