On Building Community
Somewhere around March of last year I decided I wanted to build a
community. I had no idea what that would be like, but I felt that it was
something I wanted and needed, so without any significant amount of
soul-searching or consideration of deeper meaning, I began.
I live in a condo, with a patio around the back that enters my
unit through large glass sliders. There is ample guest parking, and being the
farthest in my row means guests can easily access the rear by walking
around the side of my building. That pathway is flat and grassy, and shaded
by a large gorgeous maple tree. I envisioned finding a long outdoor dining
table and chairs to place under that tree if my guests spilled of of the
patio. I wondered if the lower branches could support a porch swing, or if I
could fill it with recycled wind chimes.
My own true outside area is a space that measures about 10 feet by 10
feet, though it isn’t a true square. There is a privacy wall that separates my
area from my neighbor’s, which consists of condo-issue white vinyl fencing.
It serves its purpose I suppose. Other than the concrete patio the ground was
mainly a mix of sand, broken glass, pine needles, bricks, and some wonderful
and determined Hosta plants. Dappled sunlight comes around the corner
beginning at about 1pm, and squirrel and chipmunk sightings are frequent.
A resident before me had planted a row of some sort of mid-size
evergreen trees around the border of the area, but they had been clearly
forgotten and taken for granted for some years. Nonetheless they managed
to provide something nearly unheard of in condo back-yard areas, which was
both privacy and a view. I began by dedicating my first efforts to their
My inherited row of trees were very sad looking, but I was determined to
do what I could with them because I knew their value. They stood their very
weak in their roots, with matted tangled branches, many of them dry and
brittle, with no green growth at all. I grabbed a ladder, a borrowed hacksaw
and some pruning shears that I wasn’t sure actually belonged to me, and I got busy.
I forced myself to be slow and intentional, and after three days of
trimming the payoff was huge. The branches were allowed to go in their
natural directions without being weighed down by empty sticks. There was
more light in the afternoon and the energy of the space in general was so
much lighter and more promising. I was inspired and excited!
The next area of concern to me was the area surrounding the concrete.
The surrounding trees dropped a lot of pine needles, the lighting vs shade
ratio was varied, and the soil itself felt hard-packed and sandy. Even just
getting a small shovel deep enough to turn some over for a closer
assessment was difficult, so I decided to find a way to extend the paved
area, even just visually. I ordered a delivery of light colored river rocks, and
a pile was dropped off right outside of my tree line.
I had imagined myself taking a sunny Sunday afternoon to move the rocks,
in bucket loads, to begin bordering the concrete and then spreading out to
fill an organic space and shape, serving as an extended area for potted
plants, seating, maybe a grill and a birdbath. The stones were round and
smooth, and I often got frustrated with myself for taking too much time by
noticing different shapes or patterns, or moving individual beautiful rocks to
areas that I’d be more likely to glance and recall their special characteristics.
It took many, many hours to move that pile of river rocks to their new
location, and looking back now, nearly a year later, I believe this was where
things entirely shifted from being about the concept of community, and
much more about decor and individual taste… but more on that to follow.
With the arrival of the river rock pile came the vision of a mid-century
“desert aesthetic”. I began shopping in earnest. I shopped the way retailers
hope you will shop, with little consideration of cost or available space.
I fell in love with a white chaise, made of rows of soft tubular plastic, it
reminded me of the Bain De Soleil tanning oil ads of my high school years.
The chair would fit only one person, but I bought it with the same conviction
and excitement as if I’d found a south-of-France style outdoor linen
sectional that came with its own Olive grove.
Two large modern rectangular modern planters followed. I had great
plans of growing beautiful varieties of salad greens in them, specifically
seeded so that anyone could build themselves a gorgeous fresh salad during
anytime of the summer. I ordered a white cafe table and chairs, for the salad
eaters to have a spot. A few strategic potted plants followed, some window
boxes packed with trailing plants to try to soften the tackiness of the vinyl
neighbor partition, and a huge copper bowl that could possibly serve as a
fire pit. Finally, I hung up a little minimalist yellow birdhouse, assuming that it
would be ornamental, but it suited the area.
I was finished decorating, or finished enough that I felt I should really get
refocused on my original intention, which was creating a community. A
feeling of guilt had set in, as well as a sense of uneasiness, that I was way
out of not only my comfort zone, but that I was not drawing from any of my
own life experience whatsoever. I was clueless.
In spring of 2020 the Covid-19 Pandemic officially put a stop to regular
human interaction here in Connecticut. Like everywhere else, school, work,
and so many other parts of life we depend on came to a screeching halt.
Somewhat simultaneously, one small bird asked another small bird to make a
family with him, and they took up residence in my ornamental birdhouse.
The combination of these events were to shape much of the next year.
The perception of time changes without our typical patterns that serve as
daily milestones. Once quarantine hit full force I was as lost as anyone else.
I’m guessing it was May when the birds arrived.
The little ceramic birdhouse I’d strung up on a tree was only meant to add
a little color, at least until the flowers could come out full force. I spent as
much time on the patio as possible, breathing in fresh air, as well as trying to
wrap my mind around Covid-19 and what exactly quarantine and a pandemic
might truly mean. I came to notice that whenever I went out to the patio I
was greeted by a very loud, very angry, and very small bird, who just
seemed so offended by my existence. By this point I had sprouted several
varieties of lettuce seeds indoors, and the plants were ready to be
transplanted in the two large planters I had ordered. I realized that until this
bird family had been allowed to successfully hatch it’s eggs and send the
fledglings off into the wild there wouldn’t be a lot of peaceful time on the
patio. Mr Bird was not going to be quieted or interrupted. The greens I had
so lovingly planted seemed to be disappearing. I suspected squirrels and
chipmunks were to blame, so I ordered several products meant to keep them
at bay, but they were to no avail. I gave up my plans for a living “salad bar”
and got the most gorgeous flowers I could afford.
Some time passed, may a month, maybe more, and I noticed when I
stepped out one day that I was met with quiet. I had heard the baby birds
crying for food, and gotten used to gently coexisting with my bird family,
but being met with such palpable silence was so unexpected that it caused
tears. I sat down on the hot stone (I rarely use the chaise) and got into my
Many things began to dawn on me beginning that day, and continuing as
we reach our one year mark of the pandemic.
There is a huge difference, no comparison really, between decorating and
furnishing an outdoor space and building a community. There is absolutely
an element of “If you build it they will come” that is essential, but the two
undertakings are just completely different energies.
I had envisioned how this would all look, but not who it would support, or
what discussions it might inspire. Essentially I had built an Instagram post.
The immediate potential it had to lend itself to community creativity was
stopped short by the pandemic conditions, and I think this is why the birds’
departure was such an emotional event for me. That very brash bird family
was the first little group to feel comfortable in my creation. And I missed
their input very much. I had come to depend on it.
It occurred to me that I may not really understand what “community”
might mean to me. My upbringing hadn’t been exactly lonely, but my family
wasn’t really involved in things like church, and there wasn’t a large or
reliable extended family. My parents enjoyed company, but not without
some anxiety around the concept, and never consistently.
I never really had a “safe haven” unless I was deep into a book. That was just the reality of it.
So I didn’t really have a great knowledge base.
So what exactly was I seeking? And why was I seeking it? I wish I had this
answered clearly, in a manner that I could explain clearly and concisely,
almost like a recipe, in perhaps about three paragraphs. But I have no such
thing. Community may not even be the right word. Maybe it’s family, or a
club, a sisterhood or a cult? Is it a circle? Is it drinking buddies? None of that
feels like what I need.
Here are some things I imagine to be true. I think it must be what fills in
the negative space. It must be what feels comfortable in its expression, and
feel heard in its questions and proclamations. It must be supported through
its doubts and dreams, and there must be room for lots and lots of laughter,
and for a healthy amount of loving sarcasm.
That iconic lounge chair has no real meaning until it has supported
someone who was life-weary, and allowed them to regain some energy. All
the wonderful river stones won’t really be magical until they have been
smoothed between the worrying hands of someone who is trying to explain
something out loud for the very first time. I believe the birds can be worked
around, but if not, chairs can be moved far enough away to give them the
security they need until it’s their time to head out. As far as the lettuce that
never grew… flowers are food for the soul.
It’s been a year… 2020 to 2021… putting aside the more obvious and
painful aspects of a pandemic requiring intense quarantine measures, I
believe we all inevitable learned things about ourselves, regardless of
whether it was intentional introspection or just a giant face-slap of reality.
Somewhere over this year I stumbled across a word that spoke to me, in the
beautiful Hawaiian language:
Swaying, swinging, as something with an anchored base, as seaweed, hair, leaves;
fluttering; wandering, unstable. (http://wehewehe.org/)
I felt defined by this word, and it lead me also to recall the fledgeling birds, just before they could truly fly. It was the perfect word for anyone feeling like they might want to seek something different, that
still fed their soul. Maybe this is the year… but really, if not now, when?