Living In A Strong Community


Living in a Strong Community

 

–by Neal Lemery

 

“One of the marvelous things about community is that it enables us to welcome and help people in a way we couldn’t as individuals. When we pool our strength and share the work and responsibility, we can welcome many people, even those in deep distress, and perhaps help them find self-confidence and inner healing.”
― Jean Vanier, Community And Growth

 

I’ve been taking a look at my community, and wondering how we measure up, in these challenging times, when some are wondering if our society is in decline.

 

Here’s a checklist of seven attributes of a healthy community:

  1. Good governance
  2. Walkable, connected, mixed-use character
  3. Parks and gardens
  4. Partnerships
  5. Programming
  6. Neighborhood-responsive schools
  7. Tree culture

–Scott Doyon

 

Being in community is vital to my own mental health and emotional well-being.  Given the continual national stream of tragic events fueled by racism, prejudice, bigotry, and selfishness, I often feel the weight of despair and hopelessness. I am increasingly more sensitive to reaching my limit of how much of that “news cycle” and horror I can be exposed to.

Much of that angst is relieved when I immerse myself in building up my community, and being present with others who are caring, selfless people engaged in taking care of themselves and each other in these turbulent, emotionally exhausting times.

In my town, we are doing it right. I think we get high marks on Scott Doyon’s list of a healthy, engaged community.

In the past three years, the state highway department has funded a major revamping of the traffic pattern (our previously confusing junction of two major highways), narrow downtown streets, and a dilapidated, underused waterfront.

This week, we are celebrating the completion of that project, as well as other efforts by the city and the business community to rejuvenate and invigorate the downtown, making it a welcoming and prosperous town.

Now, we have new sidewalks, a smoother flowing traffic pattern, a town pedestrian plaza, bike paths, a food truck cart center, bike racks, a fresh look in two waterfront parks, and a walkway encouraging people to walk to other parks and attractions.  New bridges span the slough at the north edge of the downtown. New landscaping adds a fresh, inviting look.  The local restaurant scene is vigorous and inviting. Open mics, featuring local musicians and writers, are now the norm.

Downtown merchants have also gotten on board, with renovations, fresh paint, and interesting shops.  We have a number of new downtown events, including a monthly Art Walk, a thriving community art gallery, and a museum which not only showcases local artists, but a continuing schedule of regionally renown speakers and presenters.

 

Community organizations are thriving, and numerous activities are filling up the community calendar with a wide variety of events for every interest. New ideas are being discussed, and plans are underway for even more activities and ways to build a healthier community. We have a “can do” attitude now.

 

Our “Year of Wellness”, a public health collaborative to focus on ways to improve individual and community health, has brought together the entire spectrum of health service agencies, government, and individuals to collaborate on improving public health and a sense of community spirit. We are challenging ourselves to live healthier, more informed lives, and doing it from the ground up.  Grass roots activism at its finest! We’ve decided a year wasn’t long enough for the tasks we identified, and now the work is seen as long term, with increasingly challenging and meaningful goals. Community wellness is now part of our collective experience.

 

The library is spearheading the building of a new downtown park, and library programs are enjoying wide popularity, engaging the community on a variety of experiences and informative activities for all ages.  Public use of the library is setting records.

 

Teachers are developing state of the art educational experiences for students, and we are becoming increasingly well informed about the impact of childhood trauma, domestic violence, hunger, and addiction recovery.

 

The best part of all this is that we have a sense of belonging here.  Each of us is important, and each of us is a valued contributor to the common good, the whole community.  An individual has something unique to offer, and is a valued, unique player in the common effort.  I feel I belong here, and so do all my neighbors.

 

In this town, one person makes the difference, and others listen to their voice, and value their experience, their perspective, and their talents.  And, we have the will power and the courage to take on the difficult, ugly issues that our community, and the nation, has.  Much of the work is hard, and the tasks are daunting at times.  We don’t always achieve 100% success, but we are trying and we see a lot of progress in what we are trying to accomplish. And, that feels really good.

 

In this town, there is hope, and there is a sense of collective purpose. We are committed to be winners, and the changers that create a better world.  Now, we are a town of optimism and determination.

 

Community partnerships are everywhere, knitting together our community fabric in a fresh spirit of resolve and collaboration.  There’s an attitude of “get it done” and pitching in to just do it.

 

As my friends say around town, “Onward!”

 

Cheering With My Best Friend


He would have liked yesterday. Yesterday, my state made history, ending a legal ban against letting people get married to the ones they loved, ending a time when our state constitution wouldn’t let people enjoy their right to be married, simply because of their sexual preference.

We would have one of our deep discussions in the car, listening to the radio and the reports of long lines of couples lining up at the county clerks offices across the state, getting their licenses, and getting married today. We would have talked about all of the possibilities we have in our lives, and social change, and people being happy, raising kids, and moving ahead in their lives.

Best friends in high school, we always had those serious discussions, and challenged our teachers and our classmates about what they believed, and where we needed to go as a society. We grew up during Vietnam and the March on Selma. We skipped class that day that Robert Kennedy came to our small town, and spoke in the town square about our country being a land of opportunity, of freedom, how each of us had a voice, and a duty to move our country forward.

We read Thoreau and Ginsberg and Malcolm X and listened to Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. We had deep discussions about war and poverty, racism, sexism, and how we could change our town, and our country.

We headed to college, and our separate ways, and drifted apart, as friends do after high school. Once in a while, we’d send each other an essay or a book review, offering more ideas to each other about making a difference in the world, how things needed to be changed.

Ten years after high school, he came back to town and we went out for coffee, taking up our conversations where they had left off, doing what good friends can do, the years apart really not changing our friendship, and how we challenged each other’s thinking.

He came out to me then, telling me that he knew he was gay, back in high school, but had been afraid to tell me, to tell himself, afraid to really be who he was, deep inside. He knew his dad would probably kill him if he came out to his family. He was beaten up for a lot of lesser sins, and couldn’t wait until he could run off to college, and live his own life.

He’d always struggled with love and relationships, and we lived in a time when being gay was looked at with more suspicion and hatred than it was for folks who were trying to live their lives by being black, or being against the current war our country was waging, or for the language they spoke.

He cried when he told me of coming out to his family, how his dad had disowned him, of wanting him dead, of telling him he didn’t have a son now, that his son was dead. And, how his mom had called him later, telling him that she loved him more now than ever, that she was proud of him and the man that he was becoming.

Yesterday, I listened to the radio, and all the celebrations and stories of joy and love, and the happiness people were willing to share, being proud of being gay and in love, proud of the families they were nurturing, proud that they could now be married, and publicly love their partners. We would have talked about how times have changed, so much, about how we’ve all moved ahead in our thinking, how we live our lives.

He would be proud, too, proud that he could marry his lover, and live in a state where his love and his family was respected, that he could be married, and respected for who he was, for who he had become. Knowing him, he’d have been one of the parties in the lawsuit that brought us to this point. He’d be leading the charge, speaking out, willing to take a stand, willing to publicly fight for civil rights, for bringing a bit more equality and liberty to our country.

We’d get together for coffee, to talk about his work, and his activism. We’d talk about this week being the fiftieth anniversary of Brown vs Board of Education, when racial segregation in schools was finally seen as something that we didn’t think was right in this country. We’d say that fifty years really wasn’t that long ago, that racial bigotry is still around, and we needed to keep working to change how people looked at each other, how we treated other human beings, about how we looked at opportunities for real change in our world.

He’s gone, long gone from this Earth, taken from us by AIDS, back in the 1980s, back when hatred and bigotry against gays was at its height. Yet, he’ll always be a part of me, his courage always something I can tap into, when I need to take a stand, when I need to speak my mind, and make a difference in the world.

Yesterday, I felt the people in my state take a step forward, taking on a serious discussion about our lives, about equal opportunity, and civil rights, about families and happiness, about who we were becoming, we Oregonians. We’re on uncharted ground here, pushed into this new world by some people willing to take a stand, willing to speak out and sue their state to bring about change. We’ve got a federal judge willing to look at the law as a means to achieve justice, to think about equal protection and civil rights in a way that moves us forward. We’ve got his words to think about now, to push us forward, to think about who we want to be.

Yesterday was another Brown v Board of Education day, and fifty years from now, a lot of us will think that where we were the day before, when this kind of discrimination was legal, when it was part of our state Constitution, was so archaic, so old school thinking.

Yesterday, I heard my friend again, his voice clear and strong, speaking about his commitment to be someone who was willing to work for change, someone who was willing to be comfortable with who he was, and who he wanted to be. Yesterday, I felt him close by as we Oregonians realized that our state had changed, and we had taken a step ahead in how we looked at ourselves, how we looked at families and relationships, how we looked at our laws, and how we really felt about equality and human dignity, how we felt about ourselves.

I heard his voice, and felt his energy, deep in my soul, as I drove down the freeway, listening to the radio, adding my own voice to the cheers of the newlyweds walking out of the courthouse. We cheered together, we Oregonians, cheering for freedom and liberty, cheering for each other.

Neal Lemery 5/20/2014