Friday, December 17, 1999
Reaching out to others in search of some common ground
All the beautiful sentiments in the world weigh less than a single lovely action—James Russell Lowell
Another hectic morning in the throes of the move and an irate moving man fumes on the front step, his massive van abandoned in the far lane of Bedford Road, blocking traffic. His helper hasn't shown up, he laments, and he can't park his truck close enough to the house to unload ittoo many trees and power lines in the way. He points upward as if they all had been planted in anticipation of his arrival. He, the truck, and all the family's possessions inside are returning to the warehouse he tells me. Until someone else returns with a smaller truck, the family must continue to live in an empty house. Well, that's not his problem!
Suddenly a massive American sedan swings up behind him, and out pops an elderly lady, grinning ear-to-ear, bearing a pie. "Welcome to Carlisle!" she proclaims, and introduces herself. Seeing the confusion she beats a hasty retreat, but not before she points to her house, and delivers both pie and her phone number. "Call!" she commands. "I'm so glad your family moved in!" In this case, not only did she deliver a pie, but a family from discouragement. The mover is nearly forgotten, but both pie and phone number attain a lasting sacred status. Such is the power of a single lovely action.
But then this matches our concept of Carlisle or any small town in America. Most of us move into a small town, imaginations drenched in golden dreams of a slow, human pace of life, the general store, the sheltering familiarity of friends and neighbors. Then reality breaks in after all, times and available time have changed.
How many of us upon seeing a moving truck or a new face take the time to welcome the newcomer, even introduce ourselves? If we feel outgoing and ambitious we may deign to lift our hand to wave or lower our chins to nod in gracious acknowledgment of the stranger's existence. On the whole, we just keep to ourselves.
At one time the formal first encounter was a mandatory ritual of civilized life, and unless one were contagious or confined to one's bed, neglecting one's neighborly obligations could result in a neighborhood denunciation as "too good for the rest of us." The ritual of welcome seems to have become extinct along with Christmas cards with personal letters, cloth handkerchiefs, and gaslight.
Carlisle Community Website
The technological revolution has also changed our sense of distance. The Internet makes it easier to make friends on the other side of the world than on the other side of the stone wall. As the world has become our neighborhood, our neighborhood has become an unknown world. Unlike face-to-face meetings, online relationships are antiseptic, anonymous and "safe."
In a "fighting-fire-with-fire" strategy, Lotus researcher and Carlisle resident Dr. John Patterson started up the Carlisle Community Website. His project is a behavioral study that attempts to bring the town together online. Patterson cites studies that predict "that social capital is essential to good governance," but that in the "last twenty years we are spending a lot more of our social capital at work than in our community." He explains that he chose Carlisle as his project site, not only as his home, but because, as a largely upscale, professional community, there is a greater chance of participation. There may be a greater need, too, he says. "People in Carlisle often have little time to spend on the community. There are few things in the town to pull them together—the one place everyone goes is the transfer station. There's no cafe. Perhaps the town needs something to help people interact."
Open since September, Patterson's site (http://carlisle.lotus.com) encour-ages club and school involvement. But an examination of the site would suggest that the real action is embedded in the "lobby" room's bulletin board. There, in the "uncategorized" zone, at least one new neighbor has sought and received advice from veteran Carlisleans and a network has begun to emerge. A new "Carlisle Classifieds" section has just been created. But while the site is intended to foster supportive community interaction, it can also provide a venue for discussions that are more political in nature. According to Patterson, (before Town Meeting and other decision-making bodies) "it could be extremely useful to conduct a public discussion prior to deliberation."
The site is still evolving, and Patterson laments a "chicken or the egg" problem in which users seem to look over their shoulder and wait for someone else to "make the first move." The requirements of his study forbid the anonymity that so often accords security to the shy. Also, statements made on a bulletin board are persistent, so statements made on any controversial subject remain posted for all to see. However, potentially this site, or even another site much like it, could provide a valuable public forum for a lively exchange of ideas and even the genesis of friendships.
"Finding common ground, we descend to meet," said Emerson. "All association must be a compromise..." Even he, for all of his elevated outlook, recognized the necessity of stepping down from our own areas of expertise and specialties and interests in order to reach out to others, to discover common ground.
Reaching that common ground takes effort. A new neighbor can be considered a person of mystery—of both danger and promise. They may be your potential best friend and ally or a lifelong thorn in your side. They might reject your attempts at friendship and you in the process. You may have nothing in common and resent everything they stand for. But of all the places in the world, they chose your town, your very street in which to settle. Something pulled them here as it did you. And if the theories of "social capital" are right, we may need each other more than we know. That, at least, we have in common. And neighborliness is about the commonalities of life. How better to end an old century and begin a new, than by reaching out to others, on the other side of the world or of town or the street? Get out of the house or get on line. It might just be as easy as pie.
© 1999 The Carlisle Mosquito