I value citizenship—the ability we each have to make a difference through our actions around something we care about, in the company of others.
Yet, from over at least a decade of witnessing people trying to make the world a better place in one form or another, I find the thing that seems to plague most “do-ers” is that ugly phenomenon called “burnout”: A person who’s passionate about something takes on more and more responsibility, becoming isolated in and consumed by that responsibility. Eventually, they give up, heartbroken and alone in a new form—mourning the quit venture. I also know people who have witnessed burn-out in others and choose not to pursue an inspiration for the sake of their own protection or sanity.
Perhaps the best inoculation against burn-out is to find good friends who share your passion and will walk with you down the path of action. This is a story of how I found friends to walk beside along a path of “reweaving” the fabric of our neighborhood, Gillespie Park. It’s also the story of how great ideas can incubate for what seems like ages, only to spring into action when the conditions are right. Finally, it’s a story about connection and neighbors discovering abundance in the place where they live.
R-L: Chris, me, Andrea, Steve, Leo and Nicole.
* * *
It all began with an email from Allison Pinto of the local civic engagement organization SCOPE. Allison coordinates SCOPE’s Neighborhoods Initiative, which has produced some exciting innovations in the last several years. In her email, Allison invited me to host a table representing Gillespie Park at their upcoming “Neighborhood Expo” on September 13.
My response (basically): “Sure! I think … let me check if any other neighbors want to do it.” I immediately called my neighbor and friend Andrea.
Months ago, Andrea and I discovered that we both want to connect more with neighbors. We agreed to sit down one morning and brainstorm ideas. Well, that was one year ago and we still hadn’t made that conversation happen. Thanks to Allison, Andrea and I finally got together one morning during the week at her home on 6th Street. Andrea teaches Capoeira and helps her partner Leo run his home-based micro-factory producing Porcelana Chocolate. Talking about our neighborhood table led us to wonder how we might involve other neighbors, which, in turn, led to an idea we’d also both been daydreaming about for some time: a neighbor get-together with food.
Andrea and Leo’s house on 6th Street.
The energy flowed and tumbled as we excitedly planned. It seemed unreal how quickly an idea I’d cherished for years took shape. We compared calendars and picked a date: Saturday, 11 a.m. We split up tasks: Andrea — flyer. April — Facebook event. We’d both reach out to neighbors we knew and pass out flyers to those we didn’t. Leo would help. We’d bring up the Expo at the meal and see who, if anyone, would like to help out.
My excitement kept flowing during the days leading up to the brunch, as I reported the development to friends (who know how obsessed I am with this stuff) and reached out to neighbors.
It was refreshing to have a new and more direct excuse to talk to neighbors, beyond the extra “Good morning!” I met new people and strengthened my relationships with some I already knew.
One house had long been a mystery to me: sumptuously landscaped, unusual wood-tile surface, and rumored water-slide in the back. I’d always been curious about who lived there but, for some reason, had never been comfortable greeting them. They just seemed too interesting. But on Thursday, “Gillespie Neighbors Brunch” flyer in hand, I mounted the dark wood steps and, swallowing that inevitable tiny throat-lump, knocked on the door. A pretty woman answered, smiling. After introductions and my invitation to the brunch, I learned some great things about her. Her name’s Nin and she’s lived in Gillespie Park for 23 years. She lives there with her husband and children. They wouldn’t be able to come to the brunch, she told me, because they’re going out of town for a month. Where to? Iceland. Iceland?! Wow. And, the kicker: Nin too has been wanting to meet more neighbors. “I love to cook,” she said. “Maybe sometime you can come over to my house for dinner and I’ll cook for you.”
My two other neighbors Pat and Wendy surprised me with their hospitality. Wendy, a young woman one house away from me, I met two weeks before when she saved the day with a jump to my car. When I knocked and invited her to brunch, Wendy invited me inside her home. It turns out we’re both artists and love to find great old furniture by road and thrift.
Pat, the older woman who lives across the street, welcomed me in for a brief, cozy get-to-know-you conversation when I knocked on her door. I drank in her Virginia accent and dainty home decorations, which took me back to my grandmother’s home. It occurred to me to give her my number in case she ever needed it. As we said goodbye she told me, “Stop by anytime.”
* * *
Come Saturday—Brunch Day!—I was nervous and excited. The air was unusually brisk—the first cool morning of the season. I took in the beautiful weather and sights that keep me in love with Gillespie Park—mothers walking with their kids, umbrellas up to the sun; Spanish moss; arching oaks; hand-painted mailboxes; flowers.
Arriving at Leo and Andrea’s house, I was greeted by a table laid out with white tablecloth, homemade quiche and blueberry muffins. Chairs lined the room. Apparently, Andrea had been excited too, and woke up at 5:00 am to start getting things ready. People gradually trickled in. I met Nicole and James, a delightful young couple busy pursuing degrees who live on 8th Street, who Andrea knows through Capoeira. My friend Jason and his two-year old, adorable son Jamie arrived. More folks showed up until it was bustling and energized by delicious food-consumption and conversation.
We also held a simple activity I’ve learned: People sit in a circle and introduce themselves plus three kinds of gifts — Gifts of the Head (things you know about), Gifts of the Hand (things you know how to do), and Gifts of the Heart (things you care about deeply). There were some great surprises in this collective conversation, including the fact that José, owner of Canta Rana Peruvian Fusion Cuisine, knows how to play clarinet, and that his son is not only gifted in drawing but is also a leader who’s created his own art club with friends. Tak, a neighbor who knew no one but decided to come from the flyer he found on his step, has two interesting claims to fame: his grandfather opened the first Japanese restaurant in Florida, and his mother founded the Mote Marine Laboratory. Other gifts surfaced: talents for singing, dancing, refinishing wood floors, fishing, gardening, problem-solving, Buddhist practice, yoga, theater, and — of course — chocolate-making.
R-L: Jamie, Jamies, Leo, Luciana and Diana.
Tak and Andrea start the map.
At one point, we began to map out the neighborhood, marking where we each lived. Then as Tak suggested, we added names of other neighbors we each knew — realizing that, alone, one person may not know too many people, but as we start connecting, our collective knowledge expands rapidly.
We ended the gathering with friendly banter, an impromptu Capoeira demo and visits into the “chocolate room” to ogle, sample and buy our own elegant little boxes of Leo’s incredible chocolates.
Steve “Energia” — apprentice chocolatier and capoerista
I asked a few of the neighbors what they thought of the brunch. Diana, the talented chef and owner of Canta Rana, loved the opportunity to meet new people. José commented that it gave him a feeling of family. Steve, a high school student who apprentices with Leo and studies Capoeira with Andrea, also loved the opportunity to meet new people and to get to know better those who he might see around but doesn’t have a chance to talk to at length.
Once everyone left, yet another treat appeared, reassuring me that I am not alone in my passion for connecting neighbors:
“So when will we have the next one?”
“How can we get the neighbors who feel less comfortable to come?”
* * *
The neighborhood feels different to me now. Not only do I know more people — their names, stories, talents, passions — but I know that people besides myself want to know one another. They’ll take time on a Saturday and bring some food to do it, even if they don’t know who put the invite on their doorstep. Some of them will want it so much, they’ll do something to make it happen — like Andrea and Leo, who hosted and walked 8th and 9th Streets handing out flyers and cleaned up after we all left.
In knowing, being known, and having company on this path of neighborhood connecting, I am delighted to say with no trace of doubt: I AM NOT ALONE.
Now I ask you, with genuine curiosity:
- What is your passion?
- When, how, where do you act on it?
- Who walks with you?