“Are you really ok, Milly?” Hannah asked me last Saturday; a question which stemmed from her reading of my blog.
To be fair, if you judged me solely on my blog you’d think I was a lonely moaner who did nothing but ponder life in a melancholy kind of a way. Perhaps I need some more posts which capture moments of joy? Like giggling on the big wheel with Hannah and Harriet at the Birmingham German Christmas Market post-bratwurst and pre-glühwein, or properly laughing with Lins and Modi at John’s party in South Wimbledon (which is, by the way, ridiculously far south). It was a fun Saturday.
The following day I was back in Oxford for 24 hours to see a Spanish friend who was passing through and to relax with various non-energy-consuming friends who understand the multifaceted me. Quality. Needless to say, that visit was followed by an hour or so on the M40 – (how many weeks of my life must I have spent travelling that bit of road?) – when all I could do was sit on the bus and get wistful about stuff. (Moments of joy to follow, I promise).
Woe is me! I was feeling all sad about leaving familiar people and places behind and started lamenting the limitations of my lovely but diasporic community. So I popped in on a local friend as I passed her home in NorfKen: a happy reminder that some friends do live just around the corner. Nice to be welcomed in and known. In response to my tales about my here, there and everwhere weekend, she replied that one of the (positive?) things about getting married is the way it forces you to cut back on friends and creates less obligation to rush around the country seeing people.
I considered those remarks en route to chez moi. Part of me wants that because I’m getting older and feeling my age. Sigh. But part of me worries that if I didn’t commute to my community I wonder if I’d have one at all? I was definitely more tired than I used to be from travelling around, but was definitely still energised by time spent with people in whose company I flourish.
It’s not that I don’t have those people in London, not at all. But sometimes some of the lovely people you most want to be with simply aren’t in the same city, even country, as you. Maybe that’s the price attached to a life that has thus far been played out in several different contexts, as I pondered later in the week with mini-break-travel-buddy Sara. Would it have been better to have never met those friends at all? Have we pursued lives that have left us ultimately alone? Do the lives we’re living result from choices we made, or did those choices result from the lives we ended up in and needed to make the best of? My angst about scattered friendships and Facebook still applies. Maybe it’s my job that makes me hypersensitive to issues of displacement, or maybe I’m just scared of ending up being eaten by alsatians?
(Pause for an interval and sing along with me to Life for Rent – weird video but relevant lyrics.)
Either way, I am craving tangible local community and that sense of being known in a concrete place at a concrete time. Which is, I s’pose, what I had in East Oxford, even though it wound me up something chronic at the time. It’s been over a year since I left, but this last weekend – in the ten minute walk between P&Ks house and the bus stop – I stopped to have a chat with a young person who I’d youth-worked with in the past, bumped into my old next door neighbour and caught up on all the gossip, was warmly greeted by the CornerShopkeeper and the guy from the Buddhist centre, and squeezed in a rushed hello to a passing friend as I got on the bus.
Part of that need for round-the-corner community, whatever that actually means anyway, has resulted in a shift to a new church ( – the ensuing niggly feeling that I’ve sold-out on my principles on that one must be saved for another blog post). It’s not so local, but is relatively local on the grand scheme of things. And through that move, as I read some newcomers’ bumph, I found out about Streetbank, a website which shows you the skills or things that your neighbours are willing to share, loan, or give away. Building community, saving money and helping the environment all in one. Tick box.
Suddenly East Oxford flooded back into me. I fondly remembered that season when freecycle strangers kept posting foreign coins through my letter box so that I could finish off my foreign coin coffee table. I missed driving Anna’s car, generously lent. I missed tidying up our neighbour’s garden. I missed borrowing those big saucepans when I cooked Kurdish chicken for youth group. I missed people down the street popping in for food items because our house was closer than the Co-op. I remembered the randoms who passed through our spare room. I even harked back to that stressful evening when I was called upon last minute to babysit my neighbour’s kids, who I’d never met before and whose English wasn’t overly great, in exchange for some samosas. I wanted to go back to sharing and borrowing and not having to own things. Bring back spontaneous neighbourliness! Bring back bottom-up civil society which is not an excuse for top-down welfare cuts! (Please note that my enthusiasm for this initiative is not indicative of a sudden, uncritical love of the concept of Big Society).
On a nostalgic high, I signed up straightaway but the only message I got was from a disillusioned neighbour welcoming me to the community and telling me that while it’s a fantastic idea it doesn’t seem to work as no one replies to posts. So the stranger and I decided that in the new year we’d organise a get together for the local Streetbankers to cheer each other along the path to community.
Hoorah. Suddenly it seems like changing the world may be possible again after all. (Moment of joy).
The nostalgia bubble momentarily popped and I freaked out that I was enthusiastically planning a social event with a total stranger (these are not, after all, the good ol’ days, so maybe the aforementioned stranger is a total psycho?). In response, I conscripted June into the plan. She’s on Streetbank too, apparently, and we’re already borrowing books off each other, so maybe that counts as streetbanking even if we didn’t do it through the website?
Of course, I don’t know where us Streetbankers will actually meet up, given that our local pub has recently closed to become – somewhat ironically, so local rumour has it – a Tesco Metro.