Author: Devon Bonady
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #159
It’s a warm fall day on the shady pond, with a cool breeze, birds singing, and dragonflies buzzing. My dear four-year-old neighbor Ella and I sit silently in the paddle boat wandering the pond searching for water insects to catch. Leaves rustle in the breeze and a few even fall from the canopy into the water. Ella is poised at the back of the boat with her colander, directing me to a certain nook and then waiting for the perfect moment to dip the colander into the dark water. If we are lucky, a few species of water insects will appear as the water drains from the colander and she can swiftly transfer them to the temporary shelter of a plastic bucket on the back of the boat for examination and identification. Today she has already taught me the names of two species that we did not see last time we paddled together.
This is not the first afternoon I have spent this way, but it will be the last with her for quite a while. This peaceful pond exploration day, although in some ways like many others, is different because it is just a few days before she and her family move across the country to begin a new adventure. It is a painful time for me, but also an extremely precious time. One thing I learned while living in community is that I must appreciate and savor the present moments I have with special people in my life while they are with me, as they often move on. The vivid memories and strong feelings I carry with me from even simple days with special people lift me up in hard times and help me to remember the beauty and strength of connection in community. Ella’s family has been contemplating and preparing to move away for over a year by this time, and as I deal with my grief, I also appreciate every moment I have to spend with them. Pond paddling, sandbox playing, coloring, or camping, I have been blessed with many opportunities to connect with this family, my neighbors, the biggest piece of my little neighborhood community.
Today, I reflect on the day, almost five years ago, when she was born. I was already a close friend and neighbor of her parents; her birth welcomed a new sense of family, closeness, and community into my life and our little neighborhood. Her birth gave me the opportunity to be of service and give back to my dear friends in a new and different way. As they met the challenge of raising a baby, I brought them meals, split firewood, and entertained the baby for a few moments to give Mom and Dad a break. Not only did I come to realize how much I love to show my gratitude by helping others, I experienced the magic of reciprocity in that, by giving to my community, I receive so much more than I could ever imagine.
From a very early age, Ella and I became friends. In the early days, I took her on long walks. For me, this opportunity was not just about getting to know a small child intimately, but also about learning what is important to me. My time with her started out as an act of service—to help her parents find a little time to get work done or a quick nap while the baby was away. I felt joy in giving, of course, and yet what I received in exchange from this budding relationship was more than I ever could have imagined. Now I have a very dear five-year-old friend and pen pal who sends me beautiful artwork by mail. Her brother, mom, and dad become dearer to me each day and provide love and support even from their new far-away home. Thanks to this family, I have tools and experience to guide me through the new and overwhelming process of becoming a new parent.
By my sharing appreciation for my neighbors through service, we all benefit greatly. My experiences in community throughout my life have shown me that serving and appreciating others while living in community is essential for personal and group connection. At this time in my life, as I begin motherhood, the lessons of appreciation, gratitude, and reciprocity that I have learned in a variety of community situations will be essential for my well-being and that of my family.
The opportunity to reflect on and learn from my experiences in a variety of communities is a gift in itself. I appreciate the wisdom that comes from others who share their stories, whether in conversations, films, Communities, or other venues. Learning from others’ experiences helps me to glean more from my own experiences. It seems to be a never-ending and always enriching process. I have lived in a variety of community settings: a rural intentional community with about 25 year-round residents, a rural educational center with 10 year-long residents, a three-family farm with 10 seasonal interns, a loose-knit community of eight people living in a cluster of houses, and a rural homestead with five to seven adults and a varying level of community “intention.” My current community, the latter, also consists of neighbors and friends within a five-mile radius, and friends in a town 25 miles away. All of these community configurations have offered me a multitude of lessons in gratitude. In particular, I think of two ways that I have learned to express gratitude: by appreciating others and by offering myself in service to others.
While living in community, I have learned the value of appreciating others for the work that they do. In intentional community, each resident invests a lot of time and energy into people and projects. People are busy and do not always take the time to notice the work of others, nor do they always have the opportunity to hear how their work has been received by other residents. Members want to feel that their personal gifts and the work they do benefits everyone and allows them to feel part of the group vision and goals. They want to know that their efforts are valued and worthwhile. A successful community requires people with a wide variety of skills to accomplish tasks, and sometimes members are not aware of all that each member does to keep the gears in motion. How many of us feel like others do not realize how much work it takes to do our job?
I lived in a 25-member intentional community that derived most of its income from conference center management. Members worked in diverse jobs such as facilities management, conference coordination, and growing fresh vegetables for the community and conference center meals. At that time, the main garden was a 10 minute walk from the community center. Some community members who worked in the conference center office had not even been to the garden after a year or more of living on site. Those unfamiliar with gardening, farming, and manual labor did not realize the amount of time and effort that the gardeners and interns put into growing food. The gardeners did not feel appreciated and their perspective on some community decisions was misunderstood. In an effort to boost their morale, community members initiated a community day in the garden. We had everyone out there planting potatoes, singing songs, having fun, and experiencing the work that is required to grow food.
At that time, I was a gardener, and I received helpful positive feedback after the community day. As a result, I reflected on my own perceptions and judgment of other community jobs and work styles. I am a “do-er,” and I tend to focus on physical projects. My job as land steward covered so many arenas that I tended towards immediate needs like keeping trees alive, and fixing fences. I did not always take the time to understand and appreciate those who were “talking” and “planning” or those who were dealing with community conflict, both of which are essential roles in the functioning of a healthy community. Over time, thanks to our community’s emphasis on personal growth work, I became very grateful for the healers, planners, and elders in our community and came to see how their gifts, although very different, were way more valuable than mine (though some may argue, just as valuable). Expressing interest and curiosity in what others do to help hold it all together helps community succeed.
While living in this intentional community, I learned how to appreciate others for who they are, not just what they do. That started with myself—learning to separate my identity from my work, which was very difficult for me and came about only because of all the emotional support I received from my fellow community members. As a community, we placed a high value on direct communication and appreciation. We set aside times for members to gather and share their appreciations with each other. Using a practice of one-on-one sharing, each week when we met for our well-being meetings we took time to mingle and connect with one person at a time, first silently and then by speaking. Usually, one person would be moved to speak and share something with the other. Certain days, facilitators asked us particularly to share an appreciation for the other person who simply listens and takes in the appreciation without judgment.
This activity was very uplifting for me. By practicing with a variety of people with whom I lived and worked, I came to understand that we always have things to appreciate in each other, even during conflict and challenge. If we can focus on the gifts we have received by connecting with an individual, we will always find something to appreciate. Through practicing this activity, I also realized how much of what we appreciate in others is related to their way of being or connecting, not just the things they accomplish. This allowed me to give myself permission to put more effort into connecting with others instead of always pushing to get the physical work done and “prove myself” by what I have accomplished that others can see.
The varied work that we all do as members of a community is an expression of our appreciation for the land and physical structures in community, and for the founders and members of the community. Our work is an act of service. As I learn the history of communities in which I live, I begin to grasp the effort required, and the risks that people have taken to make it possible for me to experience community in a particular place with certain people. From purchasing and investing in land and buildings, to long hours of labor and meetings, to dealing with challenging neighbors and uncomfortable living situations, founders and sustaining members work hard and dedicate themselves to a vision from which we continue to learn and benefit. I like to think that the work I do now, whether it be helping my neighbor build a greenhouse, caring for someone’s goats while they are away, or organizing a benefit to raise funds for someone’s health crisis, is a service to those who came before me and laid the foundation for my community as well as those who keep it thriving today.
Now that Ella and her family as well as other friends here have moved to a new place and a new focus, it is time for me to re-envision my sense of community. It is a prime time, as I am also learning the meaning of family as community with a newborn son. Before my son was born, a friend of mine gave me a bead to wear as a reminder of the strength of community. As a neighbor and friend, with the bead she offered some wisdom for me as I learn to parent while also adjusting to a shift in my neighborhood community. She reminded me of the support that I have in this quirky and beautiful community in which we live. Together, she and I are choosing to focus on appreciating this community that we already have, and to reach outside of our comfort zones to connect with people new and old. Since her blessing and my son’s birth, I have been reconnecting with a few neighbors and getting to know new ones. Through this process, I once again feel gratitude for all of my community experiences, for my friendship with Ella and her family, and for the opportunity to help them and many others.