It’s freezing outside. The wind has picked up the cold air and sent it blasting onto every exposed part of my skin as I make my way across the parking lot from my car into a breakfast spot along a strip of businesses. Diana is waiting inside, eating a cheesy breakfast sandwich and sucking down a pop. I was running late, having mixed up where we were planning to meet and driving across town before realizing I was at the wrong spot. She didn’t mind, she said and offered me a seat.
“People just piled in, it was great,” Diana started. Our plan this morning is to talk about last week’s Connections gathering in Oakley, and so we begin by gasping our breath at the number of people who had showed up that night. Some were expected, others not. Held at the library in one of the back rooms, we were sure that space had never seen so many people.
I get up to grab a coffee and sandwich.
“Did you walk there that night?” I asked, sitting back down and warming my hands on the paper exterior of my coffee cup.
“I live about a mile away from the library, but it was just too cold and dark to walk,” she said. “So John swung by on his way and got me.”
John is one of Diana’s co-workers. We reminisced about all the stories that came out of the evening, all the gifts we heard that were shared.
“When I first heard about these gatherings my thought was, ‘I have a boyfriend. I have family and friends. I have a full schedule, why do I need to meet more people?’” Then, speaking in a tone of both affirmation and realization, “I see it now.”
As we spoke, her eyes seemed to open more, filling with new ideas of what her neighborhood was and who was a part of her community.
“Some people who were there I knew, or I had seen before, but I didn’t know they lived around me,” she said. “I sat by Carlos – a person who was born in Guatemala, and I think he lived in Mexico before he moved – to Oakley!” she said, emphasizing “Oakley” as if it were the smallest, most plain-Jane place in the world for Carlos to wind up.
The impression she gave me was that after this Connections gathering in her neighborhood, Oakley is a more interesting place to live for Diana. It’s as if knowing the stories of the people who live nearby, and the gifts they have to offer motivates pride in a person, the kind of pride that gets people involved in maintaining the safety and goodness in another’s life beside our own family, boyfriends, or BFFs.
“As it turns out, I sat right beside someone I’ve never met before who’s actually writing his thesis on transportation, which is right up my alley,” she said.
Diana is a transportation advocate working for Hamilton County Developmental Disability Services. She has worked to change things like the height of the windows on public transportation to be low enough for people in wheelchairs to see where they are headed, and has campaigned to replace the word “Handicapped Parking” with “Accessible.”
“Cincinnati’s transportation is moving up slowly. People really need to be part of it,” she said. So who better to sit right next to at the Connections gathering than someone who wants to be a part of the transportation movement in Cincinnati. Last week, the two met up and spoke a time about her advocacy work and his research.
“I think it will widen his audience for his thesis,” she said, noting some concerns she is aware of regarding Access, the public transportation for people with disabilities in addition to her knowledge of the public bus routes. “My friend can drive, and she’ll ask, ‘What time will you be here?’ I have to say, ‘Well, I don’t know.’ Makes you think how easy it is to jump in the car. But for some people who cannot drive, whether it be disability, or they lost their job/insurance…I’ve seen a lot of people ride the bus because of the recent recession. It’s just so easy not to think – I can just go out and do what I want to do.”
I asked her what questions she left the Connections gathering with, what thoughts she was left pondering at the end of the night.
“What do we do with all these stories?” she asked. “It can’t just stop in that one room. Or that one place. I hope people keep coming back, just connecting.”
It helps when you can go somewhere, know a name….Being known=feeling safe. But you don’t go out if you don’t know anyone…
What comes out of the Connections gatherings will be a long, even lifelong effort from people in Cincinnati. It will be years of neighbors, who maybe never even knew they were neighbors, coming together to get to know one another’s gifts, stories, and connect over passions for anything. Trains, bees, bikes, photography, compost, NASCAR, globe trotting, vacuum cleaners, we’ve heard them all. We’ve seen how passion for trains can transform from a hobby you do alone in your basement, to a group of train enthusiasts creating an annual tour of homes who are host to elaborate train sets.
When you connect to others, the world becomes a safer place, and doors open to things that alone are not possible.
My coffee was near the bottom and getting cold, and the draft coming from the window wasn’t helping our cozy conversation last any longer. We stood up to put on our coats, and Diana began layering, first a sweater, then a jacket, scarf, gloves and hat. She lives a block away and walked to meet me. I, on the other hand, put on my too-thin winter coat and looked forward to the heat blasting in my car.
“You want a ride?” I asked.
“No, I’ve got some errands to run,” she said. So we hugged and departed, she walking down the sidewalk toward the grocery store, and I weaving through the cars in the lot, keys in hand. Both of us silently making the promise to keep showing up to these gatherings, and continue reminding one another about all the gifts our little place in the world has to offer, doing our best to be sure that no one gets left behind.
The next Central Connection gatherings will be tomorrow at the Oakley Library starting at 6p, open to anyone interested in being part of their community. Feel free to come with friends, family, and neighbors.
March Connections gatherings:
Tuesday, March 5 7-8:30p Cherry Grove UMC, 1428 Eight Mile Rd.
Monday, March 11 6:30-8p Higher Ground Coffee House, 3721 Harrison Ave
Wednesday, March 20 6:30-8p Bread Basket & Pastry Co. 3218 W. Galbraith Rd.
Thursday, March 21 6:30-8p European Cafe, 9450 Montgomery Rd.
Thursday, March 28 6:30-8p Oakley Library, 4033 Gilmore Ave.