Archive for September 4th, 2008

Love, Schmove - Just Tell Me How to Build Community With the Guy Who Mows His Lawn in his Speedo!

Sharon September 4th, 2008

In my last post (just scroll down) I waxed philosophical on what it might mean to love your neighbors, and how we might build a love economy in our communities.  I do ramble on moral principles sometimes, but be assured,  I’m done for the moment now ;-) .  Let’s get down to brass tacks.  How do you deal with the neighbors who not only do you not love yet, you can barely tolerate - and who haven’t expressed any particular desire to love you, unless you count letting their dog poop in your yard?  How about the ones you already can’t stand - or they can’t stand you?

This is one of those things I feel reasonably proud of our ability to do - build community, not with members of an ecovillage carefully selected for like-mindedness (nothing wrong with it if you happen to live in one, but most of us won’t), but with real neighbors.  I have a good relationship with my neighbors - we’ve shared a lot of things over the years, including childcare, a car, our washing machines, stress, gossip, meals, and time.  I trust that I could get their help in a crisis - and I hope they trust that they would have mine - in part because we have helped each other through various things. 

Does this paradise of neighborliness exist in a place where everyone shares our values and opinions?  Not hardly.  We cover the range of political opinions from far-left to far right to “don’t give a damn.”  We cover a reasonable religious range - Protestants of several stripes - from AME to Lutheran to Evangelical - to Catholics, Pagans, Athiests, and us - the neighborhood Jews.  As for visions of the future - well, at least one neighbor reads my blog (Hi Rick!) but most of them either don’t know what peak oil is, or politely think I’m a loon.  We disagree strongly on everything from what should be taught in the public schools, what constitutes a good diet to whether Syracuse making the finals is a cause for celebration. 

But what we do have is a good deal of common ground on other issues.  It is just a matter of finding it - and generally speaking, we find it at fairly basic levels.  We all eat, and higher food prices are pinching everyone’s purse.  Those of us who have kids all care about those kids’ future.  We all want to keep safe, and ensure a decent future for ourselves.  We all like being happy and all of us want a good life.  Now it is absolutely true that some people will have differences about how to get at these things.  But it is also true that usually, with most people, you can find some common ground, if you dig around.  Yes, they may be mostly concerned with the rising price of sugar cereals, and you with your morning bowl of quinoa porridge.  But now you have a talking point - your shared concern about food prices.  And maybe, just maybe, you have the beginnings of something else - the chance to say “I’ll pick up your sugar frosted loopies if they are below X price at my supermarket - will you check the quinoa bin to see if it costs less than this?”  And there probably is something you both eat.  Or maybe you worry a little bit about gas, and you could share a ride in to the supermarket.

I’ve only very rarely met someone with whom I could find no common ground at all - and I’m not perfect. I get pissy and grumpy, and I don’t always like people.  But there’s always something you can share - always.

What about the awful people with whom you are already at war?  Sometimes these things can be fixed - sometimes you can learn, if not to get along, to tolerate each other, and work together when absolutely necessary. But if too many bridges have been burned, the next step is simply to work on your community with someone else - move on to the next house on the road.  Nothing I say about community will ever mean that everyone is always working shoulder to shoulder - you can build community but some people will want nothing to do with it, or only on their own terms.  Sometimes there will be factions, or anger, or feuds.  The best strategy is to let it go, and move on - concentrate on the people who are willing to put differences aside, or those who don’t require so much effort.  We’ve all got to decide how to use our energies - chasing the person who hates you may not be the best choice. 

I am going to say something that may be a little controversial.  Back when I was dating, I met some guys who would tell me about their romantic history, and it turns out that all their ex-girlfriends were either crazy or evil in some way, every relationship had ended badly.  And I developed a rule that I pretty much think applies to this as well - everyone is entitled to one or two or maybe even three (depending on the length of the history) experiences with wackos and bad people. It happens to the best of us.  But if all their ex-girlfriends are psychos, if not one person they ever dated was someone they could like enough afterwards to have a civil relationship, much less a friendship, the general rule of thumb was that it wasn’t just the other people - it was them.

I realize that many people may not like to hear this, but I find this rule of thumb useful when people tell me about how they hate all their neighbors, they can’t get along with anyone, everyone always betrays them or is trying to hurt them.  That stuff happens. It is real.  There are bad people out there, as well as fools, creeps, etc…  But if it happens all the time, either the problem is partly in your ability to have relationships, or your inability to prevent being a victim, and some work needs to be done on that end as well.  That may mean learning to let things go, and to believe that other people aren’t trying to be unkind or hurtful, but are simply doing their best.  It may mean learning to stand up for yourself and not be a victim. It may mean learning to get along better with people - to not say what you think or demand to do things your way all the time.  Sometimes community building is about fixing yourself.  I know it sometimes has been for me.

How do you get started, if you don’t know your neighbors?  Well, one way is to enter into existing community structures.  Your community has them - Churches, synagogues, mosques, the PTA, the library board, the garden club, the local political parties, action groups for various issues, etc….

 I think there’s a tendency to underestimate existing community structures, and to decide “oh, those couldn’t possibly be made to serve our goals” - but that is what happened, for example, during World War II - existing neighborhood associations, church groups and other community structures were brought together to work on one project.  Often, there’s more interest than most of us would expect - for example, for years, I mostly kept my work and my synagogue life seperate, because I wasn’t sure how well they would overlap, and because I didn’t want to seem too pushy.  Finally, I pushed a little harder to get some green stuff going, and what I’ve found is that there’s more enthusiasm than I would ever have expected, and I’m the one telling people to slow down ;-) .  The moral of the story is that sometimes it is easier than you think it is to harness the power of institutions. 

Or perhaps you do need to start something - there is no group that you can join.  How do you get your neighbors together?  Well, how about some food?  Some music?  Beer?  Nothing builds community like inviting the neighbors over for some food.  Start talking - and listening - to what people are thinking about. 

 Once you know what they care about, that’s the key to finding a big tent way to get to working together - instead of bulk purchasing quinoa, you need to think about finding something everyone uses - or someone else who eats sugar frosted loopies to share a bulk order with. 

Remember, you don’t have to tell everyone everything.  You can bring up peak oil and climate change, and when the neighbors say “well, Newt Gingerich says we have all the oil we’d ever want and that we’re approaching an ice age” - let it slide.  It doesn’t really matter whether your neighbor is buying in bulk to save the planet or to save up for their Disney vacation - you are working together.

Sharing stuff is new to a lot of people - new things are hard.  So make sure you keep trying.  It might take five times to get an elderly neighbor to agree to let you pick up a carton of milk for her on your way home - the first few times, she might think it was polite to say no, or that you were judging her, or assuming something about her.  It might take five times - or even ten - before she realizes you are serious. 

Make it fun.  If you can get your neighbors to sit down and talk about preparing, or getting ready, make cookies or bring beer.  If you are going to share a bulk order, make the night you sort it all out a party.  If you want to start getting together to get work done in your neighborhood, make a big meal, and provide games for the kids.  Give people the benefits of community right away - don’t make them wait for it.

Keep pushing the envelope, even if it is hard.  First you borrow a cup of sugar, and then you lend one.  Next time, when your neighbor mentions her vacuum died, you can say “why don’t you share mine - I only use it on Tuesdays.”

Expect rejection - and don’t take it personally. You might have to try a dozen times to come up with something that meets their needs, or they might not care as much as you do about something.  This is disappointing - but it doesn’t mean that they are bad people or they don’t like you just because sometimes you have to work to find the right buy in.  Try not to be too judgemental - the guy in the speedo probably thinks he’s improving the neighborhood aesthetics, or maybe he’s just hot.  Consider it part of your vibrant local culture, instead of an ugly horror ;-) .

Most of all, keep at it.   Eventually, you won’t have to do so much work - community takes on a life of its own.


Is Your Love Enough? Working With (and Loving) Your Neighbors, Whether You Like Them Or Not.

Sharon September 4th, 2008

We want freedom of speech
But we all talkin’ at the same time
We say we want peace
But nobody wants to change their own mind, no they don’t

So it goes on and on and on and on and on
For a thousand years, a thousand years I say
And it goes on and on and on and on and on
What language are your tears, are your tears

Everybody wants to live the life of kings and queens
But nobody wants to stay and plow the fields
Everybody wants to tell their neighbors how to live
But nobody wants to listen to how they feel

And it goes on and on and on and on and on
For a thousand years, a thousand years I say
And it goes on and on and on and on and on
What language are your tears, are your tears

But what I got to say right now
Is love enough yeah, love enough yeah, love enough,
Or can you love some more? - Michael Franti “Is Love Enough”

Variations on the obligation to love one’s neighbor show up across both the religious and secular spectrum.  They tend to provoke a range of responses - from those who attempt to sort out what loving people who are not part of your immediate tribe would mean, to those who reject the necessity. This is not an easy idea - and even if you can sort out what it means to love people who you may not know well, or like much, or even trust, or know how to get to knowing, liking and trusting - it is a damned hard thing to put into practice.  I will write in my next post about practical strategies for loving one’s neighbor, but here I want to talk a bit more about why even use the word love, or why we might want do the hard work of finding a way to love others.

Because rather than talking about “working” with your neighbors or “getting along” I did want to talk about the problem of actually loving them, despite the difficulties that the word love raises.  But I think it is the right word, if instead of thinking of “love” as a particular feeling you have to evoke, we think of it as a larger structure for our relationships, an economy if you will, in the, literal sense of the world, a way of organizing our world.   

The danger, of course, of speaking about love is that it evokes a range of things - religious beliefs, romantic and familial feelings, and occasionally a certain dippy, intellectually vacant inspecificity, the idea that our relationships will all be productive if we do group hugs and sing in a circle regularly.  But in fact, I’d make the case for a language and world of love that is as rigorous as any mathematics, as formally structured as any economy.  That is, it is not loving people to express things lovingly all the time.  It is not loving one another simply to articulate your common ground, or to allow everyone to “express” their differences, being universally supportive, or falling backwards off a chair.  Love is needing each other - not in easy or cheap ways, but really, truly needing one another. It does not require that you share beliefs, or even like each other - all of us can call examples from our biological families that support this fact.

In this, love is not a feeling, or a particular social practice.  It is the replacement, at least when possible, of a world that thinks in terms of maximization of personal profit and extraction with one that maximizes interdependence and the well-being of the group, not just the individual.  And it requires that we risk depending on one another - that we give up the personal washing machine, and trust that our neighbors will share.  That we trust that our children will care for us when we grow old, and they trust that we will help them as they get started.  It requires, that is, that we extend outside of our most intimate world our need - and allow others to fulfill it, knowing that things may never come up truly even.

I think it may be that the most frightening thing about the loss of our fossil energies is that we will again be thrown back upon our own resources - and if we think of our personal lives as having to replace each and every watt and gallon, we know we can never make it happen.  So “our own” has to expand into a larger community.  We have to be able to risk that to survive.  And that risk is ugly and frightening if we think that all it is is a risk - but it changes when we begin to think about that vulnerability as both creating the conditions to be loved, but also, creating and increasing the capacity to love.

I think a lot of people find the notion of being dependent upon others frightening, and not without reason. Other people are, after all, much less reliable and far more complicated than lawn mowers, dishwashers and private cars. And when, as often happens, the balance of what they do for me shifts, and I’ve done less and they’ve done more, I’m grateful, but uncomfortable with the necessity of gratitude at times. Risking owing someone more than you can pay is frightening. Indebtedness is difficult. No one wants to be the one who owes more, and most of us are on some level afraid of being taken advantage of as well. But more than being owed, I think we’re afraid of owing. We have this notion that all debts must be paid, when in fact, the only way all debts can be paid is if you live wholly and purely in a money economy, and never at all in the economy of love.  We probably cannot love one another if we are too afraid to share.  And we cannot go forward by replacing in each private home, a full set of low energy, private infrastructure.  As Auden put it, the stakes are simply these - we must love one another or die.

And in fact, the economy of human love is what we’re moving towards as we give up our electric tools and our reliance on the grocery stores and replace them with reliance on our neighbors, our families (biological or chosen) and our communities - that is the basic nature of community, or family - an unbalanced, imperfect, inadequate set of exchanges. Barter, and sharing and community are, as people often point out, far less efficient than money. That lack of efficiency is entirely the point.

Money allows you to figure out what things are “worth” - with barter or simple sharing, there are things that can never be quite worked out. Is that firewood equivalent to 20 dozen eggs and a bushel of plums?  Was it really enough for me to babysit in exchange for the help getting the gutters cleaned out? Should I make some cookies too? What is the correct repayment to some for loving your child, or helping care for your elderly parents, or for chasing the local pest dog across an icy field to rescue your chicken, other than someday doing it for them, or for someone else in need?

Things never come out evenly. You always have to be grateful, and thus, dependent. If we give up all the things that have stood as barriers between ourselves and the people we need, that have enabled us never to be dependent, we’re never again going to be square. The only hope is that the person you are working with or bartering with or sharing with is secretly afraid that she/he hasn’t done his fair share either.

But then again, that’s what love is, isn’t it? I’ve never met anyone who loved someone, or was truly loved by someone else who didn’t secretly think that their spouse (or parents, or child or friend) was crazy to love them, that if they could really see all the way through, they’d realize how inequitable things are, and how little they deserve that love. So you end up just being grateful, feeling damned lucky that this time, you got more than you ever deserved. That some miracle, or gift appeared to you, and someone loves you. 

Now we may never feel love for the guy down the street who leaves his motor running all morning in the same way we love our partners or children or parents.  But we can have with him and with most people (not all, but most) those same moments of feeling we haven’t done enough to deserve the help we get, the trust we can have in him when he drops off the kids at school or helps you fix the roof.  You don’t have to even like him to feel that moment of certainty - that you have gotten better and more than you truly deserve.  And then you find a way to return that feeling, to make him say “Well, they are weird, but we’re lucky to have them.”  And that - that is the love economy - the sense that you can never quite be even, that you never get only what you deserve or what you earned.  It is hard to articulate what it is that you do get -  that  along with the eggs or the hands or the shoulder to cry on, came something that most of us know now only through lovers, children, parents, G-d, if that’s your sort of thing.  I think the easiest, although religiously laden word for it is “Grace.” 

My claim is not that the money economy is going away, not that we will all have the energies to live entirely in the world of love every moment, that every exercise in dependency and community will be a success.  It is simply this - we will learn to love each other, or we will face a much harder and darker world.  And our success in that world will almost certainly depend on the space we can find for an economy of love in the economy of money, and a culture of love in the culture of distance.

Sometimes all you and your neighbors will have is  is “I’ve got honey, will you give me carrots?” And sometimes all neighbors are are someone you can ask to help pound the fence pole in. And sometimes all friends are is the person you sit down at the table with you and laugh. But the day you start to trust that your neighbor will remember that you need some carrots, and the day that your neighbors step away from their own work, no matter how urgent, because keeping you secure and your sheep in is more important than their work, and the day that the friend sits at your table, and shares the fruits of her garden and you the fruits of yours, and you eat and you eat and you eat and you are full together of what you share, you have achieved not just community, but grace, and an economy of love.


Community Issues - Thinking About Adaptation

Sharon September 4th, 2008

Today is the last day of the Adapting in Place class, and getting to this point on the syllabus has me thinking about what I’d do differently next time.  The class was designed to help people who expected or were fairly sure they’d be staying more or less where they are.  And most of the participants had big questions about what they should do personally, in their particular place.  So it seemed logical to get that stuff started - to deal with the real basics, food, water, shelter, heat, cooling.  But spending the larger part of a month focusing on how to get your home adapted makes it seem like our overarching focus should be on private homes, when, in fact, that’s just what we were talking about for one month, when the overarching project is not just making our own homes secure, but securing our communities.

That said, however, I think drawing too stark a line between public and private is probably a mistake.  A lot of our “private” resources can be used as public ones.  For example, only one house in the neighborhood has to keep being able to pay the electric bill to keep the internet going for a whole community.  One family with heat can provide a warm and comfortable spot for several elderly neighbors, who may return the favor by rocking babies, peeling potatoes or otherwise offering their time.  The library you and I accumulate can serve not just us, but our larger communities.  Our gardens can both feed the neighborhood hungry and provide models.  That is, this isn’t just about enriching ourselves, and that should never be the only way we look at our adaptation in place solutions.  Besides the moral reasons for not being warm when your neighbors are cold or fed when they are hungry, there are security issues - safety consists in enriching the whole.

And yet, it is the realm of the public itself that has been most stripped by the era of cheap energy, and the public realm that has to be enriched as one of our primary projects.  Yes, we have to take care of our own.  Yes, there may not be time to rebuild every institution we need.  But our coming poverty need not be terrifically frightening to us, if there are ample public resources for the poor - part of our fear is built upon the stripping of low cost, simple public options, and their replacement with increasingly expensive, increasingly private ones. 

So the first question we ought to have begun with was not “What do you (personally) need?” but “What do you (collectively) as a community need?”  And the first place we ought to be looking solutions is towards public, collective resources. Structurally, starting with the personal simply puts too much weight on the purely personal, tempting as it is.  Next time, I’ll start there.