A couple of months ago as i was leaving our local farmer’s market i passed a woman getting into her car. She’d also been shopping at the market. Our glances caught for a split second and i said a quick ‘hello’. She commented on the fresh-cut flowers i was bringing home to my love, Martha. We struck up a brief conversation and moved on.
A few weeks later, while waiting in line at a local cafe someone called my name – it was the woman i met at the farmer’s market. She remembered my name and i’d forgotten hers but knew she was named after a flower – Daisy? Daffodil? Chrysanthemum? I asked her to remind me - for the sake of her privacy let’s say it was Lily. The line was long and we spoke for a while. I learned more about Lily’s story of how she grew up in Kingston, then traveled throughout her life living many years in Hawaii and then off the coast of Washington. Circumstances brought her back east during the pandemic and here we are. She went on to say it’s been hard to find community here in town – even amongst her neighbors. This could be partly due to the timing of her mid-pandemic move but the reality is, it seems like a lot of people find it challenging these days to find and maintain local community.
She commented, “you know, i’ve been going to the farmers market for years, and you’re the only person who has ever spoken to me.”
I wanted that to not be true.
It certainly was not my experience but perhaps that’s because i make it a point to say hello or smile to anyone willing to catch my glance. This practice was a conscious decision made a number of years ago to welcome more community in my life and to counter the fact that i’ve been well-schooled in New England manners to “mind my own business” and that it was impolite to stare. What’s the line between a friendly glance and a stare? As a kid, i had no idea so i just played it safe – no staring, no glancing, no looking. Down with the eyes, up with the blinders.
In fact, maybe it could even be considered a sexual advance to make eye contact. As i grew older i became aware of this thing the women around me were referring to as “the male gaze”. My gaze is male by default but was it the “male gaze” they were referring to? Well, maybe sometimes, certainly not always but how would any woman ever know which was which? Apparently, women do (so i hear)! It was yet just another reason to keep the blinders up, especially in the age of #metoo. On the other side of this equation, for many women, allowing their female glance to cross wires with a passing male gaze could be and often is misconstrued as some type of invitation (how scurrilous!). We’d best all keep to ourselves.
In the past five years, we’ve had a confluence of #metoo, cancel-culture, pandemic distancing, lockdowns, and a toxic political climate. All the more reason to look down, look away and look right through others as if they don’t exist. I call it “prophylactic looking”.
But back to our friend, Lily. Where are Lily’s neighbors? The Pew Research Center reported in 2019 that a majority of Americans (57%) say they know only some of their neighbors; far fewer (26%) say they know most of them. Despite social media where one might have hundreds or even thousands of Facebook friends, research shows we tend to be more likely to connect with our neighbors in person or not at all. I suppose there are a lot of reasons for this. We’re more transient, and busier. Air conditioning keeps us inside more. We drive rather than walk. And of course, we avert.
I looked up where Lily lives and the aerial map view says it all. She lives in an apartment complex nestled in a wooded area behind a bowling alley and next to a customer call center of an international conglomerate. It’s a small oasis in the middle of a paved desert zoned for the all-too-familiar tiny misfit tumbleweed shops amidst the usual strip mall menagerie of auto dealers, chain restaurants, and brick-and-mortar big-box dinostores. You have to drive several miles to get anywhere where people might naturally congregate and if you’re not running into neighbors in the stairwell or at the mailbox this geographic dilemma frustrates our chances at good-neighboring.
I’m very fortunate. I live in a neighborhood with active sidewalks and chances to meet people. Martha’s dog, Franklin, takes her out for frequent walks (occasionally he invites me) so we’ve got plenty of opportunities to connect and at least become acquainted with our neighbors.
One of our neighbors with whom we’ve become friendly lets us know when she goes hiking alone. In the event, she doesn’t text to tell us that she’s arrived home safely, send out a search party!
Several weeks ago Franklin went missing. We let him loose to play in our fenced-off backyard but on this particular day he somehow wandered off. Martha hopped in the car and i set off on foot to find our lost little brown sausage dog. I crossed paths with several people and asked if they had seen him. Everyone responded with concern — some asked me for my number and promised to contact me, one boy offered to join the search by bike, and a woman offered up her consolation in the form of her own once-lost-now-found dog story. This is a very different experience from Martha who was driving around the neighborhood. My direct interaction with my neighbors sparked a spontaneous search party.
Could it be that caring (and for that matter, compassion) is highly contagious and is transmitted through direct contact?
Contagious caring has been partial fuel for both BreakBread and Mindful Conversation. In BreakBread, the host invites friends to dinner and they, in turn, invite one of their friends – the vectors of care are built into the personal invitation. Likewise, in Mindful Conversation, we teach that everyone who shows up to any conversation shows up laden with gifts. This practice intentionally fosters care and compassion because culturally, we tend to avert and keep things transactional and surfacey.
What we’re doing in BreakBread and Mindful Conversation is not about issuing an edict that “you should care” or a checklist (5 Easy Steps to Caring…) but rather a way to make incremental shifts in awareness and intent that encourage us to move towards the resonance we recognize as care or compassion. We do this by taking time to make the invitation personal and coming to the conversation already sensing the intrinsic value of each other’s obvious and not-so-obvious gifts.
Caring and compassion are one thing, but a search party?
In our modern society, to what degree are we responsible to and for one another? Especially when one of us “goes missing” (physically, psychically, or emotionally). You could use other words in place of “responsible”– obligated, tethered, connected, entangled. I can’t take care of everybody with whom i cross paths – that’s not reasonable nor possible – yet everybody needs to be cared for. This is a big question and there’s a lot of tension, ambiguity, and even animosity around who gets cared for and how. In the context of our busy lives, averting is a way of coping.
Am i responsible for my neighbor out hiking in the Catskills? Yes, because she asked and i’ve agreed. Am i responsible for checking in on Lily having met her in passing twice? Maybe not to the same degree (although i have extended a couple of invitations for her to join a local community potluck gathering i occasionally attend).
We live in a world where technology, money, and cultural norms shroud our interdependence in a shadowy miasma of individualism, consumerism, and a Darwinian form of self-reliance where our survival is defined more by the onslaught of necessities and distractions than caring for our neighbor. How do we bring a little focus and awareness to cut through the incoming barrage cannibalizing our attention and realign with the gravitational orbit of the heart? How do we intentionally invite a little more care and compassion into the everyday?
Within the universe of all the people i know, there is a smaller constellation for whom if they called me and asked for help, i’d drop everything. When i think of this constellation there are a couple who i know to be struggling in their lives and there’s one who i’ve not heard from in several years. Inviting more care and compassion might look like calling, writing, or texting them. It’s a modern way of sending out a search party!
What about you? Is there anyone in your constellation who could use a little care and compassion? Why not send out a search party? I hear it’s contagious!
Learn why i use a lowercase “i”:
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i've reached out to my family several times with no response. I've searched for years, not knowing what made them forget my existence.