Mr. December and I have been reading and discussing the book “Radical Homemakers”. If you haven’t read it, you should. One of the things I love about it is the fact that it acknowledges the sick devotion our culture has to “work”, which we all use to mean a paid career. It’s killing, isn’t it, that people work a whole month to earn enough money to pay for their second car, which they wouldn’t need if they weren’t working? But I digress.
The thing about the book and its philosophy is that, in order to be more self-sufficient and become a “net producer” rather than a “net consumer”, it really is best to be in a community of like-minded people. Community support, bartering, and skill-sharing seem to be integral to the life of a Radical Homemaker. They are also essential to the kind of community I want to live in. And yet… it just doesn’t exist.
Today a friend remarked to me that she had moved into our neighbourhood because so many young families from our synagogue live here, and she was excited at the prospect of finally living within a community. Sadly, it didn’t live up to her expectations. People just didn’t get together very often, nobody was interested in the babysitting co-op she proposed, and in the end she felt as isolated as she had when she lived elsewhere. We discussed possible reasons why that was, and I came up with a few thoughts.
First, What she considered “the neighbourhood” was actually an area that stretched about two kilometres by half a kilometre – not exactly a distance you’d want to traverse to drop the kids with a neighbour while you run to the store, or to pop over and borrow some flour. It may seem that these homes are close together, but I think it’s just the size of this city that gives us that impression. In reality, the kind of day-to-day interactions my friend was envisioning tend to happen over much shorter distances, especially in winter.
The second reason is the real community-killer, though: all of these people work outside the home. Full-time. For very legitimate reasons – lack of time, exhaustion, different priorities – it’s impossible to develop a close-knit community if nobody is home all day. Like parenting, community-building doesn’t just happen over evenings and weekends. The neighbour kid gets locked out accidentally… at 3:45 p.m. on a Tuesday. A disabled neighbour has noticed damage to a car parked on our street, but can’t walk up the block to inform the owners. A subway commuter notices the vegetable garden on her way home from the nearby station and wants to ask a question about growing potatoes. These are all opportunities for community growth, for neighbourly interaction, and they get missed if you’re not around. If I weren’t home with the kids, and bored stiff around 5 p.m. every day, I’d never drop in on our elderly neighbour, a retired nurse who’s been living on this street longer than I’ve been alive. She would be lonelier and my children would have missed the opportunity to learn about social visits and neighbourly helpfulness.
In fact, we have a lot of retired folks on our block, and it’s mostly due to them that this street still feels like a neighbourhood. Granted, these are the people who complain that my vegetable garden is in the front yard instead of behind the house. But they are also the people who pay attention, who notice that someone hasn’t left the house in a few days and come to make sure everything’s ok. These people heard something in the night and discovered a man breaking into our car, so the husband simultaneously called 911 and ran outside, half naked, to scare the guy off. My neighbours participate in a thriving “curb economy” – one woman took the storm windows we no longer needed, another family put out some beautiful wrought iron benches they didn’t have time to rehabilitate (I haven’t had time either, but I’ll hang onto them until I do), and two of my neighbours were happy to rid my backyard of unwanted hydrangeas in exchange for getting to keep all the plants they dug up. With a single exception, all of the neighbours alluded to here are people who do not have full-time jobs outside of the home.
One of my frequent stay-at-home-mom laments is that there aren’t a lot of other moms around. Most of the young families around here are double-income families, so the park and community drop-ins are populated by nannies and their young charges. Sure, there’s a thriving nanny community, but when the nannies go home at night and on weekends the community goes with them. As we get more successful, as we pay more people to do our work in and around the house, we fragment the knowledge of what’s going on in our neighbourhood. The gardener knows who likes our flowers and the nanny knows who likes our kids, but neither the flower-admirer nor the kid-friendly neighbour knows the homeowner. Our affluence causes us to lose those connections.
I don’t intend this as a diatribe against hiring people to do the jobs we dislike. If you can afford it, if it makes you happy, go for it. I also don’t want this to come off as anti-career. If you genuinely have career aspirations and love the work you do, please continue to do it. And if you have to work to support your family, then do. Somebody has to keep the city humming and the banks running and the supermarkets stocked. But when we all do, and when we neglect the very important work of being at home, we lose the community we crave.