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Vivian Norris Headshot

One American's Search for Community

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During this period of deep pain and hardship for many people, what can often be most healing is a sense of community, either creating it or re-discovering it. Some might call it simple nostalgia, and things surely were not perfect in suburban Houston in the 1970s. But the public schools in our neighborhood were fantastic. We played in woods and in a creek, which was full of crayfish, snakes and bullfrogs, and which appeared at least to be clean. Most of the doors to the neighbors' homes were unlocked and we came and went as children until the sun went down, feeling pretty safe. My mother went with other mothers to a farmer's market to buy food for several families regularly, and we joined other families at the best hamburger joint (Roznoski's) and the best barbeque (Otto's) and the best deli (Nielsen's-can't have a funeral without 'em) in Houston, which were inexpensive and damn good.

Then there were years spent in Austin in the 80s, in neighborhoods that felt like neighborhoods. Whole Foods was not yet a chain and still located in a hippy-filled wooden structure a short bus ride form the campus. Later, in Seattle in the 90s, the city was growing but in a human way it seemed. In between were years of study abroad and travel in Paris and Scandinavia, where authentic neighborhoods and safety were pretty much the norm. People watched out for one another's children. Quality of life had less to do with wealth than with knowing how to spend one's time. Student-life gave way to work life, but even on a first job salary, these places were easy to live in and enjoying oneself was possible, in fact a daily event. Full on globalization had not yet hit and the choice of vegetables in Oslo markets was limited, and in Paris eating anything out of season was unheard of...

When I returned to the US for graduate school, I remember looking at cities where I wanted to live, in addition to schools which had programs I was interested in or places where I knew people. But what I found myself actually searching for was a sense of community like I had experienced: local markets, places where I could walk and bike, which felt safe, and, imagined trying to live quite a bit like I had lived in Europe and even how we had lived as children back in Texas. I had never had a car at that time, so public transportation was a must, as was an affordable school, so at last I settled on Seattle. There I found not only a great community and a city which functioned, at the time it was possible to live centrally on a student's income, enjoy the nearby nature for free, have a beer or an (original) Starbucks for a buck, in other words, the standard of living for the money was great. This democratization of a good quality of life made for happier people who were more open to helping others. The fact that pretty much everyone was also within 5 minutes of a gorgeous (free) view did not hurt.

People were, in all of these places, even if personally conservative, extremely tolerant. It felt more like live and let live than anything else. People also seemed to be more self-reliant. Everyone I knew, even those in small apartments, had some kind of garden. We shared a lot, bringing fruits and vegetables form our gardens, salmon we had caught, flowers from the Public Market and wine to one another's homes for great meals. I live much like this still when in Paris. We have a great building in which we know everyone, stop over and have a drink with neighbors, or call one another in an emergency. Nearby is a park where we do Easter egg hunts and have great picnics several months of the year. We are not rich and some of us have had major job upheavals in the past year, but we do not feel the fear of credit card debt and houses which have plunged in value. It was always understood in a city several hundreds of years old that you can't get something for nothing.

We can walk and bike or take a bus easily to most places. There are lots of free cultural events, museums, etc. A mint tea in the garden of the nearby mosque is only 2 euros. A year's family pass to the zoo and many museums in the Jardin des Plantes is 20 euros and the gardens themselves are free. The public schools are still pretty darn good still but it is a constant battle to keep them that way. Yes, the financial climate is less than great, and it may indeed get much worse. But if you focus on what matters, and realize that the best things in life are indeed free or pretty close to it, friendship, love, a nice long walk... you will feel pretty wealthy indeed. In fact, when times get rough, this kind of relationship and community building is how people survive without giving up their humanity.

Here we live at a much slower pace, one that reminds me nostalgically of how we lived in America back in the 1970s. We sit down for a full meal with partners and family and friends. Marketing and cooking are part of the experience and I look forward to my Sunday mornings at the Marche d'Aligre and the Sunday fish lunches and magret de canard I make for my daughter who loves it. Lunches take time and my partner and I spend a few hours cooking, then during meals talking and listening to our children. I would argue that sharing meals is one of the best and most enjoyable ways of creating community.

But what stands out the most for me here is the sense of belonging to a greater community, neighborhood, humanity. When the recent protests against raising the retirement age and job cuts were held last week, those striking came not just from unions, but also from private companies. We will have more strikes later this month and people will have to walk and bike and flights will be cancelled. But heck, just a few months ago the Icelandic volcano shut down airspace in Europe and we survived it. I am thankful there have always been protests. There are more of Us than Them and we can shut things down if we want... but that takes community and solidarity.

People here know how to make do, organize their lives accordingly, and as I was reminded while waiting a really really long time yesterday at the Italian food cooperative to buy good products, it's often worth the wait here! I remember thinking while standing in line watching the Ricotta being sliced, that people in the US would go nuts having to wait like this. I on the other hand, noticed the people in the shop, one was Italian, another a old fashioned gentleman coming for his lunch meats, another who knew the owner of the shop well and he gave her a little better price. He worried what I was buying would be too heavy to carry and paid attention to how he bagged it as he saw I was on a bicycle.

Yesterday evening I turned off my phone, which I try to do as often as possible in the evenings and on weekends (whoever told someone that a ringing phone had to be answered?), and was happy to discover invitations to a last-minute picnic from two friends this morning. I turned off my phone in order to focus on the person I was with and I was reminded that we cannot really focus on creating the human contact which is the first step of building community if we do not cut off from all the noise and really listen to one another.

You cannot build a community by over-planning everything and filling up time with internet and car driving and other activities which isolate. When I choose to cut off and be more alone I do. But most of the time, just walking to work or going to the market in a city and neighborhood like this, one runs into many people one knows, whose children are also at the local school. Being part of a real community means being aware of the needs of others, as well as one's own needs.

This kind of community still exists in parts of America too, but in some places we have destroyed it. We need to use this time of economic slowdown to bring back communities and help one another and get to know one another again. We need to begin sharing more and offering help, to babysit, help move, build a piece of furniture, volunteer...

Americans are so very generous already. We need to be more generous with ourselves and not by buying another wide-screen tv or a luxury vacation, but by turning our country back into one of real communities. Participating in the schools and markets and discussions and politics is part of who we are and how democracy works.

They say you can't go home again. But I would argue we can build an even better home. It starts with Ourselves, one step, one garden, one vote, one neighbor, one reaching out, one child at a time. And before we know it, America will resemble America again. I Am Another Yourself.

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