Monday, December 13, 2010

A sense of community

Recently, I returned from several weeks in Germany.  The trip was very  enjoyable, traveling is something I love.  I love seeing the world through the eyes of another culture.  I like seeing the good things people have done to live better, richer lives.  We, as Americans often think we are ahead of the curve, that we have the patent on the best ways of living.

Now don't mistake me here, I am a patriotic American.  I am the original Southern Belle, I love North Carolina, it will ALWAYS be home, even if I am living anywhere else.  I think America is the greatest country in the world, I am grateful for all the freedoms this country affords me.

However, I don't think everything about America is perfect, and I definitely think there are many things we need to improve on.

Some of the problems that face us in society can be sorted by adopting a new way of daily life, or perhaps I should say retreating to a way of life that really isn't so distant.  I think that we need, especially in the smaller more sprawling towns, to redevelop our sense of community.  

Already this is happening some, in my 'neighborhood',  we have, within walking distance, several grocery stores, doctors' offices, coffee houses and restaurants.  Downtown, with its local artisan shops, boutiques, restaurants and entertainment venues is only a little bit of a longer walk away.  The SALT Block ( Science, Art, Literature center) is within walking distance as well. 

The problem is that people aren't walking to them, they are climbing in their shiny new hybrid vehicles and driving to them.  We talk so much lately about reducing our carbon footprints and reducing our dependence on foreign oil, yet we are still driving to places we should be walking. 

Oh I can hear you now, I don't have the time to walk!  Driving is faster! I can fit all my kids/friends/stuff in the car!  First of all, faster doesn't mean better.  We should all be taking time in the day to recenter ourselves.  No, I am not spouting some new age holistic philosophy.  I simply mean that most of us just go, go, go.  We don't take time out to just breathe, to gather our thoughts, or let them go for awhile.  We need to free ourselves from that endless to do list sometimes.  Daily.  So...take the thirty minutes to walk to the market instead of driving.  Or the coffee shop, or the restaurant.  Wherever it is you need to go in your neighborhood...walk, don't drive.  Breathe the air, let it wash through you and refresh you, think about nothing, or about something that makes you happy.  Or talk to your kids or friends that you have gotten into walking with you.

Another ill that would be helped by walking your local errands, is health issues.  If you start walking to the grocery store instead of driving, you won't buy as much, because suddenly you have to carry it all home with you without the aid of the backseat or trunk.  You suddenly become much more selective about what you buy.  Do you really want the two liter soda if you have to lug it home in your reusable market bag?  And you are walking daily, you notice changes in your body, things that were...ahem...well rounded, have smoothed out, you don't really need that gallon of ice cream, especially since it will probably melt a bit on the way home, then you just have a mess on your hands.  Also, because you are buying less at a trip, you are going to walk to the market more often, daily or every other day, thus helping your health and mental state.  I noticed that Europeans tend to buy bread daily, not the nearly predigested white bread so many Americans eat, but hearty brown breads, full of seeds and whole grains.  Full of actual flavor, with crusts you actually have to chew.  This is another excellent reason for walking to the market, or hopefully the local bakery daily.  Life is far to short to eat bad bread.  If you don't have a bakery in your neighborhood and your grocery store only sells the regular bread on the shelves, then ask for better bread, bread baked fresh daily, with whole grains and good quality ingredients.

It may seem that my ranting about bread doesn't really suit the rest of this, but let me explain my thinking.  I am not just talking about walking places, but about changing the way we think about our daily lives.  We are so quick to rush through everything.  We sacrifice quality of life for trying to stuff in as much as possible every day.  People see the prints of the Norman Rockwell covers for the Saturday Evening Posts and say things like, 'oh the good old days,' and they sigh wistfully.  The things that actually appeal to people in those pictures are the simple pleasures found in daily life with family and friends.  The sort of things that we should fill our lives with now.  Slower, more mindful activities and thinking.   Food features prominently in many of those pictures, good food.  You can tell its good because of the look of anticipation on the faces of the people around the table.  Food doesn't have to be elaborate to be good.  When you walk to the market and carefully select the food that you will carry home under your own steam, and serve to your family suddenly becomes better quality.  Most of us won't produce our own food, beyond a summer garden, so walking to the market and carefully choosing is as close as we get to being producers of the provisions of the table.  How much better is the food when we have added to, even in that small way, its place on our table.  Life, when you live it by wringing every bit of joy from it as possible, is so much better when you find ways to actively participate in it every day.

When you start to make these changes, this walking to local places on a daily basis, you start to meet your neighbors.  You start to see your community differently, you start to become more invested in it.  You want those local shops to succeed, you want to encourage your local artisans, because each of their successes means a success for the community.  In the bigger picture, the nation at large, Free trade has given so much of our goods production to China and other countries with cheap labor.  It is destroying our national economy.  All of us know someone who is out of a job because the companies have sent the manufacturing overseas.  Local artisans, local businesspeople are creating quality products and when we support them, the money is staying local and therefore good for our community and in the long run, good for us.  Actively supporting our community this way makes it 'ours'.  We will care about thing that we are so invested in, and when we care about our community, our quality of life automatically grows.

When more of us are walking around our communities, going to the market, or a local shop, or heading out to meet friends at a coffee house, I believe that our communities become safer.  We know more of our neighbors, they know us.  We look out for each other, we look out for our children.  With more responsible like minded, every day people out on the sidewalks, there is less room, less opportunity for the criminal element among us.  Our kids should grow up walking around our communities.  They should be able to cross the streets and walk to an from school without fear of dangerous people lurking around.  They should learn to be civic minded, to want to grow their community too.  How many of us complain now that these kids today have no manners or take everything for granted, they have no appreciated from where the things they are given come from.  If we walk to the local market, to the local artisan shops and take our kids with us, we are reinforcing the idea of the physical being part of our daily lives, that regular exercise is important, that exercise doesn't have to be just an intensive session at the gym.  We are teaching them to get to know our neighbors.  We are teaching them the importance of buying and selling locally, of supporting the growth of our community, of learning where things come from.  We teach them to meet the people behind the craftmanship or services.   To put faces to those that produce the materials of our lives.  This will develop a sense of personal accountability both in our children and in ourselves as the people of the community who are producing everything.  We teach them quality is more important that quantity and that sometimes when you pay cheaply for something it is because that something is cheap.

Most importantly, creating a sense of community develops each one of us into something better.  Investing ourselves fully into daily life can only increase the quality of that life.  Living fully locally can only broaden your horizons.  So leave your hybrid in the driveway, grab your kids/friends/dog and walk out into your community and discover the richness of life waiting for us all.

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