From a world dotted with small villages to a country filled with small towns, mostly people have lived in a place where everyone knows their neighbors. That means they’re available to watch out for each other, help each other, offer a sense of belonging. A trip to the market or store or post office enriches you twice—once with the needed thing bought or bartered and once with a friendly conversation.
What is a blessing in terms of community living can also be a curse in other ways. When everyone knows their neighbors, it means that everyone also knows your business— and there are times when we’d rather that they not. Like any social setting, little cliques or gossipy groups can form and if who we are in our essence doesn’t sit well with the ethos of the community, we sometimes have to hide or give up or suffer indignities that stifle our true selves. Not to mention knowing all your neighbors is no guarantee whatsoever that you like all your neighbors or that they like you.
So sometimes the anonymity of the city can be a blessing. The diversity of different groups allow one to pick and choose the folks you call “community.” The choices are wider, the possibilities greater, the confluence of energies more stimulating that the predictable knowns of small-town life. Balanced out by the shadow sides of loneliness, errands that are mere errands minus the banter with the temporary young clerk at the store, the small or large increase of fear or distrust when surrounded by strangers.
And so the question remains: Can one find the quality of small town life within the vibrant, diverse culture of a city? (Or conversely, can a small town also be diverse, vivacious and offering some anonymity when needed?)
Within a few months of moving into our present home back in 1982 with our two-year old daughter, a neighbor organized a tree-planting project. It was a great way to meet each other and we soon followed suit with hosting a Christmas Caroling party, and later, an Easter egg hunt for the little ones, a 4thof July barbecue, Halloween pumpkin-carving party. The neighborhood kids grew up with it all. Even when most of the families moved to other neighborhoods, they still came back for these various events and almost 40 years later, we’re still doing the Caroling Party.
So when the Pandemic hit, I began an out-on-the-street neighborhood sing with the new young families that moved on the block. We sang once or twice a month for over a year and the other day, after a summer off, we came back together, this time in our back yard. As happened before all those years back, many of these lovely families moved to another neighborhood, but retained their loyalty to the Second Avenue Sing! I was delighted to welcome them all (they all came!) and it was even more fun and satisfying to be seated in the yard not having to dodge cars and arranging seats so the singing was yet more focused and satisfying. And of course, the kids have grown! The three year old now 4 ½, the seven year old 8 ½, etc. and able to sing more complicated songs.
And for this retired music teacher, such a joy to keep sharing music as the thread that helps weave community. Before that recent sing, I had just played piano at the Jewish Home for the elders and the day after the sing, played piano at Flower Piano in the Arboretum for the crowd of mixed ages that gathered around. I am certainly not a concert pianist on the Symphony Stage nor a jazz musician touring the clubs nor a singer hired for the Folk Festival, but I’ve managed to use music to bring people together in joyful gathering, any time, any age, any place.
And that, my friends, is a great blessing. May it continue!