A couple of weeks ago I went down to the local pool to do a few laps. They were my first few laps since my belly was round with child. That child has become a certified adult. And I need to do laps again. Just like I prepared my body for childbirth and baby-rearing, I have come to an understanding with myself that I now need to prepare for the next 10 years of life. I want to move into that time with as robust health as is possible. No matter what our age, we all need to be preparing for the physical demands of our future lives. Enter a decade as healthy as we can, and we have a better chance of enjoying that decade in good health. So, laps.
I moved into my mountain village two years ago. I’d done a fair bit of house moving over the previous decade and all of it involved a process of settling in. There is a lot to learn about a new place. Public transport routes, sneaky back roads that only the locals know about, best cafe for a latte. Local information.
Depending on how far you have moved from your previous home, you may be grieving the loss of connections with your community. Perhaps you feel those connections were built up slowly, over the full period of time that you lived in your last place. Maybe you are dreading the idea of starting over, saying to yourself, “I was there six years and had all those friends and acquaintances. It will take another six years to gain back what I have lost in relationships.” I felt very similar.
But come back with me to the pool.
At the swimming complex that day, I bump into an old friend who has accompanied her son to swim school. I finish my laps and she says, “You’ll have to come over for coffee sometime.”
There is a cafe poolside. “Let’s do it now.” I only have the change from the ten dollar note I used to enter the building. “You’ll have to lend me some money!”
We consolidate our loose change on the plastic tabletop, giggling as if we are back in Year Seven. Between us we scrape up $6.15. Not enough to cover ourdrinks. So it is back to being grown ups and she shouts me the flat white with her credit card. We sip coffee and talk while her son mucks around in the water with some of his friends. We share stories of our recent past and dreams about our future and it is so good and gloriously unplanned. It is accidental community.
But that friend is somebody who moved to this village years ago. I knew her before I got here. How do I get accidental community happening with people I don’t even know yet? Perhaps you have moved somewhere new, unpacked your boxes, filled the fridge and then finally had a chance to take a breath and consider the community living round about you. Perhaps you are asking:
“Here I am. I’m new here. How can I settle-in purposefully?”
We all know that children parallel play when they are young. They might be sitting just a metre from each other in the same room, but they choose to enjoy their own toys in their own space without collaborating with others. That is a function of their development. The temptation for adults in a new place is to do something similar. It is tempting to walk to the shops, eyes fixed on the ground, make an order at the cafe and then spend the rest of the time reading enthralling blog posts on community. Sometimes disconnection feels like the default method of moving through our world. That can be the right and healthy thing for us to do on some days when we need time out of the house but also Time Out from others. But other days are different, and we feel the longing for connection with our fellows. How can we move away from a disconnected interaction with our local environment and into a more present sense of community belonging?
After several significant life moves I have worked up a few tips:
Firstly, this settling-in time is probably not the best time to turn over a new leaf. Children regress when they are getting used to new environments and I don’t think adults are much different. Don’t lash out and join the gym if you were not a gym-goer in your previous life. You’ve got enough changes to cope with.
But take a bit of time to think through your current passions. What do you love to do? What do you spend time feeling passionate about? What floats your boat in terms of recreation or physical pursuits?
Find a local group that does those things and join it for a session or two. You know what the great thing is about joining a group? Other people are there because they like hanging out in groups, meeting new people and engaging in conversation. So more than likely, they will be happy to get to know you, a newcomer. And don’t despair if at first a group doesn’t seem right for you. When I first arrived I joined a writer’s group that met locally. They were a lovely bunch of people but the meeting time didn’t suit me so I didn’t carry on with it. There are all sorts of groups about: dancing, team sports, gymnastics, gardening and land care groups. Playgroups, preschool story-time at the library, groups that run soup kitchens, knitting groups, bridge clubs.
When I thought about what floated my boat I decided the answer was politics, religion and art. (You should have me over to dinner sometime. I am fascinating!)
I joined the local branch of my favourite political party, which meets once a month. “Oh yeah, I totally want to do that,” I hear you all say at once. I didn’t say it was compulsory! Yet if you are a politics tragic, joining a branch is where it is at. At the branch level in Australia you hear feedback from local councillors and news from state and federal representatives about issues that drive the party. And I enjoy being able to greet people near the election booths, handing out how-to-vote forms on election day. Voting is compulsory in Australia so the whole area comes out to cast their ballot. And what says ‘community’ more than Election Day? I may have lost a significant portion of my readership at this point.
Do you have spiritual inclinations? A lot of people do. Try out a few of the local places of worship. And, as I said above, don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t work out on the first visit. When we were settling in, one of my friends said to me about churches, “If you want to find your Prince Charming you have to kiss a lot of frogs.” If it is like that for churches, I guess it is the same for other places of worship.
What is your hobby? I joined a local arts group that meets monthly to share written and visual artwork we are currently working on. I love it! I feel like I belong.
Get to know your local shopkeepers. Time for a song.
Not sure where the women were in that video, but alarmingly enough, kale makes an appearance. Do you know what this means? This means in the time between this song being recorded and today an entire female revolution occurred yet kale only became more popular. I think we all know which vegetable is going to survive the next global catastrophic event.
So as I was saying, get to know your shopkeepers, a lot of whom by this stage will be women. (Remarkable!) This suggestion extends to professional services. Find a local doctor, dentist, accountant and physiotherapist. For these are the people in your neighbourhood. Service providers are an easy target when settling in because they are the members of your community that can be found in predetermined places for long stretches of time. Also, they are pretty much paid to be nice to you. And there is nothing wrong with that. Sometimes people need a little encouragement. Maybe for you they need a lot of encouragement. Which brings me to my next point.
Be nice to people. Smile, take time to say “How are you?” back to the people serving you. Lift your head up and look other locals in the eye when you are walking down the street. If you vaguely recognise them, nod your head in greeting. Chances are they’ve seen you about too. If they respond with a smile, smile back, venture a “good morning”.
Greet people working in their gardens. Say hello to council workers and contractors on the street. When you walk into a shop, don’t miss the opportunity to scan around and see if there is somebody that you recognise. Smile at the parents of small children in prams. These are all people that you might meet again on another occasion in another context.
What about some other ideas?
Read the local paper, so you are keeping up with local news and events.
Attend local arts and music shows.
Attend your local farmer’s market. I only wrote that to sound pretentious. (But I still go every month.)
This morning, after a drop off at the car pool, I drove back up the hill to an early morning cafe and ordered a latte. On my way to the table a woman looked up from the book she was reading and smiled at me. I smiled back. Sometime later she leaned over and asked me about my smartwatch and was it any good for tracking exercise. Something she said in that short conversation clued me into the fact that she was a primary school teacher, and we had a good chat about teaching, she with her fifteen years of experience, me just starting out. After a while we left off talking and went back to our reading. When it was time for me to go I stood, told her it was nice to meet her and asked her name. She asked mine. We shook hands and spoke how we hoped to bump into each other again. We might never see each other again. But if we do, it will be a wonderful moment of accidental community.
It was my friend at the poolside that introduced to me the term ‘accidental community’. I am growing to appreciate both the term and the experience.
However you choose to move into your community, I hope that you embrace living locally well. And I trust that you soon come across the delight of accidental community.