Some new friends invited us to their boat docked in Lake Union, here in Seattle. This is the first year they’ve been at this dock and they are trying to get to know the other boat owners.  Although they’ve owned their boat for 5 years, they were docked at two other marinas with beautiful boats and tighter security but they were “dead”.  They were looking for more social interaction.   People they could recognize and say hello to.

I have never been a boater and did not grow up in a boating family, so I don’t know what it’s all about.  But it was obvious from the time I set foot on the dock  that part of the fun of boating is just to enjoy it while it is docked…which  means enjoying the  folks hanging out on the neighboring boats.

I know this is true for camps back east.  I know people that leave their homes on an acre or more, to go to their ‘camp’…a camper/trailer that is parked in a campground all year long.  The camper may be all of 12 feet wide and their whole campsite may be 30 feet wide.  They spend their summer weekends and more  hanging out in this small space just to be social with the other campers.  They sit outside and chat with everyone that walks by.  They drive their golf cart or ATV around the campground and say hello to everyone they meet.  They spend the day cooking, eating, tinkering around and being social.  They spontaneously  invite passersby to join them at their picnic table or around their fire  for drinks or dessert.  They go to a friend’s camper for dinner or morning coffee.  They take walks.

The same seemed to be true for the boaters.  They walked the dock and chatted with other boaters.  They wave or shout to everyone that walks or boats by.  They invited people for appetizers or spontaneously accepted an offer of margaritas from Keith, the guy who has a perfectly good house three blocks up the hill from the dock in a very desirable neighborhood…but he chooses to live on his houseboat that’s decked out in party lights and palm trees.

I find myself longing for the same thing this summer.  To take off and set up tent camp at a campground somewhere and narrow life down to making meals, tinkering around, watching the boys play, chatting with others and hopefully sharing a spontaneous margarita or a meal with a fellow camper.

I find it interesting that when we want to get away, take a break from our schedules and responsibilities, many of us move toward opportunities to be social with other people…even strangers!

At the same time, how many of us incorporate opportunities for social interaction into our everyday homes and lots?  We put up 6 foot fences around our yards.  We choose the homes with the bigger lot, further from neighbors, set back from the sidewalk and street.  We orient our lives toward the back yard and ignore the front yard and front porch (if we have one).  We choose neighborhoods with no destinations within them…no reasons for people to walk along the sidewalks.  All in the name of ‘privacy’.

We do design into our homes wonderful spaces for socializing like big social kitchens or back decks and patios for planned BBQs or parties.  But these interactions take some effort to instigate.  We have to coordinate schedules and invite people, grocery shop, cook, etc.

We don’t spend much thought or effort designing for spontaneous social interaction with neighbors walking by.  These are the freebies.  No planning involved.  A chat at the sidewalk or the fence.  A beer on the front porch.  These seem to be the same kind of social interactions we seek out at boat docks and campgrounds.

And I have to wonder….are we lonely at home?

I need some old people. My 5 ½ year old talks so much, has so much to say, that we have long ago reached the limit of what we can listen to on a daily basis.  But he keeps going.   He is smart, insightful, creative, comedic, and if my definition is correct, an extrovert.  Or maybe it is just part of being 5 ½.  He seems to process most of his thoughts out loud.  He loves to challenge me with his ‘tricky’ word puzzles and he wants math problems.  He likes to play twenty questions.  Constantly.  All day.  Every day.  Non-stop.  See where I’m going with this?  Car rides can be mentally exhausting.  I take naps now.

When I was a kid, we had lots of older neighbors.  The Steinacker’s lived right next door.  Willie and Katie never had children so they became like grandparents to me.  According to my mom, I would go over there almost every day…either knock on the door or press my nose up against the back screen door to see into the kitchen or join Katie while she was gardening in the back yard, hanging up laundry to dry or sitting on the back step dipping her arthritic hands into a coffee can full of hot paraffin wax.  We talked.  We hung out, really. 

On the other side of our house was Lizzy.  She lived alone. But I would go over to her house and knock on the door.  She always had a full candy dish on her dining room table.  That may have been my excuse for going over to hang out with her.  Otherwise, we would sit at the kitchen table and talk, while she drank her coffee.  I remember she would fill a tea cup full of coffee, then put cream in it so that it overflowed onto the saucer.  She would stir it so that more would spill on the saucer.  Then she would remove the cup and drink from the saucer, since the temperature of the coffee in the saucer was cooler.  I loved watching her do that.  I would hang out with her while she worked her flower garden.  She grew huge orange and black poppies and enormous peonies.  I can’t remember what we would talk about.  Just chatting I guess.  I didn’t have the kind of childhood where I experienced any trauma and needed someone to talk to about being sad.  I guess I just liked to hang out with people.  And these people were right next door, they were home and they didn’t send me away.

On the other side of Lizzy’s house lived the other Steinacker’s.  Geraldine and Les were brother and sister and I spent a lot of time with them as well.  Geraldine always greeted me in German.  “Guten Tag!”  I had my very own special little drawer in one of the pieces of furniture in their dining room.  Geraldine would put stickers or anything interesting she received in her junk mail in “my drawer”.  So I would knock on their door and when I went in, my first stop would be my drawer.  And then we would just chat.  I liked to rock in the rocking chair in their living room.  Or eat Saltines and Fresca  with Geraldine while her other brother Norm sat at the kitchen table on Sundays doing the crossword puzzle. 

So, it seems a big part of my daily life as a child consisted of dropping in on my elderly neighbors and hanging out with them.  And since reconnecting with childhood friends via Facebook over the last year, it seems they, too, spent their childhoods doing the same thing.  We have been sharing stories about what a huge impact our older neighbors have had on who we are today. 

And I can’t help but think…this is what my 5 ½ year old needs.  I could see him confidently walking door to door, visiting, chatting, wondering aloud about infinity and war and growing watermelon and how hot the sun is and  playing twenty questions. 

This idea of kids needing or being enriched by the attention of seniors in their neighborhood connects to bigger issues in urban planning, housing and community building.  But for now, I will keep it at the simplest level.  I need some old people.

So, how would I do this?  It’s not like signing him up for camp or gymnastics class…I guess I have to go knock on my 90-year old neighbor’s door and schedule a “play date”.

One day I will not be as quick to figure the tip in a restaurant.  One day it will take you more time to cross the street than the pedestrian signal allows.  One day I will fall asleep in a chair in the middle of a family gathering, mouth wide open, snoring.  One day no one will ask us what we want to do but tell us what we should be doing.  One day they will make fun of your clothes and comfortable shoes.  One day I will smell funny.  One day, someone else will decide where you live.  One day we will wait for visitors.

In other cultures,  older adults are respected for their wisdom.  In our culture, we tend to ignore them as they age, not see them.  Maybe they scare us.  Maybe they remind us that we will be old and hard of hearing and move slowly one day.  Maybe we just don’t want to go to that place in our minds.  It is inevitable. 

One day we will be invisible or maybe even forgotten sometimes.

Invisibility.  This idea keeps showing up. 

When homeless people talk about their experiences, they attribute some of their pain to becoming invisible to other human beings.  Vietnam veteran’s talk about the pain of being forgotten.  Troubled and abused children talk about being invisible to the adults around them. 

I remember one severely obese person describe how, because of the way she looked, no one would make eye contact with her.  They would look past her.  Maneuver around her and go out of their way so as not to have to make eye contact.

We’ve all done it.  We probably do it hundreds of times each day.  You kind of blur your vision, turn off the focus as you look in the direction of someone you really don’t want to see.  Why?  Does eye contact  have power?  What happens when we connect with someone else’s eyes? 

Not making eye contact certainly seems to have power.  Maybe not on one or two instances with people we don’t know, but judging from the emotions it stirs from on going “invisibility”, it seems to have the power to send people into depression and lonliness.  But why?  What happens when two human beings make eye contact?  Is there information that is exchanged in that instant, a split second?  And if we withhold eye contact, we seem to be withholding something important.  So the information exchanged through eye contact must be important.  It must contain something  fundamentally human. 

Researchers who study infant development stress the importance of eye contact between baby and mother.  Meeting a baby’s gaze, and if you have experienced this you know, is magical.  Something happens.  It may be a smile.  You may hold his gaze for a while.  Some kind of information is being exchanged.   Eye contact is essential for a connection between mother and baby.  Without it, the baby’s development is affected. 

So eye contact seems to be some kind of human need.   Does it have something to do with energy…or information?  Is there a biochemistry to eye contact?

And if it is essential to human health and well being, why do we withhold it from other human beings?  If we are all at risk of being invisible one day, can we make a decision to give it more freely?.. And teach our children to do the same.