After living in my small hometown for so many years, there weren’t many surprises left. I was a barista at the most popular coffee shop in town, and I was very familiar with almost everyone who came through the door. I was on a first-name basis with nearly every customer, and for those whose names I did not know, I at least memorized their go-to coffee order. Over the years, I watched kids form study groups, I watched various businessmen and newspaper-readers become friends, and I watched relationships blossom between unlikely friends.
I felt like I had a role in my community, albeit a small role, and it felt good having a sense of belonging in a place I knew so well.
This small Central Californian town was surrounded by mountains in seemingly every direction. I had the luxury of attending middle school surrounded by gorgeous fields, and I spent high school with the same group of familiar faces. Even when I didn’t know a person specifically, there was an air of familiarity in all of my interactions with them. Our shared hometown was a commonality that united us all.
After a few decades, I felt it was time to leave home and explore a new type of living. I moved a few hours away to explore life in a major metropolitan area. Admittedly when I moved, I was not necessarily thinking of how I would fit in. I was too excited by the big buildings and diverse food and people. I was too excited living in a place that had both bounties of trees and the beach. I did not pause to consider the way my interpersonal connection might change.
Living in this city offered a new set of challenges – primarily the fact that all the comforts of community that I had grown used to were absent.
In the new coffee shop where I worked, every customer was unfamiliar. Everyone I spoke to seemed to be in a hurry – no one had an interest in making casual conversation anymore. The buses were always crowded, but lacked intimacy. I only had one friend in the town upon moving there, and it was overwhelming to find new ones in a crowd so big.
After a few months, I accepted that the small-town feel of home would not exist in the city.
I have learned to redefine what community means to me.
It is much more than a mere familiarity of the people around you; it is more about the feelings and type of environment you create, whether it is among a group of strangers or friends.
I hold doors open for the people behind me. I give street performers my attention. I treat the employees who serve me – cashiers, food service workers, retail staff, and many other hard workers – with respect. I genuinely thank my Uber drivers.
These small gestures can fill in the lonely cracks of an ordinary day with a little bit of optimism. When you think about how many people you interact with in even one given day, it feels good to know that you leave a little piece of your happiness, gratitude, and optimistic energy with each one of them. Even when you may not know the names of everyone you see, you can foster your happy vibes to create a positive community wherever you go.
Kyleigh McPhillips is a curly-haired college student in San Francisco, CA. She is a poet, barista, and middle sister. Follow her on Instagram.