What Makes A Street Into A Neighborhood?

neighborhood-building, block parties, pig pen parties, getting along with neighbors,

What makes a neighborhood? Sometimes that’s hard to figure out.

I’ve lived in a number of places. Not all of them seemed like neighborhoods. When I was first on my own I used to bemoan that my fellow renters could hardly be bothered to return a wave but someone kept stealing my newspaper. One day, walking home from the grocery store, I realized to my chagrin that I recognized names on mailboxes but couldn’t put faces to those names. I never did much to make that a neighborhood.

Then we moved to a little house. It was silly how hard it was to meet the neighbors. They’d wave but that’s about it. It took nearly a year to meet the older couple across the street. (They seemed old to me then because their kids were teenagers. Not so funny in retrospect.) Our mailbox was on their side of the street. I tried get my mail when one of them went out to collect theirs so I could introduce myself but they tended to scurry back in the house as if my nearly 5’3 stature blocked their share of sunlight. Finally I baked a loaf of bread, knocked on their door and said I was sorry we hadn’t gotten a chance to meet. They turned out to be lovely people. They still write long chatty updates to me years after we moved away.

I began to understand that it takes effort to make a real neighborhood. Change is carved out by a few people doing things differently (well, actually reawakening old ways).

I dug and planted a garden right by the sidewalk. Every time I tended it I was in close proximity to my neighbors, letting me say “hi” to people who walked by and wave at neighbors who drove by. I shared produce from my garden (sometimes leaving surprise zucchini and tomatoes on doorsteps with silly notes).

My kids were outside nearly every day. In their baby years they’d crawl in the grass or, if the ground was wet, play under a tree in a portable playpen. (I’m a believer in outdoor time even for babies.). As they got older they played outside for hours, sometime cavorting happily in the rain and sometimes shrieking with joy in the snow. I think the sheer presence of kids playing outside makes it enticing to other kids and makes it seem normal again to other parents.

When I could, I greeted people who moved onto our street with homemade goodies.

I also started inviting people over. In the fall we had bike parades where the kids spent a happy hour or so decorating their tricycles, scooters, and bikes to ride around the neighborhood in a grand procession before coming back to our house for a picnic. We had cookouts, Halloween parties, and Christmas caroling parties. We met up for working get-togethers such as picking apples with our kids, then devoting a moms-only evening to making applesauce. (Okay, that one time we drank wine and talked so long we had to get together another time to actually make the applesauce.)

The major neighborhood bonding events were our summer pig pen parties. These were grand messy BYOB affairs, as in bring your own bucket—of dirt. The dirt was dumped in a backyard kiddie pool and mixed by all the kids in attendance into perfectly creamy mud, which they used to coat themselves until they were recognizable only by bathing suit outlines. We put a garden hose at the top of our slide and the kids careened down in glorious streaks of mud. We handed out cans of shaving cream for use as body décor (with firm instructions to avoid faces because it’s not fun in the eyes). And we insisted the kids eat without utensils or hands, just direct face to plate. Like pigs. Of course these parties got out of hand once the grown-ups refused to sit in lawn chairs watching the kids have all the fun. Some neighbors showed up in pig masks, others showed up with water balloons sneakily hidden in baby strollers and little red wagons, others smuggled in massive auxiliary supplies of shaving cream. Normally well-behaved men used hoses to fill garbage cans with water, which they dumped over the heads of the few civilized mommies who thought they’d keep their hair looking nice. One year the entire assemblage of pig pen partiers were incensed that a regular pig pen attendee decided to stay home to repair a fence. All of us walked down to the street in wet, muddy, shaving cream-streaked glory to drag him to the party. His police chief father who was there helping him make the repairs looked seriously alarmed. We dragged him anyway.

One year a house caught fire down at the far end of the street that resulted in serious smoke damage. I had no problem getting donations from nearly every neighbor to help cover the family’s losses. It didn’t matter that few of us had met them. I dropped off the largess when their kids were in school so they wouldn’t feel beholden to anyone. It was anonymous except for the signature, “from your neighbors.”

That was years ago. Now we live on a small farm. Maybe because the houses are farther apart, maybe because it’s a small township, maybe it’s due to other complications but it has taken years to feel connected in a neighborly way. Yet it’s still a neighborhood. When a child is lost everyone turns out of their homes to tramp through the woods, fields, and streams until she’s found. When a car is stuck in a ditch, someone will get out a tractor to pull it free day or night, simply saying “no problem.” People offer the bounty from their fruit trees and willingly share equipment. I still harbor the ideal of a vibrant neighborhood but I’m grateful for the  goodwill we’ve slowly managed to find here. I’m learning that neighborhoods are different, and who we are is only part of that difference.


For neighborhood-building resources check out:

How to use Front Porch Forum to create caring neighborhoods by Bill McKibben (author of wonderful books such Deep Economy and Hope, Human and Wild.

How to organize a neighborhood work-sharing group.

How to create a more vibrant neigborhood.

How i-Neighbors can help you develop local networks.

How to share with your neighbors.



“Neighbors” image courtesy of Nirel

Do You Tell The Truth About Santa?

A few decades ago I indulged in some concerns about the likelihood of Santa’s existence while playing with a neighbor kid. A reasonably science-minded kindergartener, I wondered aloud how reindeer could fly without wings. I speculated about the chimney girth problem and the issue of children who lived in fireplace-free homes. And then, as if no one else had encountered these breaches in holiday logic, I asked how Santa could fly across the whole world in one night.

I was torn, wanting my friend to take me seriously but also hoping he’d prop up my fading sense of magic. I was disappointed when he dismissed every one of my speculations.

Later that day his mother called my mother. Her son was upset. According to her I’d ruined his belief in Santa. She said I wasn’t a nice little girl at all. That we were the same age didn’t seem to matter. My mother, who held politeness up there with God and cleanliness, insisted I apologize to Mrs. Barton right there on the phone.

After that particular trauma I badgered my mother for days until she fessed up. The truth stung. My older sister was in on the falsehood. Other kids at school probably were too, but by some twist of propriety they knew better than to tell believers, even if they felt superior to Santa holdouts. Clearly a victim of my mother’s politeness gene, I felt awful when it hit me that I’d been opening packages every year thinking that Santa owed me for my good behavior when all along those gifts were lovingly bought and wrapped by my parents. And I’d never even thanked them.

Fast forward a few decades. I vowed I would not follow the collective Santa lie with my own children. Sure, the truth might lead them right into the same minefield of logic versus belief with some other kid. That isn’t a bad thing, it’s how kids learn to think for themselves (as long as their parents don’t run interference). But I had no intention of killing Santa entirely. That’s because small children inhabit a different world than the rest of us. They don’t make clear distinctions between fantasy and reality. There’s probably something to that. Ever notice how happy little kids are? So I wanted an approach that kept wonder and excitement alive.

The philosophy I decided to use with my own four kids was based on the classic 1897 newspaper column titled “Yes Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus” written by Francis Pharcellus Church. It reads, in part,

“Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.”

I took the casual approach. I never hyped Santa, any more than I promoted the whole commercial side of Christmas. No “better be good for Santa.” No Santa at the mall (pretty easy with our mall avoidance lifestyle).

Sure, we still like Christmas carols that mention Santa. And my family cheerfully accommodates the thing I have for that early 60’s special, Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer, even welcoming my teary-eyed joy at the scene when hope returns to the Island of Misfit Toys. But we keep the holidays simple.

My reply to “Is Santa real?” has always been, “Everyone who loves children is Santa’s helper.” The few times I’ve gotten more questions, which happened rarely because kids like to keep that possibility alive, I explained that even grown-ups like to believe too. By the time kids reach a certain age, they know what my answer means. Either it means there’s no Santa or their Mom is a believer. Maybe I am. I’ve lived long enough to know that there’s magic everywhere. I just call it by different names: love, hope, faith, and compassion.

Oh yeah, and forgiveness. By the next day Mrs. Barton’s kid was already over it.

Unfit for Polite Society

behaving rudely, what not to say at a potluck, how we're like chimps, avoid the rich,

Volunteer with a non-profit long enough and you’ll eventually find yourself agreeing to attend a member potluck. That’s why Spouse Man and I found ourselves pulling up the drive of what was clearly no ordinary house. To us the place looked like a mansion. It was populated with casually well-dressed people who talked about jazz clubs, eco tourism and where to get the best cheese. Things I would probably talk about if my annual income weren’t equivalent to what these folks spent on really good moisturizers.

Our smiles and greetings were completely ignored, as if we were low ranking primates walking slack-shouldered around the perimeter of alpha animals. Fine with me. That way I could do as I wished without the pressure of making conversation with strangers.

I boldly filled my plate with the most unfamiliar foods and poured a glass of organic wine. Anticipating an exiting gustatory event for my first mouthful I forked up the ugliest stuff, sure that taste would make up for appearance.

Wrong. Very wrong.

I deeply wanted to spit it out, but showed remarkable restraint. Only a grimace gave me away.

Now I know the first rule of potlucks is to utter nothing but praise for the food, but I had already determined that we were invisible in the press of people all glibly chatting about topics beyond our scope of wealth. And truly, I spoke so quietly that lip reading would have been helpful. All I did was lean toward Spouse Man, point to the smeary pile of brown on my plate and advise him lovingly, “Don’t get any of this tasteless goo.”

Immediately a woman materialized behind me. A tall woman with large aggressive earrings. She said (I think into a megaphone), “I made that. It’s polenta.”

Now I’ve met polenta before and this was no polenta. It was more like Cream of Spam, extra grainy.

I apologized, stammering something unintelligible about a cook’s poetic license. I even shoveled more of the glop into my mouth without shuddering. She watched until the heat radiating from my fuchsia-toned face drove her away, surely toward people more polite and gracious than a potluck food slandering boor.

I slunk off to drink more organic wine near a large potted plant. From this unobtrusive vantage point I pretended to be a party version of Jane Goodall, carefully watching the behavior of my own species. Still stinging with shame after hurting the feelings of Aggressive Earring Polenta Woman, I’m sure I wasn’t objective. But I did find that my fellow potluckers shared common traits. I observed that we humans indulge in the same expressive pouting, posturing and nit-picking found in any group of chimpanzees.

Except chimps would have thrown the food.



This piece first appeared on Poor Mojo’s Rant

Chimp image courtesy of Sihonorio

What Do Your Gifts Say?

gifts of love, meaning in gift giving, making gifts magical,

It’s upon us in full force, the biggest buying season of the year. A giant transfer is taking place. The life energy we call money (representing hours of work) or credit (hours of future work) is exchanged for stuff. Lots of stuff—toys, clothes, perfume, electronics, fancy foods, plus those novelty items that no one ever uses. (Okay, I actually wear the silly socks given to me and wear them with glee. I may be the only one.)

We transfer more than time and money. That’s because there’s meaning embedded in our gifts. We have certain intentions as we shop, wrap, anticipate giving, and finally offer the gift. Our efforts try to say something.

What? It’s complicated. Our gifts say different things to different people. A well-made carving knife for a friend who has recently taken up woodcarving shows you pay attention to what brings him delight and what you hope will enhance that delight. A box filled with birthday, get-well, sympathy, and thank you cards plus a roll of stamps for a great grandparent shows that you appreciate the way she keeps in touch with the extended family. It also helps her keep up that tradition now that she’s no longer driving.

Of course what we try to say with our gifts differs depending on whether we’re giving them to our children, our lovers, or our bosses. Still, most of us hope for that rare happenstance, when our gift brings our recipient more joy than we could have imagined. It’s almost like magic.

Maybe I take this too seriously. The first time I bought gifts on my own I was five years old. That year our church set up a Santa Shop in the basement where kids with a handful of change could buy gifts. Volunteers dressed as elves led each child to  tables where merchandise was arrayed. After making selections and paying, these elves helped the child wrap and tag each gift. The elf outfits didn’t fool me. These were the same nice older ladies whose wrinkled hands pretty much ran the whole church.

The elf who walked me from table to table was patient as I tried to choose. I knew that money wasn’t to be spent carelessly. My frugal parents always impressed upon me the importance of saving money. They made do with what they had, using it up until it was worn out and then fixing it to last a little longer. That was true of our car, the floorboards recently patched so I could no longer see the road rippling past in a dizzying gray stripe as we drove. That was true of my hand-me-down clothes, sagging at the knees and stitched at the elbows. So I shopped carefully.

I spent fifty cents on a super-sized paperclip for my schoolteacher father. I spent a quarter on a plastic optical illusion toy for my older sister. I couldn’t find anything for my mother. The elf told me a large strangely shaped bottle of perfume would be perfect. She nodded so much as she talked that the bell on her hat tinkled and the flesh under her chin wobbled. The liquid inside the bottle was dark. She unscrewed the cap and let me smell it. It smelled awful. She told me it was the best deal there. I knew “deal” meant a good thing. I’d heard my parents use that word. So I bought it, even though it cost a dollar and twenty-five cents.

The days before Christmas weren’t filled with delicious anticipation. I woke each morning with a heavy feeling. My Santa Shop gifts under our Christmas tree were terrible. I’d wanted to get my father a gift that would make him feel like whistling little tunes all day, the way he did when he was lighthearted. I’d wanted to get my sister something she liked so much that she’d never let me play with it. And I’d wanted to get my mother something special. When I thought of that bottle of perfume I knew it was what she called “vulgar.” It hit me then, the days leading up to my kindergarten year Christmas, that no gift could show people how much I loved them. It was a sad realization, particularly when every holiday commercial on TV told me the opposite.

I’m a lot more cheerful than my five-year-old self but I keep trying to give gifts that say the impossible. Every birthday and holiday I try. I realize holiday gift-giving is overhyped. Are we really supposed to show someone we care by presenting them with a mass-produced item? “I got you one of the 3 million identical objects made by underpaid workers in an overseas factory. Merry Christmas!”

I love to give all sorts of gifts. Books, music, tools. Handmade gifts (or gifts others make by hand).  Gifts of service, do-gooder gifts , gifts that support non-profit organizations, Fair Trade gifts, gifts to local restaurants/theaters/galleries, and of course, specific gifts the recipient requested. What I want to give is so much more. I want each person to know how much they are cherished. That can’t be wrapped.

If the cliché “it’s the thought that counts” really counted, my gifts would shimmer with magic. Instead my loved ones may be getting this year’s equivalent of a paper clip, plastic toy, and vulgar bottle of perfume despite my best attempts.

Do you suffer from gift-related dilemmas? What are you really trying to say with your gifts? What gifts have you given that were downright wondrous? Rest assured, one of my favorite gift-giving memories is finding a bagpipe action figure (that made farting sounds rather than pipe music) for a certain teenager. Sometimes silliness is magic too.



“Presents” illustration courtesy of BulletsInGunn