Natalie Jean Wood died in her Surry Hills home sometime between 2003 and 2006. Her body lay undiscovered until July this year. For more than eight years no-one noticed she was gone, no-one missed her, no-one mourned her passing.
I wonder if the same thing could happen in my street. I live in suburban Australia. The village, a world where communities were small and neighbours shopped, socialised and worked together, is a dim memory. I barely know the people in my street. Yes, we say hello as we get into our cars to head off to work and wave again as we return home. From time to time we even stop for a chat. We know each other well enough that if an emergency hit, we could ask each other for help. But that’s about the extent of it. Our communities, the places of our real friendship and engagement, lie beyond our street.
This disconnection with others with whom we share geography is driven home when I catch the train. I travel from Newcastle to Sydney four times a week. The trip is 2.25 hours each way. Yet we passengers sit side by side with barely a word passing between us, working on our laptops, watching movies on our ipads, or updating facebook on our phones. Most of the time the only people who want to talk are either drunk or mentally ill.
From time to time I feel nostalgic. I want to go back to the village. But I suspect that’s a forlorn hope and that I probably wouldn’t like it back there anyway. In the era of trains, planes and automobiles, mobile telephones, and always connected internet, our neighbourhoods have ceased to be local. Neither my church, my kids’ school, my workplace, my recreational pursuits, nor my good friends are within walking distance of my home. My sense of community comes from intentionally spending time with others, not from shared geography.
This has brought many gains, but it’s also brought loss. In a world of shared networks rather than shared geography, people can slip through the cracks; find themselves, like Natalie Jean Wood, belonging to no networks. I’m not sure what the answer is. Maybe we need to foster better relationships with our geographic neighbours. This won’t see us returning to the village. My primary connections will still lie outside my street. But somehow we need to become connected enough to notice the neighbour who has no networks and to invite her into ours.