In 15 years of living in the same Denver neighborhood, I can count on one hand the number of neighbors my husband and I have actually gotten to know. And by “gotten to know,” I mean exchanged cursory hellos, and shared a few passing conversations about the weather or concern over suspicious cars. Growing up a midwestern gal where I considered many of my neighbors good family friends, it was quite an adjustment to experience family life in such… isolation. Shortly after planting roots, we realized we had chosen a neighborhood populated by a lot of seniors and childless, middle-aged couples, and oh yeah.. a whole lot of dogs! We took walks, waved, often with no response, and watched the parade of dog owners and their cute pooches passing our home, all the while seeking a glimmer of connection. I used to joke to my husband that I was on some neighborhood watch list—that crazy lady with the little kids in tow who over-enthusiastically waves and smiles… and creeps everyone out. Watch out for her! Eventually, though, we became resigned to the silo culture. We just drove to find our community. Gratefully, our parish and Catholic school filled a void. But, I still felt jealous of friends who lived in those suburban “cul de sac” neighborhoods where everyone’s kids played together and the moms delivered meals if someone was sick or had a baby…
Recently, everything changed. No block parties, or steaming casserole dishes, but a profound shift, a real thawing of the ice. Our family is suddenly on the neighborhood map—not literally, but in a way that indelibly connects us to those we live near. In some ways, this new connection has been even more personal & fortifying than the ice cream social event I longed for years ago. The key to unlocking that change is rather surprising and hidden. In fact, it has been lodged in the dirt all along.
In the midst of the early days of the shutdown, like everyone else, the kids and I were bored. While my husband was squirreled away in our chilly basement on Zoom meetings, I was dying to find things that would happily occupy my kids (read: no screens) and something to calm my anxious mind. When we’d exhausted bike rides, walks, baking cookies, and endless outdoor time… On a whim, I suggested we paint rocks. It was an instant hit for them. The kids happily searched the yard for good smooth rocks for our artwork. I laid down a tarp on the driveway on a windy spring day and over the course of a couple hours, we joyfully & earnestly put our hearts on those rocks. I wrote messages I needed to hear. “You’ve got this!” and “Hope” I did a painting of the Blessed Mother. We also painted bright flowers, cute animals, Yoda, and cartoony monsters. As I perused our first “batch” I was shocked by all the creativity. The kids suggested we ride around the neighborhood and randomly place the rocks. On our first go around, we passed out about 10 rocks, near mailboxes or next to shrubs. But there were a couple times people came out to see what kind of mischief we were up to. Two middle school boys, and a 4th grader lurking in a yard, and my obnoxious wave and… weird, right? I told the kids while I loved their masterpieces, I didn’t think it was a good idea to force it on our neighbors. So, we sprinkled the rest in our yard, and then, my entrepreneurial second son made a laminated sign and pasted it to chopstick. It read, “Free Rocks! Please take one or two.” He proudly planted it in the dirt at the edge of our front lawn. We secretly watched giddily from behind the openings of our blinds as our hurried neighbors stopped to peruse the selection. We high-fived when they dared to take one. Within a few days, the rocks were gone.
Back to the drawing board we went. The second batch, even more creative and inspiring than the next, “sold out” just as quickly. The kids tried to imagine which would be our “best sellers” and what our “customers” desired. We did themed rocks based on Easter and other holidays. I found myself lingering on the tiny details while painting rocks, long after the kids had finished theirs. It was a release to focus on something other than death, the spread of disease, and an increasingly contentious political climate. Painting intricate, often silly words and images took my mind off all those worries for the few hours I was engaged. It also gratified me as much as my kids to see them disappear over time.
Then one day over the summer, we spied a stranger with long gray hair hobbling to our front stoop and attaching something to our door handle. I told the kids it was probably someone delivering flyers. After she left, they ran to the door and became super excited when they spotted a big purple gift bag. They hastily rummaged through the contents even before reading the handwritten note attached. There was a fancy paint set, some cute tchotchkes, and a travel lap desk. While my kids oohed and ahhhed over the contents of the bag, I read the note aloud: My name is “Betty Foster.” I am 89 years old and live down the street. I love seeing your rocks on my walks. They make me smile. So far, I’ve taken a cat and a flag. I like owls. She had enclosed three unpainted rocks in the envelope.
“Well, we’ve got our first commission,” I stated. We each painted our own take on an owl and stashed them in her mailbox with a thank you note and an offer to paint anything else she wished. She has followed up with other notes in our mailbox. Suffice it to say, we have a new friend. Since then, while we’ve been in our front yard or biking the neighborhood, many people we didn’t know before, have stopped us, asking if we are the ones who paint the rocks. Recently a man who vigorously walks our street with arms swinging stopped to tell us he’d suffered a massive stroke a year ago. One side of his face is drooping, but his doctors say he beat death. He has a few of our rocks on his desk and he loves to look at them for inspiration. His name is Neil. Another neighbor, who has a young daughter left a package on our stoop. It was a selection of paint pens. She called us neighborhood “rock stars” and expressed how much she and her child appreciate our hopeful messages on the rocks. The other day my husband was doing yard work when a car stopped, drawing his attention. The driver shouted out that his kids loved my rocks and it offered a bright spot in their day. My husband thanked the man and told him, “They’re inside now, making more!” The driver turned to his young son in the backseat, “They’re making more! We’ll come by tomorrow for new ones.” A few weeks ago, when I was pulling out of the driveway, I peeked at the selection of rocks. Placed next to our rock sign, there was a homemade cross yard stake. It was made out of long nails that had been welded and bent. It was absolutely beautiful. We surmised that it was the man who lives a few houses away. He had showcased a bunch of our rocks in his landscaping wall. Another neighbor told us he makes the yard stakes as a hobby. He gave us one because of our rocks. We haven’t been shy about our Catholicism. Many of the messages are words of scripture. I’ve done a Bible, and portrait of Christ. I’ve also painted hedgehogs and llamas with stupid puns like, “No Prob-llama”
Our Denver block is never going to be Mayberry. But my kids and I have learned important life lessons as we’ve bonded with so many different people in our neighborhood over the last year. As Christians, we mistakenly think we need to perform big, over-the-top actions to make a difference. I don’t know about you, but that can feel so overwhelming and daunting. But we’re learning that real connection often comes from small, but consistent gestures of kindness, generosity, encouragement, and authenticity. Apparently, my toothy smile and obnoxious waving may have been a bit much for everyone. But our rocks—we’ve gotten to know our neighbors, and heard their stories, and even begun to pray for many of them—they are touch points. We are all connected on God’s earth. It just took some rocks to bring it home for us. The world just got a whole lot smaller.
For those of you who are wondering why I haven’t written in a while, I’m now blogging regularly at Families of Character. com. Sign up for free and you’ll get a weekly email and blog written by me. I write about building virtue in family life.