Toronto, like many cities, can be a very difficult place to meet people.
When I first moved into the city I bemoaned the loss of community that came with living in the same place for more than 20 years. I was only 25 minutes away from where I grew up so I wasn’t missing friends and family; I was missing a certain familiarity that comes with being in a place a long time. On good days I hardly noticed it, on bad days I felt like I was an anonymous shadow that walked down the street just beyond the sight lines of people all around me. I missed walking into the local burger shop, pub or bar and recognizing others with a familiar nod, smile or just the vague comfort that comes from seeing familiar strangers.
My discomfort manifested into a self-conscious reflection. Was I so made of ego that it bothered me that people didn’t know ‘who I was?’ I didn’t think I was the type of person that needed the validation of strangers yet there was a hole that I felt when I walked around, anonymous. The feeling ate at me and it ‘didn’t feel right’ – after all I spent the greater part of a year travelling Canada on a Greyhound bus where I was largely anonymous and don’t remember feeling that way at all. I like to be alone and find quiet time spent in isolation to be comforting.
I largely waited for this feeling to go away. And, with time, it did. We made some friends, strengthened other relationships and got to know people in our neighbourhood. The feeling disappeared as I felt connected to those around me and I thought I had found community again. I haven’t thought about those feelings in years.
Perhaps it is more accurate to say that I HADN’T thought about those feelings in years.
On Wednesday evening we hosted our 5th or 6th preserve swap (part of our HomeEcNight events). It’s our 5th or 6th preserve swap and the flow is delightfully predictable: people arrive around 8:00PM and spread their jars across the bar (there were hundreds). The evening begins with a few awkward introductions as strangers meet one another and slowly begin to ask what others have made or brought. People continue to arrive and the mingling becomes more comfortable and the room begins to get louder and more excited. A few people pre-arrange swaps and we give people a heads up that the swap will begin around 9:00PM. The music goes dim, we share 60 seconds of announcements and declare the swap as started.
And the room turns feverish.
People have different strategies for swapping. Some carry their jars around to others to broker deals, others grab a few jars at a time or have a friend carry their jars as they go. I’m extremely casual. I sit back, soak in the room and let people take any of my preserves that they want and ask them to choose something from their collection for me.
Monday night followed the predictable flow. 35 or 40 people had armloads (or cases) of preserves and were laughing, smiling and trading jars of food they made by hand. The room was loud and excited – individual conversations were mashed into the buzz of human activity with few discernible words until I heard it. I heard a single word repeated over and over. The word rose above the din and I heard it repeatedly:
Here was a group of 30 or 40 or 50 people, many who were strangers an hour before, engaged in open exchange and genuine appreciation with each other. Strangers who were thrilled that someone had exchanged something special with them and with each other. With hundreds of jars it’s easy to conclude that there were a hundred or more enthusiastic ‘thank yous.’
Strangers effecting one anthers lives. Strangers sharing genuine interaction without pre-tense or distraction. Strangers creating community.
I don’t think I’ve smiled as big as I did in that moment. And I realized that this is what I was missing when I first moved to the city; witnessing the open entanglement that comes when a community bonds with itself. Those moments are tough to find in a city of millions of people – you rarely see the same person twice so the chance to connect with familiar strangers is scarce. And that’s the magic of a preserve swap – strangers pushing past their individual comfort zones to share mutual passions and connect with each other.
I also got a whack-load of jam, pickles, mustard, relish and more! Thank you.
I know many who read this aren’t close enough to come to these events. Here’s hoping we can bring this show on the road someday or perhaps you can connect strangers closer to you!