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What it Takes to Build Community

The Stuff Memories Are Made Of Won’t Magically Find You, But You Can Find It

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Article by Jami Nato

There are few things that shape childhood more than awful do-it-yoursef perms, and those peanut butter jelly sandwiches and off-brand Doritos your mom used to throw out the door (which she locked behind her). 

“See you at dinner!”

My fondest memories as a child are those with our neighbors. I grew up on the poor side of town, and although we didn’t have the latest and greatest, we had each other. 

I remember the rusty trampoline, the sprinkler runs, the swing set, the snowball fights, the movie nights, the board games, and Caroline Kozar’s homemade pizza that we weren’t even invited to eat. But we did nonetheless. 

When we got old enough, my parents would go next door and let us babysit while they played cards and drank wine coolers and cackled on the back porch. 

I had my first kiss at eight behind a Toyota truck amidst background chants of ‘do it! do it!” I learned how to win and lose and love and fight and sell pretty rocks I found on Monroe street. It was my first taste of real community; the kind where people know you’re a little weird for selling them rocks from their own yard, but still love you anyway. 

Now as an adult, in my own neighborhood, we are just as blessed to find our brand of crazy. 

We accidentally started a Freezer Friday tradition, in which any neighbors who want to join in pulls random things out of the fridge and freezer to sacrifice to the hungry wolves we call our children. 

And our children ride bikes, they jump on the trampoline, they sell bracelets, they fight, they lose teeth, they skin knees. They are mean and nice to each other, and we all have to learn to be okay with our imperfections in front of one another. 

What it Takes

I don’t pretend to think all neighborhoods are like this, but I will say, it wasn’t always this way. In fact, it took some four years for us to get to where we’re at now. 

It takes hanging out in your front yard, not the back. It takes being okay with misbehaved kids, messy kitchens, a kind of embarrassing toilet seat (boys...), and it mostly takes being comfortable with messy lives. 

It takes someone being bold enough to ask, ‘Do you guys want to hang tonight?’ It takes a fridge full of LaCroix and having beers on hand that you don’t even drink because you know they’re your neighbor’s go-to. 

It takes showing up over and over and not believing your neighbor when she says through tear-stained cheeks, ‘it’s just allergies.’ 

It takes rolling the windows down, borrowing more eggs than you should (how am I always out?), a snow sled duct taped on top of a wagon left conveniently in front of your neighbors driveway blocking them from their morning commute, and walking to the mailbox instead of driving there and then heading straight into your garage, hiding. 

It's Right In Front of Your Face

Building community feels daunting, and sometimes we think it is supposed to magically find us. We think people are probably just “lucky” to find it where they’re at. We often long for community, but we don’t know how to be brave enough to ask for it, or to show up for it. We’re afraid to be seen, really seen. 

But from what I’ve gathered, both then and now, it appears that community is right where you are if you’ll take a moment to see it. To choose it and work for it. And goodness, it is so worth it. This is the stuff memories are made of and what forever shapes us. 

Tips to Tap Into Your Neighborhood

If I had to give tips on making your neighborhood into a community, I’ll tell you what those before us did and what we’re doing now:

  • Start a dinner club that moves from home to home in alphabetical order. The host serves the main dish and everyone else brings sides and drinks 
  • Play in your front yard (unless people are more in the back)
  • Walk everywhere if possible: to school, to get the mail, to drop something off
  • Ask your neighbors over for a drink or desserts on the porch/patio/driveway 
  • Volunteer for your HOA or community in some way 
  • Drop off flowers or cookies or something when you know a neighbor is going through a hard time or just because
  • Organize a picnic or parade and close down your street. Invite the fire department to show off their truck to the littles
  • Ask people of all age groups to come over, even if they don’t have kids and you do. Include everyone
  • Forget about messy homes. Everyone’s house is messy. No one remembers you for your clean home; they remember you for your kindness 
  • If you don’t live in a neighborhood, join a pool or some place with a built-in community. Show up there often. Look up from your phone and see people

You never know what you’ll find when you start showing up in the place you’re standing in. Perhaps your mother was right when she said, it’s right in front of your face. 

Follow Jami Nato @jaminato

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