"One Small Good Thing"

Sep 2, 2016

"One small good thing"

Twenty-two years ago, when we were visiting the area so we could find a place to live, I said to the realtor, “If possible, I'd like to be able to walk to work.” For two days she showed us sturdy, practical houses near my new job, and one of them was just what we needed to launch our family here. Our kids have grown up in that house, we’ve kept it painted blue-gray and planted flowering bushes and perennials out front and tried to be good neighbors. And in fifteen minutes I can walk to work. I get some exercise, we don’t need a second car, we save some money there. All to the good. But I noticed that once you commit yourself to some simple value like that one, other intangibles and unpredictables come along for the ride. Or should I say the walk. For one thing, you can’t walk to work if the neighborhood isn’t walkable—isn’t friendly and safe enough, isn’t attractive enough to entice you out onto the sidewalks even on umbrella and snow shovel days. So our neighbors are the kind of people who step out in boots on gray mornings to scrape the fresh snow off their walks. Being walkable also means that young families take walks here in the evenings, and parents walk their shy first graders to the public school. That means the adults walk slowly, the speed a six-year old walks, the speed a kid rides a brand-new bike with training wheels. That means there’s time to say hi as they pass our front yard. That means we get to know our neighbors. That means that each year the neighborhood feels more and more like home. Some of those neighbors have been around for a while and they remember the good old days. There used to be trees along the avenue by the grade school, one said. Because we’re neighbors, not strangers, a few of us worked up a small neighborhood organization. We talked the school into replanting the trees near the street if we would help with the watering. We gained a new respect for the leaders in the local school, and when we look at the trees filling out and adding a new beauty to the block, we say, “Hey, we helped make that happen. We helped make this place what it is.” That means we grow a little more proud of the neighborhood and modestly proud of the role we played in its improvements.  Intangibles and unpredictables continue to accumulate, all because I asked the realtor to help me achieve that one small goal in 1994, walking to work. Because it’s a walkable neighborhood, we get to know all these dogs that go by with their owners. We remember Arjuna who was here in the early days and Karli who passes our house every day now, and many others, too. We see them rowdy when they’re young, and finding the calm of doggy middle age, and we see them slowing down. There’s one dog who passes every day walking behind her owner now, but when we first knew her always pulled ahead, tugging on the leash and looking back to see why her human was so sluggish. That puppy has grown old. And some of our walkable neighbors have slowed and then stopped taking walks, and we’ve gone to remember and celebrate their lives at memorial services over the years. Because I wanted to walk to work, we’ve known the full circle of life here more sweetly and personally, and sometimes sadly, than we would have otherwise. Choosing one or two modest values like walking gives us a way of paying attention, making connections and making a difference. Something like walking weaves us into the fabric of a place. And this reinforces one of the great lessons, I think: that believing in some small good thing pays unpredictable dividends that accumulate across the years and makes us who we are.