It’s seems often most advantageous to see neighbors out and about when the weather is bearable. Someone is always riding a bike, going on a walk, grabbing the mail, or fighting over who’s turn it is to be pushed on the swing. Our neighborhood seems to be alive with annual street picnics or unplanned “freezer fridays,” as we sometimes call them.
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But what about when the weather turns? I’m either grumpy about the cold air slapping me in the nose or the surge in activities that fill my calendar: Thanksgiving hosting, Christmas pageants, ornament exchanges—and don’t forget the family drama and stress that seems to take up more space than we’d like. (If you haven’t found out that your sister got married through a Facebook announcement, get on my level.)
It begs me to think about when I was little, my mom would get a bee in her bonnet about a craft and her and our neighbor, Caroline would gather all the children around a non-BPA free tablecloth that also doubled as a shirt protector for in-home perms which would gently burn one's eyes down to the retina. That’s a different story for a different time. Come back to the crinkle of the tablecloth with me, and imagine colorful puff paint and a bag of ornate buttons from the discount store.
We would each have our own sweatshirt, then be instructed to hand paint a Christmas tree shape with a zig-zag of more puff paint in the middle for “the garland.” At the end we would add the most obnoxious buttons atop the paint as ornaments for the sweatshirt tree. A fun addition is to let your cat walk on the paint while they’re drying and ruin your mother’s carpet. I wore that sweatshirt down to its last thread for two Christmases—it was my favorite. I would like to say it was because of my talent (plus Dollface the cat’s added touch), but I think it was more because of the memory it conjured: the feeling of community.
I can not help but think how loud and messy that get together must have been with 12 children between the two of our families. But I’ll tell you this: Caroline became my mother’s best friend, out of proximity, not so much choice. And I knew that because you don’t just share wine coolers and puff paint and yelling at your kids gratuitously with anyone. That’s some special stuff.
In the winter, we would wander next door for movie nights, even though we weren’t actually invited. Caroline would be making homemade pizza, or my mom would bring over fried burritos. I’m sorry if your mother has never made you a fried burrito; prayers headed your way. But a lot of it was impromptu, some of it was planned, all of it was just living closely with those we shared a fence with.
I don’t remember my childhood days in the car, or eating fast food (couldn’t afford it anyway), or being over-scheduled (also couldn’t afford that). There is a space that barely making ends meet provides, and I kind of wish that for my own children, even though we have the luxury of extra money for activities and travel and going somewhere to “be entertained.” We never thought about going somewhere to find enjoyment or fun; it was always just right there.
My point is, while going to be entertained can be fun and all, what if we intentionally said no a little more, so that we held space for spontaneous neighbor hangs? Or for planning that neighbor ladies get together? Or the guys and cigars night?
I think many times we crave community but are unwilling to create spaces where this can really happen. And we’re probably afraid of rejection too; what if everyone says no? That’s okay; everyone is busy. Keep asking, and eventually they’ll cave to your kindness!
Now that I’m older with a full calendar, I am loving the accountability of our neighborhood quarterly “dinner club”—we go in alphabetical order, host makes the main and everyone brings sides and wines and bad jokes. We also have what we’ve endearingly started calling our monthly neighbor ladies dinner, “The 38 Club,” as we are all around that age, except a few “old” ladies who I shall not mention here for fear of an intentional white elephant gift exchange sabotage. I really want the stuffed squirrel this year, so I’ll be nice.
The monthly and quarterly part of this is very intentional, and it just happens like clockwork. We’re accountable to the tradition of meals together and showing up for each other, even when the seasons turn and we have to slap on the snow boots to get to the hot soup and a warm spiked cider. Which might hypothetically turn into a splits competition. I’m not saying it did or didn’t happen. I’m also not saying it has not been officially confirmed by several news outlets that I was sore for three days afterwards.
All that aside, none of us would have sought the others out, but proximity gives us a gift of taking out the guesswork of who to invite in. Here’s who is in front of you to love, if you’ll see them. And work for it—yes there’s work involved. But worthy work, and I would say it often feels spiritual and holy to gather together, bring your messes, sit across from one another and say: hey, we’re not the best but we’re all we got and WHO MADE THESE BLUE CHEESE NACHOS?! RECIPE please!
Ideas for Building Community This Winter
- Invite people for s’mores by the fire pit
- Make a craft, like ornaments, together with the kids
- Ladies of the neighborhood dinner night
- Clothing exchange party
- Happy hour meetup
- Movie night in the living room
- Street or backyard football game
- White elephant gift exchange or regifting exchange (hilarious and fun!)
Follow Jami Nato @jaminato