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A grateful heart is a giving heart.  In honor of the upcoming celebration of gratitude, four days featuring ideas on how to give back to your community.

Day 3: Unexpected Giving

Unexpected generosity packs a big punch.  Like sunshine splitting through dark skies, intentional acts of kindness can transform.  Ask the lover who brings a surprise bouquet to his beloved.  In a season of belt-tightening and budget cutting, I have begun to value unforeseen blessings all the more.  Having been the recipient of a few unanticipated gifts, I have also become aware of the need to pass such goodness along.  Every neighbor could use a little spirit-lifting and day-brightening.  Unexpected giving does just that for both the giver and receiver.  Take, for instance, the case of the cupcake.  I bake these little beauties by the dozen, not needing to eat more than one or two.  Instead of hoarding the lot, I try to share and, in return, I’ve gained a dozen happy neighbors.  Try one of these ideas and express your gratitude with an extravagant gesture of unexpected giving.  It may be just the way to spend Thanksgiving Day.

1. Plant a growing thing.  Trees, gardens, flower beds, and herb boxes are gifts that keep on giving and they can be given to an individual or a neighborhood.  Visit your local nursery or contact Blessed Earth to purchase a tree in honor of someone or plan a tree planting in your neighborhood.

2. Share a favorite source of inspiration.  Ideas, books, and magazines are meant to be shared!  Instead of stocking up your trove of tomes, why not pick a few greats to pass along?  If you start the exchange, you can get a cycle going.  I, for one, am always a grateful recipient of inspiring recommendations! 

3. Bake a batch of your best goodies.  Give your neighbors some sugar.  Edible gifts are a quick way to give something homemade and heartfelt to the person across the way.  Uncertain about your current recipe selection?  Grab a great idea from The Good Neighbor Cookbook.

4. Surprise someone with your favorite treat.  The age-old adage is still as true as ever:  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  Next time you think of grabbing a sub from your favorite deli, buy one for someone else instead.  Whatever you do, find a few ways to put others before yourself.

A grateful heart is a giving heart.  In honor of the upcoming celebration of gratitude, four days featuring ideas on how to give back to your community.

Day 2: Giving Support

A common misconception about financial giving is that it requires an overflowing pocketbook.  The truth is that it doesn’t take a lot of cold hard cash to become a philanthropist—it only takes pocket change.  Give up lattes for a month and you may find yourself in the position to invest in a good cause.  The real challenge then becomes recognizing opportunities to invest.  This month, in the spirit of gratitude, my husband and I decided to make a contribution to a non-profit that organizes community gardens in our neighborhood.  After a few summers of fresh herbs, free gardening advice, and our very own garden plot for a growing season, it seemed appropriate to invest in this worthwhile resource we’ve already been enjoying.  Is there a similarly overlooked organization in your neighborhood?  Here are a few tips on how to support the important causes and local heroes in your neck of the woods.

1. Give with the click of a button.  Skip the vending machine snacks for a few weeks and scope out the websites of local non-profit organizations instead.  For many non-profits, you can give an online donation!  In Central Kentucky, The Bluegrass Community Foundation has even organized a GoodGiving Guide “to give local non-profits a leg up this giving season.”

2. Attend a fundraising event.  Are you more interested in giving when you can get something in return?  Scope out the galas and 5k races of the non-profit sector.  Taking a date to a bike prom or a youth talent show can add some serious flavor to a person’s social calendar.

3. Invest in a cause you believe in with a group.  When a lot of people give a little, it goes a long way. This year, instead of hosting a Secret Santa gift exchange at your workplace, why not make a collective investment in a good cause?

4. Fund a scholarship.  Looking for a way to make a direct investment in community development?  Help fund a student’s afterschool program tuition for a year.  Lexington’s Common Good is looking for partners to support their program!

If these alternatives don’t suit your tastes, do whatever it takes to give–your contribution matters!

A grateful heart is a giving heart.  In honor of the upcoming celebration of gratitude, four days featuring ideas on how to give back to your community.

Day 1: Giving Time

Giving your time does not require an elaborate plan.  Often, one can simply show up and, in doing so, lend a hand.  What is required, however, is a willingness to put aside other priorities and make time available to give.  Today, I joined with volunteers at The East Seventh Street Community Center in tutoring neighborhood kids and preparing a Thanksgiving feast.  I gave 2.5 hours of time and, in return, received a full heart and lots of hugs.  Try one of these ideas and give back to your community in the coming weeks by making room in your schedule for your neighborhood!

1. Go to a neighborhood association meeting.  Wondering what a neighborhood association is?  Maybe you should start one.  Or at least check out this neighborhood association handbook.

2. Spend time with a kid.  More than 15 million kids are alone in the after school hours and many quality afterschool programs are in need of volunteer support to meet the increasing demand for assistance.  Find out more about the benefits of afterschool programs here and support the program in your neighborhood!

3. Volunteer at a local non-profit service agency.  If kids aren’t your thing, find another way to serve in your neighborhood.  Opportunities abound on volunteermatch.org.

4. Play a board game with a neighbor.  Are you competitive?  Do you find yourself spending way too much time in front of a screen?  Unplug and play.  Candyland is always a crowd-pleaser, but check out these top picks if you’re in need of other ideas.

Whether or not you’ve taken up the percentile chant or occupied your local Wall Street, you’ve probably joined in a handful of conversations on the subject.  Although this movement merits some amount of attention, a new study released today sheds light on another sort of encampment you should consider–simply dwelling in a home, in a neighborhood.

As part of US2010, a research project financed by the Russell Sage Foundation and Brown University, this study has used census data from neighborhoods to track income levels in 117 metropolitan areas from 1970 to 2009.  The findings, highlighted in a recent New York Times article, show middle-class areas in large cities shrinking while affluent and impoverished areas grow ever larger.

This study, conducted by Stanford University, describes the increasing economic disparity between neighborhoods and the subsequent income segregation.  As I flipped through the statistics, I began to see an even greater need for individuals to live the neighborly way in a place that needs good neighbors.  More specifically, low-income neighborhoods in urban areas are in need of a broader range of inhabitants from varying economic and social backgrounds.

What will happen in a nation where income inequality begins to lead to income segregation?  As argued by Sean F. Reardon, an author of the study, “Children in mostly poor neighborhoods tend to have less access to high-quality schools, child care and preschool, as well as to support networks or educated and economically stable neighbors who might serve as role models.”  Essentially, without adequate access to interaction with people from other income groups, communities struggle to maintain the capability to support future generations.  “The isolation of the prosperous, he said, means less interaction with people from other income groups and a greater risk to their support for policies and investments that benefit the broader public — like schools, parks and public transportation systems.”

Neighborhoods reflect the characteristics of their inhabitants.  If the people in the place change, the place changes.  So join the movement–let your neighborly ways speak!

Want to learn more?  Read Growth in the Residential Segregation of Families by Income 1970-2009.

I spent the weekend hanging out with CJ.  We ran around the backyard together catching colorful leaves and playing chase.  When we were tired, my little friend and I ate a snack and got a drink of water.  CJ licked her bowl clean and wagged her tail.  As I watched her curl up for a nap, I realized that caring for CJ while her friends, Steve & Luella, are out of town is part of how I care for my neighborhood.  Helping my friends and neighbors is a way of seeking the welfare of our shared place.

I believe the well-being of a neighborhood is dependent on the choices of its inhabitants.  When we choose to share, welcome, celebrate, or help one another, we are creating a community.  When we choose to isolate ourselves or work only for our benefit, we tear at the fibers of shared life.  Author Wendell Berry sums it up in saying, “A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives.”

As simple an act as walking a neighbor’s dog, picking up a piece of trash, or helping the people across the street paint their porch has the power to influence the course of a neighborhood’s life.  I have witnessed these expressions of neighborliness and their impact, and I believe their collective influence will continue to shape our neighborhood for years to come.

Neighborhood Exchange No. 4

How are you helping?  Do you believe your actions can influence your neighborhood?  What are some obstacles you have found to helping others?

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Celebrations are seasonal, cultural, and truly fundamental.  They give us the opportunity to step away from the day to day and experience wonder.  Within the year’s ebb and flow, annual celebrations help us mark the passage of time.  Want to get to know your neighbors?  Join the celebration.

Today, we are celebrating The Day of the Dead, or El Día de Los Muertos, in my neighborhood.  The Living Arts & Science Center around the corner has made a tradition of inviting the neighborhood out to experience and participate in this November first celebration and with it comes music and dance, food and festivities, art, beauty, conversation, and remembering.  Although The Day of the Dead is a holiday made for reflection, the bright displays remind us that it is also a day for celebration.  After all, in the face of death, life goes cheerfully on.

The kids from the East Seventh Street Community Center down the street donned costumes and masks yesterday to celebrate Halloween.  They wandered from house to house collecting candy and giggling at scary decorations.  Today they are celebrating in a different way as they hang portraits in remembrance of lost loved ones and pets.  They wander around a cemetery to view the altars and memorials in honor of the dead.  Skeletons wink from behind trees, neon pink streamers and sparkly hula hoops dance around tombstones, and a candlelit parade snakes through the uneven graveyard.

This particular festival, like so many others, will fade in the memory of those who enjoy it.  However, it is an important component of the shared memory of this place.  With each community Easter egg hunt, Thanksgiving dinner, Roots & Heritage Festival, and Day of the Dead Celebration, our neighborhood adds to the collective memory bank we can look back on together.  Each shared experience builds the bonds of community, so celebrate!

Neighborhood Exchange No. 3

Now, it’s your turn.  I want to hear your thoughts on celebration.  Contribute your own ideas or pick a question to comment on:  What celebrations mark the passage of time in your life?  Which events stand out in your memory as shared experiences that have become a part of collective memory of your neighborhood?

Haas&Hahn

One billion people live in informal settlements, or slums, throughout the world.  Many of these neighborhoods are unplanned, their residents facing the challenge of finding clean water, food, shelter, and education with little to no resources.  However, when designers and community organizers turn to residents for advice, creative solutions abound.

A recent article in The New York Times, “Rescued By Design,” highlights an exhibition organized by the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum which chronicles stories of innovation overcoming adversity.  “Design With the Other 90 Percent:  Cities,”depicts how a canal settlement can become a street lined with row houses and school buses can become mobile classrooms, but, most importantly, it features how community members can come up with their own solutions when given the chance.  “‘The poor,’ Somsook Boonyabancha, founding director of the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights, puts it in the show’s catalog, ‘are the creators and implementers of the most comprehensive and far-reaching systems for solving problems of poverty, housing and basic services.’”

What can you learn from this project?  Cynthia E. Smith, the show’s curator, brings this thought to the forefront:  “Cities are very complex, and what the best designers illustrate is how to give form to sometimes very simple ideas.  Good design involves bringing not just a fresh eye to problems but, most of all, listening to the people who live in those communities.”  That is the neighborly way.

A welcome mat sits outside the door.  Waiting to greet visitors, it receives occasional foot traffic and passing glances as people cross the threshold.  This friendly doorway is a good start to living the neighborly way, but, in my experience, the act of welcoming neighbors involves much more.  Hospitality is hard work.  Welcoming someone does not have to be a complicated affair, but connecting with people, getting to know them, and inviting them to cross over into your space involves effort.  It may also involve patience, awkwardness, or rejection, but the outcome of welcoming folks is well worth the effort.  As barriers break down, friendships are formed.

Consider it an act of modern day rebellion—I invite people into my home.  Acquaintances, co-workers, neighbors, and kids from around the block stop by and I welcome them.  I offer a bite to eat, a bit to drink, and place to put up feet.  This is a small act, but in doing so I am participating in the age old ritual of hospitality.  On a good day, I actively seek people out and invite new friends to come over.  At other times, I find myself begrudgingly answering the door to an unexpected visitor.  Last week, a cozy date night turned into an impromptu anime movie party.  Thad and I were sitting in our living room after enjoying a tasty meal when the doorbell rang.  Although we were planning on continuing with our date, it seemed like an evening worth sharing.  So, I wandered to the door, inviting the young ladies in to share our anime movie and try our experimental beet cake.  At first, the girls were simply excited to look around–they hadn’t been by before.  We wandered out to the balcony and, after a while, they began to tell stories and share a bit more.  Eventually, we made it to the cake and the movie.  Looking back, I can say we made the best choice.  Instead of keeping to ourselves, Thad and I shared our time and our home and gained a memory, deeper relationships, and new insights in return.

Welcoming someone is a bit like going on a first date.  You share a part of who you are and the other person leaves with an impression of you.  You get to decide how to present yourself and whether or not to follow up.  So, whether you like big get-togethers or small tea parties, whether you plan far in advance or spontaneously think of inviting someone in, the best advice is to be yourself.  My dear friend Elaine has a plaque on her wall that sums up the Navajo wisdom on the subject:  “Always assume your guest is tired, cold, and hungry and act accordingly.”  Whatever you do, welcome someone in.

Neighborhood Exchange No. 2

Now, it’s your turn.  I want to hear your thoughts on hospitality.  Contribute your own ideas or pick a question to comment on:  Have your experiences with welcoming people into your space been positive?  What have you learned as a result of welcoming neighbors?  Do you struggle with opening your home?  What are the obstacles you have to overcome to be more welcoming in your neighborhood?  Exchange your ideas here!


I walked across the street to Anne’s house and spotted her working in the flower beds she so carefully tends.  With a surplus of peppers, I was hoping for a chance to share my garden load.  Unbeknownst to me, Anne had a bounty of pears to share in return!  We wandered to her back yard, plucked some juicy, ripe fruit, and, soon, I was lugging a peck of pears back across the street.

Swapping and sharing with neighbors has brought me more than a few surprises.  In this instance, Anne’s backyard bounty became my autumn treat.  At other times, an exchange with a neighbor has unexpectedly brought encouragement, new clarity on an important issue, or a cup of tea.  Sharing is a fundamental part of how I live and love locally.  I have come to recognize its importantance in developing community and I wonder:  Do we, as neighbors, practice this important craft?  How can we incorporate sharing into our daily lives?  What sustains a lifestyle of sharing?

Neighborhood Exchange No. 1

There is much to learn about the art of loving locally.  In a year’s time, I have experienced the joys and frustrations of bonding with a place and its people.  However, as with any relationship, a year marks only the beginning of the story.  What I long for in this next year of living the neighborly way is a chance to hear the stories and thoughts of others on a similar adventure.

Neighborhood life is both challenging and inspiring.  Getting to know my neighbors and our neighborhood has been one of the most significant things I have done, but it hasn’t been easy.  In working to find ways to love neighbors well, I have stumbled upon a few insights, I have been forced to ask hard questions and, at times, I have had to face difficult realities.  This has been the greatest realization of all:  living the neighborly way is about discovery.

In an effort to turn discoveries into conversations, I have decided to spend the next few weeks exploring lessons learned while living in community.  Would you join me in a conversation about the neighborly way of life?  To generate new discoveries, there are questions we must ask:  How do we live as neighbors?  What are some ways we can encourage neighborly relationships?  Why do neighborhoods matter?  This week, let’s exchange thoughts and experiences related to the act of sharing.  Consider lending your thoughts to the conversation as an act of sharing in itself.

Photo By Thad Salmon

Things are always changing.  The weather changes, the season changes, the neighborhood changes, and so, predictably, we change.  Unlike a butterfly or an Elm tree, we get to decide to what extent.  As winter began approaching spring, Thad and I began to contemplate a transition of our own.  After 6 months of living in-house with neighbors, we were facing the question, “Where do we go from here?”  One thing made the decision a lot easier–we knew we had to look no further than our neighborhood.  Eventually, we found the perfect spot.  We moved around the corner!  Now, with a kitchen and table of our own, we have begun welcoming new and old neighbors alike.

Our move took us around the block, but it brought with it a great deal of change.  What we gain from all of this change is renewal.  Renewed imagination, perspective, and hope.  Seeing a different corner of the neighborhood from day to day, I have begun to imagine fresh bike routes, new ways to connect with neighbors, and creative possibilities for vacant lots.  Seeing things from a new angle has also brought a deeper understanding of the rhythm of the neighborhood, the patterns of daily life, and the unique qualities of this place.  There is much perspective to be gained from meeting folks who live and play around the block, and there is much hope to be found in new connections that emerge.

Watching spring unfold, I am amazed at all the new life that comes from a change in the temperature.  The landscape has been refreshed!  As we face life’s many changes, may we hope to find a bit of new life, too.

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