Janine’s Journal: More Than Fair-Weather Neighbors

Inclusion. Caring. Respect. Transparency. Trustworthiness. Unity. Ideation. Responsibility. Interconnectedness. Those are big ideals to live up to, but they’re essential to transformation, writes managing editor Janine Pumilia.

During my morning walk, fog rose off the pond, transforming the watery reflection of bright red sumac into a haze of bloody gossamer. Somewhere a hawk screeched with menace; a single heron stopped fishing and looked up, alarmed.
A Gothic archway of burning trees lit up the sky in frenzied hues. Red vines climbed craggy black oak skeletons; Japanese maples dripped folds of scarlet filigree; half-naked shrubs quivered in the wind.
Then again, it may have been an ordinary autumn day and I was simply in a bad mood. It’s easy to project our personal feelings onto the world around us without even realizing it, something movie directors use to full advantage.
The thing is, each of us views the same world very differently, through personal filters shaped not only by life experience, but also the context of each moment, like an automatic camera lens continually adjusting to changing light. A rude comment might offend me one day or roll off my back the next. I’m not a static being. No one is. We’re complicated. Often we don’t understand our own feelings because we don’t bother to stop and ask ourselves about them.
But I think we must try. We need to understand tensions that seethe beneath a surface level, both in a personal and community context. I’m less likely to go home and kick the dog, so to speak, if I acknowledge to myself that I’m feeling rotten about what the boss said to me that day, or how I messed up a project, neither of which had anything to do with the dog.
As we become more honest with ourselves, we also become more empathetic to others. Maybe the boss wasn’t really mad at me at all. Maybe something else put him in a bad mood and I was just the dog who got kicked. Now my filter changes to allow for new possibilities.
Why does any of this matter? Because a whole lot of us have decided to get serious about transforming our city – and change is not easy. It starts between our ears. Saying we support a goal is fine, but living up to the Shared Values collectively set forth by the Transform Rockford movement (see p. 261) is another matter.
What are those values?
Inclusion. Caring. Respect. Transparency. Trustworthiness. Unity. Ideation. Responsibility. Interconnectedness.
My Mom told me stories about the way farmers and their hired hands came together to help one another harvest crops, recover after a storm, or even build a barn, when she lived on a farm off Illinois Route 173 in the 1930s. It wasn’t convenient for a farmer to drop his own work to help a neighbor, but he did it. And when he needed help in return, he got it. There was an unspoken commitment to look out for one another’s best interests. “We weren’t just fair-weather neighbors,” she’d say.
The Rockford I know is not the Rockford my neighbor across town knows, but we’re both responsible for its health. To work together, we must get to know each other. And listen.
Speaking frankly to one another about important issues that impact all of us is not something we’re especially good at in our society. Starting as kids, we learn not to discuss anything controversial outside the safety zone of our homes, and sometimes not even then. Instead, we talk about “safe” things: sports teams, the weather, movies … did I mention sports teams?
On the whole, we don’t develop critical thinking skills well enough, something both employers and fans of our democratic republic often complain about.
It’s true that choosing to engage in constructive, meaningful, honest conversations can make us feel vulnerable, as can plumbing the depths of our feelings.
As the shallow conversations that once filled our days gradually drop like autumn leaves, we’re exposed – like a tree no longer hiding behind its fair-weather foliage. It’s scary. But it’s also when we see, in sharpest focus, and most objectively, how our twisted, gnarled limbs are really formed – and how deeply entwined they’ve been with others all along.
Rockford doesn’t need more fair-weather friends who say all the right things when it’s easy, but operate solely in self-interest. We don’t need more “smokestacks,” either – enclaves of power that cleave to isolation, afraid to trust others lest they risk losing turf. What we need are people who will listen and respond to one another because it’s the right thing to do.
Inclusion. Caring. Respect. Transparency. Trustworthiness. Unity. Ideation. Responsibility. Interconnectedness.
They’re good values. Speaking them out loud, and pondering their practical implications on a personal level, is a very good starting place.
Our city history is a witness to the things Rockford citizens can accomplish when we make up our minds to do them.
We’re not just fair-weather neighbors!