Many members of my religious body love to talk about the spiritual uplift they get from nature. (In this context, nature means something like “the outdoors”, places where they do not see the touch of humanity.) Among people for whom care of the earth is a religious calling, such a sentiment is common. But folks of my religious persuasion are also traditionally called to nurture community — and it’s that calling that speaks to me more; it is from community that I get my uplift. And it was community that saved my Saturday.
Saturday was my older daughter’s day for Taekwon-Do. She absolutely loves Taekwon-Do, and she began talking about going almost from the moment she awoke. So I panicked when, forty-five minutes before her lesson was to start, I discovered that my wife had gone to work in the car with both of our children’s car seats: the infant seat for the younger, and the booster for the older. I had another car handy, and might have taken our older daughter for the short ride to the dojang (studio) without a booster — but not our toddler. We were stuck.
When I told my daughter that there was a chance we might not be able to go, she tried to take it bravely, but truly she was devastated, in tears. So I got on the horn to see if any friends could help out.
My first call was to our friends and neighbors Mike and Theresa, who live just over a block away and have a son about the age of our older girl. Did they have a spare infant car seat? Mike checked, and the answer was no.
My next call was to our friends and slightly more distant neighbors Mike and Jill, who were out of our neighborhood but still within walking distance. No answer, just an answering machine. Damn.
I racked my brain for anybody I knew with smallish children who might live close enough to get to our house in time for us to take the car seat and get to Taekwon-Do on time. So I took a long shot and called my friend Rich, who lives on Auburn, just off Farmers Loop Road, figuring he might just be able to make it, if he ditched his wife and baby at home. Well, his wife said he was at work, and I don’t know her well enough to ask her to bail me out.
But she said the most useful thing: “Do you know anybody who could take your daughter to Taekown-Do?” It hadn’t occurred to me at all to send her with some other adult.
So, back to Mike and Theresa. Could one of them take her? Well, Theresa was at work, and Mike had the oven taken apart and all over the kitchen floor — so it wasn’t a good time. Rats.
I should mention here that, with every call, my daughter was growing more distraught. She was trying to be stoic, but her body quivered as she breathed, her eyes red and puffy.
Last shot — I had no more ideas: I called our across-the-street neighbor, Tracie, whose family we don’t have a really social relationship with. Was there any chance she could take our daughter to Taekwon-Do?
Yes! Hallelujah! My daughter was instantly uplifted. She told me she felt very grown-up, going to Taekwon-Do without her parents.
I also was uplifted, but for another reason: it meant that my family had established ties of trust and mutual good will with another family, one that we might not have come to know but for the fact that we were neighbors. We both confirmed and strengthened our supply of social capital — the density of interpersonal connections, within either a community or an individual’s life, that lead to better health, higher education, and greater economic prosperity. I guess “community” might well be defined as a group of people who develop social capital among one another. If so, then we had really made a community tie.
It’s important to notice a couple of preconditions to this neighborly connection, though.
First, Tracie is our neighbor — not just in the sense that she’s the closest person available, but in the sense that she lives in our neighborhood. In fact, as my wife pointed out today, it would take us longer to walk to the car in our driveway than to walk to Tracie’s front door. Social capital increases with proximity. That is, the denser the population you live in, the greater social capital you will enjoy. (I suspect that there is a rough upper limit to this, that above some population density, people will retreat more to their homes and make connections with fewer of their neighbors. But I haven’t read anything to back that up.) It is generally harder to create and maintain relationships with people far away than with those nearby.
Second, until she took a position in the Cosmetology program at TVC, Tracie used to be our family barber. It’s not just that she lived near us: we probably have a few hundred neighbors within five minutes’ walk. But we actually had some practical reason to visit her in the shop she ran in her home. I saw her every month, and my wife and Taekwon-Do-loving daughter saw her every two or three months. Also, since she worked in her home, she was often outside the house, meeting customers or tidying the driveway. So we saw her a lot: sometimes we just exchanged quick pleasantries, sometimes we made a little small talk, and sometimes we talked more deeply about our families or our neighborhood. It was through that regular contact that we developed a friendly, “neighborly” relationship.
Social life and social capital are diminished when people have no practical concerns that bring them into contact. And they are increased when people who might not have chosen to meet have common places and common business that forces them to rub elbows. There is no place like a traditional neighborhood for building community.
My wife and daughter baked Tracie some brownies Sunday afternoon and took them over. It can’t be considered “repayment”, since it’s of an entirely different order. But it was a way of keeping open the flow of good will between our households, and letting Tracie know we’re happy to be her good neighbors any time she needs us.