The Antidote To Loneliness

Every day, the Good Wife loads her car with buckets of garden tools and drives 8 miles to the church garden. Where she picks weeds, waters, and harvests the veggies and fruit of her labor. Beforehand, some days, she kayaks north along the edge of the Salish Sea before dipping into Gull Harbor to watch birds, admire sand dollars and other underwater life, and occasionally swim.

Newish neighbors with deep pockets recently clear-cutted their lot to build a very large sport court where I’ve never seen them or their children play tennis, basketball, or anything else.

Compared to the private Sport Courters, the Gal Pal is living life in public. Which means she meets people. And talks to them. From a safe distance these days.

Yesterday it was a school-aged boy on a bike. Well, she’s pretty sure it was a boy. Hair halfway down his back, his opening line was, “Cool garden.” They were off and running from there. A few weeks ago it was a random neighbor who left with some healthy food. 

The other night, at dusk, she cajoled me into dipping into the Salish with her. “WHY IS THERE SO MUCH STUFF IN THE WATER?!” She yelled at her native fishing friend who, because he’s native, is permitted to use large nets. When kayaking, she’s taken her time to get to know him. “I’M NOT SURE. THERE’S NO CURRENT EITHER AND THERE SHOULD BE!” Tonight’s salmon dinner will be compliments of him.

The church garden is what Eric Klinenberg calls “social infrastructure”, public places where people talk to one another. Same with our beach. The Gal Pal’s conversations with long-haired boys on bikes and fishermen is church. If church is about social connection.

If you’re lonely, know many others are too. Instead of a radical transformation, put a mask on, and at least once a day, leave the comfort of your private world and talk to someone, no matter how briefly. They’ll be a touch less lonely and so will you.   

Palaces For The People

I’m two-thirds through Eric Klinenberg’s excellent book Palaces For The People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, And The Decline Of Civic Life. The book jacket explains what Klinenberg means by “social infrastructure” and why it matters:

“Klinenberg believes that the future of democratic societies rests not simply on shared values but on shared spaces: the libraries, childcare centers, bookstores, churches, synagogues, and parks in which crucial sometimes life-saving connections, are formed. These are places where people gather and linger, making friends across group lines and strengthening the entire community. Klinenberg calls this the ‘social infrastructure.’ When it is strong, neighborhoods flourish; when it is neglected, as it has been in recent years, families and individuals must fend for themselves.”

Klinenberg makes a particularly strong case for public libraries. If I was Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, or Jeff Bezos, that’s where I’d focus a significant portion of my philanthropy.

Where I’m at currently in the book, Klinenberg is drawing on Jeff Wiltse’s social history of municipal swimming pools in the United States which I may have to read next. Wiltse offers searing reminders of our longstanding struggles with racism. For example, he recounts the story of a Little League Baseball team in Youngstown, Ohio, that celebrated its city championship in 1951 at a beautiful municipal pool in South Side Park.

The team had one African American player, Al Bright, and lifeguards refused to let him past the perimeter fence while the other players swam. When several parents protested, the supervisor agreed to let Al ‘enter’ the pool for a few minutes, but only if everyone else got out and Al agreed to sit inside a rubber raft. While everyone watched, a lifeguard pushed Al around the pool shouting, ‘whatever you do, don’t touch the water!”

Wiltse adds:

“This was not an isolated incident, nor was it restricted to certain parts of the United States. Two years later, in 1953, the great African American film star Dorothy Dandridge dipped her toes in the swimming pool at the Last Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas, which welcomed her as a performer but banned her, and all other blacks, from the water. The hotel responded by draining the entire pool.”

These mind-numbing historical anecdotes aside, Palaces For The People is a hopeful work.

In the United States, there are two fundamental problems with implementing the convincing road maps that Klinenberg and other social scientists outline for safer, healthier, more vibrant communities. Everyone’s ingrained individualism coupled with many people’s refusal to acknowledge that publicly funded government programs often make significant contributions to the common good.