Rediscovering a sense of community

We live in a nice house on a pleasant street. What we particularly like about our neighbourhood is the eclecticism in the demographic. There is no uniformity in the house sizes, so there are cosy empty-nesters like us living cheek by jowl with large families. Young, middle-aged and old are equally represented on my block.

When we moved to this retirement downsizer, we only got to know our immediate neighbours. Last year, a couple down the street decided it would be a good thing to have a block association (BA). They put flyers through everyone’s letterboxes asking what we all thought about it, and if we liked the idea, to please send them our email so we could organize a block party to seal the deal.

We signed up immediately, and so did everyone else, and eventually, after much consultation, an end-of-summer date was chosen, and a lively afternoon street party was held to the delight of all who attended.

The other day, we received a BA email asking if anyone needed help during the COVID-19 period of self-isolation, especially us oldies — and if anyone was willing to donate their time for tasks. Immediately, offers poured in to shop, dog walk or chauffeur for anyone in need of such services. That was heart-warming. My two-doors-over neighbour responded: “We are over 70 so are experiencing isolation for our own good. Now we don’t feel so alone! We moved here in 1982 and worked on the stop sign and speed bump projects. Evidently good neighbours are alive and well on (our street).”

Another neighbour asked the BA: “Anyone have an old charger for a MacBook Pro/Air (from 2011) to lend? We have pulled out old laptops for the kids’ online learning and our old charger is busted! I can order one online but won’t arrive for a few weeks.” Within minutes, they had a response: a yes and the donor’s street number. Problem solved. Suddenly the BA isn’t just an annual block party and a nice idea. We’re activated. On our street, we’re not “bowling alone” through this coronavirus thing.

Then the other night I had a call from a volunteer at our synagogue who wanted to know if we were OK and if there was anything we needed. Did we want groceries delivered? Freshly made hot meals? Did we wish to avail ourselves of pastoral support? Every single member of our large congregation over the age of 70 got a similar call. That was heart-warming, too.

We’re lucky. Many people in my peer group have no children in our city and/or live alone and/or have health issues. We still have each other and we are in pretty good health, so we can take walks and do quick shopping forays ourselves. Our daughter and her husband are only blocks away, a thought that is reassuring as we silently contemplate worst-case scenarios.

If I found those gestures of outreach touching, I can imagine how exponentially more welcome they were to those not so lucky as us. We are so glad our names and emails are on the list of that tiny, virtual “institution,” the BA, and of that big, brick-and-mortar one, our synagogue. Both evoked in us a strong sense of gratitude for where and how we are privileged to live. For others, I imagine it may evoke more than gratitude, perhaps a feeling of being pulled from a rip tide of fear into the shallows of mere concern.

As we all know, affiliation with institutions like churches and unions and service clubs has dropped off dramatically in the past 50 years. But that’s who shines in a crisis like this.

Young people think they don’t need to affiliate themselves with institutions. They have their vigour and their independence and their so-busy lives — and of course social media for “socializing.”

But when you’re old, and the activities and purposes that gave structure and automatic social connection to your life aren’t there any more, you cherish such associations. It’s a good plan for young families to affiliate when their children are impressionable, because the more people who consider community institutions a natural second home and pass along that assumption to the next generation, the stronger we are as a society. Building a habit of contribution to a church or synagogue or service organization is a good hedge against the day — like today — when you may need the kind of comfort only organized community-building can provide.

Barbara Kay is a columnist for Canada’s National Post, where this article was first published. It is republished here with permission.


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