Helping Community Blossom
Growing up in Massachusetts, May Day was definitely a day to celebrate. If it fell on a school day, we made paper cones or little baskets to take home. If not, we made them at home, filling them with simple flowers for our neighbors. These days, neighborliness seems like a quaint, outdated concept in far too many places. Programs like Welcome Wagon used to greet newcomers with baskets of homemade cookies, packets of tea, and gift certificates from local businesses. The practice was still going strong when we moved to our island home back in the mid 80s but like so many remnants of the old island community culture, it’s long gone. Now you get a few coupons from big box stores along with your postal change of address forms.
Since WWII, our national culture has made some profound shifts, moving steadily to the political right. We increasingly seem to prize privacy and individual rights over community and connection. Sadly, the erosion of community and connection underlies the enormous wave of addictions and violence that are wreaking havoc all over our country. There are compelling studies that indicate that the root cause of addictions, opioid or social, and of social terrorism, is not weakness of character but a disphoric sense of disconnection that can be exacerbated by trauma and major losses. When we are most in need of connection, we are apt to end up in a hospital or mental facility, usually with a constantly changing cast of caregivers.
Basic Community Building
Humans need to be in community yet we are rapidly losing critical social skills. Maybe screen time is part of the problem, but it can also be community building in some ways. Certainly international news travels at light speed these days, and social media makes international connections easy and effortless. I used to scorn Facebook, but I admit that I love checking in with various horticulture groups, seeing what’s growing in Juneau or Arizona or closer to home on Vashon Island or Portland; following international plant identification groups; getting glimpses of wildflowers in places I can’t get to in person; experiencing virtual garden tours around the world. I love being able to post a picture of a plant I’m not sure about and getting an almost immediate confirmation or clarification. Brilliant!
I also feel enriched when I’m gardening in public places and can meet people face to face. Real time interactions allow us to answer questions, explain how to grow this or that, demonstrate a pruning technique, or share a plant division. It also offers the chance to look someone in the eye, to hear their thanks or their ideas, and to engage in an actual conversation. Imagine! I especially love talking with our oldies, listening to their stories about gardens long gone, and learning more about this beautiful place where we both live.
Tomorrow I’m offering a workshop at the Senior Center, featuring May Day baskets as well as tips on container gardening and anything else people want to talk about. I’m making little paper cones and tussy mussies to hand out, hoping to spark some happy memories and hear some great stories. Our local Senior Center is a thriving, busy place, despite the fact that, these days, nobody wants to be identified as a senior. Actually, the older oldies don’t mind a bit, but a lot of Boomers really resent the label. It’s not just an island thing; when the long standing ElderHostel program was failing, the directors renamed it Road Scholars and today it’s a very successful, revitalized program with many younger members.
I’ve heard suggestions that we rename our Senior Center and I know that other communities are having similar conversations. Having long looked forward to crone status myself, I’m a little baffled. What happened to honoring our elders? Who wouldn’t want to earn that status? Maybe I’m especially blessed to know so many wise, compassionate, thoughtful, imaginative and adaptable elders but I doubt it. However, I do think that my good fortune might be increased because a few years ago I realized that I was going to a lot of memorial services and finding out that way too many people I “knew’ had fascinating lives I knew nothing about. As a result, I started spending a little more time asking questions and actually listening to the stories they sparked. It turns out that you can simply approach someone you know a little and say, “I’d love to know more about you. Please tell me some of your life experiences,” and get not rebuffs but rich and sometimes astonishing answers.
Listening With Intent
Maybe we Boomers can make peace with maturity if we explore the experiences of our oldies with open ears and minds. Perhaps it’s best to start building such refreshing relationships with people we enjoy but don’t know well. Family can be tricky: When the parent/child relationship shifts into caregiving, such opportunities may be increased, but depending on the personalities involved, they may also diminish. I was delighted to find that my daughter-in-law could get stories from my mom that my brothers and I had never heard (and never would have, for sure!). As a friend, I’ve in turn heard sometimes painful stories that weren’t to be shared with birth family folks.
I’ve heard some of the most eye-opening stories from church family. I belong to a free-spirited, open and affirming UCC church that’s full of marvelous people old and young with intriguing lives and lively minds. In that group, the deeper you dig, the richer the golden veins of viewpoints, stories and ideas. I’m finding the Senior Center to be another great place to connect with elders with wide perspectives and unusual lives. Ever since I moved to this island community, I’ve loved seeking out long time islanders and exploring the past by conversing with people who are still present. After thirty some years here, so many are gone and those who remain seem more precious than ever. So tomorrow I’ll hand out flowers and treasure the stories I glean in sweet return.