The poet Gary Snyder once said, “Find your place on the planet. Dig in, and take responsibility from there.”

Stuart and I found a place called Stratford Woods four years ago, dug in (literally) with the first new house in a 22-lot development, and looked for an opportunity to help build community.  The picture above shows the pathway we built in our backyard.  Everyone in the community is invited to use it to explore the trails Stuart blazed into the five acres of woods that is part of a nature preserve that surrounds our house.

Place pulls us downward to the earth our home, but people pull us upward toward each other and toward God. A new neighborhood presents a tabula rasa for community.  Stuart and I (and eventually everyone else who joined the community) used three tools.  Anyone else can use these also: (1) conscious intent to be a good neighbor, (2) an electronic spreadsheet, and (3) brownies! With these three ingredients you can recreate a 21st-century equivalent of Little House on the Prairie complete with book club, Euchre Night, Girls Night Out, Block Parties, Potlucks, ad infinitum.

Today in America very few people know their neighbors well.  Some don’t even know their names.  This is a problem we could fix easily if only one person in each neighborhood started the chain reaction of love.  Here’s a recipe:

Take one ounce of intention and mix it with one plate of brownies.  Walk to the neighbors’ house when they are home, introduce yourself, give the brownies, leave a spreadsheet with basic info–names, address, place of work, and email.  Fill in the names of the neighbors on a new spreadsheet so that you can continue building the database of all the people in your neighborhood, one visit and one plate of brownies at a time.

Soon, when the trick or treaters knock on your door, you will know that they are not just the neighbor kids–they are Nick, Aarti, and Akash.  And their parents came from California and India.

Knowing the names is essential to telling the stories.  And telling the stories is essential to building community.  What else can we do to take responsibility to build community?  What have you done in your special place?


Shirley Showalter


  1. Chelsea on May 11, 2009 at 7:16 pm

    Cute kids! You've been a great community there!

  2. GutsyWriter on May 11, 2009 at 8:56 pm

    I agree. It's important to get to know your neighbors and since we moved here, 2 years ago, I started a 4th July and Labor Day block party, and also invited neighbors to our house for New Year's. I love feeling close to others. Your back garden looks beautiful.

  3. Hope Wester on May 11, 2009 at 9:31 pm

    And so it began with the house named “Serenity” that set the tone forevermore…

  4. Eyal Raviv on May 12, 2009 at 8:46 am

    This is awesome! Intention, spreadsheet, and a plate of brownies.I'm good with intentions and spreadsheets come easy. I gotta to make some brownies. I'm going to learn, I promise. The Middle East needs more responsibility to build communities.

  5. Eyal Raviv on May 12, 2009 at 8:50 am

    This is awesome! Intention, spreadsheet, and a plate of brownies.I'm good with intention and spreadsheets come easy. I'm going to learn how to bake brownies, I promise.The Middle East needs more responsibility to build community.

  6. Sadie on May 12, 2009 at 9:11 am

    What a great experiment of developing community in today's culture.

  7. Shirley on May 12, 2009 at 11:23 am

    Thanks, Sonia. It's wonderful to enjoy springtime with the neighbors. Here in Michigan, we all go indoors in the winter and come out again the other three seasons. The sounds of children playing in the cul de sac in the vacant lots is a joy to my ears.

  8. shirleyhs on May 12, 2009 at 11:25 am

    Thanks, Hope, that's a sweet comment. And yes, for other readers' sake, our house is called Serenity.

  9. shirleyhs on May 12, 2009 at 11:26 am

    Eyal, here's my confession. The brownies come from a box. Just a few steps to make them. And Stuart is more likely to be the baker than I am. Easy!

  10. shirleyhs on May 12, 2009 at 11:36 am

    You should know, Sadie. You have known your neighbors well for a long time. Thanks for the comment.

  11. shirleyhs on May 12, 2009 at 11:38 am

    Yes they are cute kids. Unfortunately, I was unable to load my most recent pics and had to use one that is two years old. Fortunately, I could bend the narrative around the pictures. 🙂

  12. Chin on May 12, 2009 at 1:48 pm

    Shirley, another nice piece and this one is close to home again. Thanks for knocking on our door! What a beautiful pathway, we'll have to explore it one of these days. I like making cupcakes and brownies and with a quick email, all the kids were over. So much fun! Adults are always welcomed…just leave the scale behind. 🙂

  13. shirleyhs on May 12, 2009 at 7:18 pm

    Thanks, Chin. You and Chris and Sydney are great neighbors. Now that we have fb, we get to know even more about each other. I should have added that fact in the blog post. Next time!

  14. betty on May 13, 2009 at 8:31 am

    What a great way to build a relationship with your neighbors. I take it for granted that I know everyone living in my area. I find this idea you have fascinating and hope people use it!

  15. shirleyhs on May 13, 2009 at 9:55 am

    Thanks, Betty. I, too, came from a Mennonite farm community, and it would have been inconceivable that I would not know my neighbors–even if I had to ride a half mile on my bike to get to them. We had party line telephones (!) and knew all about the triumphs and tragedies of each other's lives. This was often helpful, though it could be suffocating or gossipy at other times.Wouldn't it be neat if we could save the best of that kind of community while still allowing individual freedom? I think that is what many people in America want right now. What about in Paraguay?

  16. Eyal Raviv on May 13, 2009 at 11:07 pm

    I won't tell a soul. And I will learn to make them.

  17. Eyal Raviv on May 14, 2009 at 6:07 am

    I won't tell a soul. And I will learn to make them.

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