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Hey, neighbor! Covid-19 could create community

Ann Arbor, Michigan, U.S.A. – I was taking pictures of the neighbor’s fully bloomed apple tree today when a stranger stopped to talk to me. We talked about nearby similar trees, the best angles to shoot from and flora in general.

I paused my photoshoot to chat, elated to speak with someone new, and then he continued on his spring walk.

Who knows if this conversation would have happened during “normal” times, but my guess is not. I might have been off studying, or blocking out the world with a podcast. I probably wouldn’t have been as willing to engage in a conversation, either.

My family used to go to a small town of 4,000 in Nebraska for the summers. We would live in what the health and safety inspection team had called “a box of matches over a fire.” It was three buildings, haphazardly thrown on top of each other. On windy days you could feel the building sway.

I spent my afternoons running through fields, falling into ditches and baking from Jiffy mixes found at the small grocery store nearby. One of the most memorable things from the experience was the friendliness of the neighbors – “neighbors” being a bit of an exaggeration, as the closest neighbor was miles away.

Everyone would smile and wave as they passed, nodding through their pickup truck windows or saying “hey” on the small town’s streets.

At pancake breakfasts, where most of the town’s agricultural workers gathered, my family was introduced and made welcome by dozens, including the mayor himself. This shocked me, not coming from a very small town.

The sun streams through the blossoms of a beautiful apple tree in spring. (Lucy Tobier/YJI)

My entire family was disappointed when we returned home and remembered that similar greetings doesn’t happen in my home town. It is not a cold town at all, just a busy and bigger one.

But now that the COVID-19 has canceled all of our plans and thwarted our lives, I am noticing a shift. People out for their daily walks take the time to smile and wave. On my early morning strolls through the park, I nod with joggers and park-goers. Our nods seem to pass along a secret code, something like “nice to see another person appreciates the morning sun and rabbits.”

I scour the local Nextdoor account, kind of like a local Facebook where neighbors post about lost dogs and items for giveaway. My favorite posts are the seemingly random and very sweet ones. The picture of flowers in someone’s yard or a bunny they saw on a walk, or a funny joke that they thought neighbors might like.

Maybe it’s the lack of activity that causes neighbors to connect with others, or maybe it’s a bit deeper than that. I think the scary conditions have caused neighbors to lean on each other, to rely on the ones close by (physically, not emotionally) to provide empathy and support.

Perhaps this is a silver lining to this covid-19 inferno. It’s possible that we act more like a small town because our worlds are now smaller.

I am almost desperate for conversation. As a journalist I crave meeting new people and I have met almost no one for the past two months. Maybe all of the smiles and waves will all go away whenever this is all over. I hope not.

I hope that my town has learned how nice it is to look up from the ground and wave, to appreciate all of those around us and make them feel seen. And I hope that other busy, fast-paced towns like mine learn it, too.

Lucy Tobier is a Junior Reporter with Youth Journalism International.

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