We are front porch people.

Good Morning used with permission under a Creative Commons license http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3003/2902461817_3edf478283.jpg?v=0

Good Morning
used with permission under a Creative Commons license

We are front porch people.

We sit on our porches in the evening, drinking coffee or a cold beer or sweet tea. We watch the lightning bugs, admire the petunias and Boston ferns that hang from hooks and glow in the evening sun. We talk to our neighbors – those people sitting on their front porch.

According to Dr. O. Norman Simpkins, one of the defining characteristics of Appalachians is our open-faced outlook. The hillbilly stereotype says we’re distrustful or bashful around strangers – out and out flapdoodle.

Boston Ferns

Boston Ferns

That open-faced outlook means we’re curious. In our smaller communities where everyone knows everyone else, we assume everyone knows everything about us and we act accordingly.

When I first moved back here from the wastelands of the frozen north, I was greatly heartened by – and shocked by – people’s penchant to tell me anything and everything. When we do meet someone we don’t know, the conversation immediately turns to questions. We try to find our commonalities; we try to find the places where our lives intersect; we try to become something other than strangers to one another.  We do this in even the most casual of interactions.

A journalist writing a story on our obesity described his experience on the backroads as people gawking in shock at a new car. Balderdash. Those people were gawking out of curiosity. We have new cars. What we don’t have as a norm is New Yorkers driving the backroads. Those people were intrigued about why he was driving through their neighborhood. Had he stopped, we’d have been all over him with questions, plied him with refreshments, and told him our stories. Well we would have unless he got out of the car bearing an attitude of the Great Savior here to save us from ourselves.

New Pots

New Pots

Last night, I went to a big box store and lugged two huge planters to the check out counter. On my way to the counter, six people tried to help me, one engaged me in a conversation about tomato plants (of which I know nothing) and one chortled at the slogan on my t-shirt. [IT Survivor for the curious.]

Within seconds, the check-out clerk and I were laughing about how early we get up and my warning to him to never become an old menopausal woman. In a short time, I learned his name, alma mater, and job resume. He was concerned at how I was going to get those planters in my car and insisted on calling in backup to help me to the car. Our banter did not slow down the check-out process, but it certainly improved the waiting on the debit card approval.

In my experience, these things do not happen in other regions of the country. Our sense of humor, our insistence on personalizing impersonal experiences, and our curiosity about one another are great strengths. We are front porch people.

The nation as a whole is becoming more homogenous. We watch cable news, but not the local news. Gone are the local talk radio shows. Community owned stores are suffering in the wake of the big box stores and dropping like flies. Our small neighborhood churches are losing membership to the big, mega churches. We consume the same media, goods and experiences as the rest of the country and in doing so we leave our front porches to barbeque on the back deck – or worse, go inside to watch cable television.

Sitting on the front porch, hollering “hey” to our neighbors sitting on their front porch, and watching the people drive by are just another means of connecting to one another. It’s a tremendous community-building activity.

Building community is critical to economic and social success. When we know and appreciate our neighbors, we become invested in their lives. If they own businesses, we patronize them. If they’re out of work, we help if we can. We help carry pots in from the car and we babysit one another’s children.

Admiring Petunias

Admiring Petunias

Our problem is not that we’re hillbillies (in the worst sense of the word), but that the homogenization of our cultural ways with the mainstream is hurting our community identity. We need to get back on our front porches, invest ourselves in one another’s lives, and watch the ensuing transformation. When people know one another, great things happen. Helping carry pots turns into helping grow a business, helping a child succeed at school, helping a senior citizen with yard work and, thus, avoiding the big box high-rises that don’t have front porches.  We need to not just admire our petunias, but one another.

We are front porch people. We need to be there more.

This post was written as part of the A Better West Virginia Challenge.
[Ironically, I do not have a front porch. It’s on the To-Do List.]

29 thoughts on “We are front porch people.

  1. Pingback: West Virginia: Using Social Media for the Mountain State’s Betterment | a Better West Virginia Blog - Culture | Arts | Economy

  2. “When people know one another, great things happen.” How rare for a writer to be able summarize something so important and poignant in so few words…..thank you for this contribution to our thinking about a better WV!

  3. Well, we do have a front porch and a great swing in our yard. We and the people in our sub-division are example of being a West Virginian.

    West Virginia is a true blend of red-necks, professionals, geeks and works in progress. Would we want it any other way?

    Brenda Hudson

  4. I enjoyed your post. Your observations are so true. It made me chuckle to read,we’re not gawking at the new car but a New Yorker driving the backroads. Needless to say he may not have been a good driver on a two lane road.

  5. Oh, what a wonderful post, Connie! It makes me miss being back home in Boone County where every evening after dinner Dad would go sit on the front porch to play his banjo. Other neighbors sat on their front porches, sat in their yards in lawn chairs, or opened their windows while doing dishes to feel the breeze, listen to the music, holler out a request, or simply yell out to see how someone was doing. I don’t think I had very many dates in high school that weren’t first greeted by Dad on the front porch playing his banjo. Thanks for bringing that to mind and being a part of what makes West Virginia better than others would want to think it is.

    • Aw, man, BB, you’re gonna make me cry.

      The irony is I don’t have neighbors and I don’t have a front porch. The former I kind of like, the latter I’m fixin’ to fix.

      I love going to other people’s home where we sit on the porch and I meet their neighbors. I particularly enjoy the musical heritage – the impromptu jams on the porch. I love kids squealing as they chase one another and fireflies.

      I love this place with a fierce passion and I just don’t understand why everyone doesn’t – why they inflict their hateful (and largely untrue) stereotypes on us.

      We’re also marked by our resiliency. We’re going to figure this all out and build a better West Virginia – a place our kids leave only when they want to, where the standard of living is exceptional, and the arts vibrant. I believe this. I do I do. I hope to see it sooner than later.

      (Thank you for your blog — a day without BuzzardBilly ain’t hardly worth livin’. You’ve been leading the charge in the defense our hillbilly pride. I’m happy to be a footsoldier in your army.)

  6. I’m currently living in Maryland and married to a Marylander. This explains why I talk to anyone in the stores about anything. It embarrasses my husband to no end! I enjoyed reading this. I’m glad so many people offered to help you with the planters.

  7. .
    It isn’t just West Virginia. Maybe you just have older houses there. Are they putting front porches on the new homes? I think that’s where things started to go wrong everywhere in this country. When the family locked itself inside their houses, or hid out in the back yard instead of sitting out front in the open and acting like part of a community.

    I could go on and on about it. But you inspired me to write a little social architecture criticism, which I’ve credited to you with a link, Ms. W. Va. Thank you.

    • I read your post (and commented). I was struck by the truth of many of your insights. One of the questions we need to ask, though, is what is the root reason we’ve become disengaged. Nobody can sell what people won’t buy. We’re cheerfully consuming the things that put technology and structures between people. Only a few of us are really using the technology to bind ourselves together. Anomie is embraced and I can’t fathom why.

      • Thank you, Connie.

        I don’t think people really have much choice in anything they buy. Less and less as time goes on. In housing, it’s always been a squeeze to find something livable you can afford. Builders keep raising prices and offering fewer amenities and cheaper construction, pocketing the difference. It’s all about profit, not what people want.

        I grew up in a barn, too, a hundred-year-old one. Well, a “carriage house,” sort of a garage for horses. My parents turned it into a two-family house and we lived downstairs from a succession of weird and weirder tenants. Our part had big rooms and high ceilings, an open front porch, an eat-in-kitchen, a formal dining room and a huge sunken living room fit for a giant Christmas tree every year, and separate bedrooms for boys & girls, plus two full baths. I guess I was lucky, as to the physical plant.

        The neighbor kids used to come to sit on our large screened covered porch and watch thunderstorms and scream at the lightning while eating real popcorn my Mom made in a kettle, or cherries from one of the neighbors’ trees. Everybody knew everybody, and everybody’s business. The town was only a mile square, it had everything you needed in the era before strip malls and big boxes, even good jobs, and you could walk everywhere. It had sidewalks and shade trees and parks and playgrounds and K-12 schools that the neighboring farm towns’ kids attended with us.

        That town was known as a dumpy working class place when I was growing up, but later it became an ideal for those who had grown tired of the uncentered sprawl that struck the farmlands as I grew up. Not having to always be in a car was a huge plus. We had a train that went to New York, and three bus lines that went to NYC, Newark and Princeton. There were no freeways or U.S. highways (though they were just a mile away), just county roads and one two-lane State highway that was our main street.

        It seems like paradise compared to the new end-of-the-freeway “communities” that have sprung up since.

        (I continued this in my response to your comment on my blog, for which I thank you. Don’t want to take up too much space on your blog… )

      • While I agree with what you say, I don’t want to. The Pollyanna in me insists that everyone always has a choice.

        I live in your barn now, sans the porch, but I can hear the whine of semis on the interstate now due to development. They’ve taken out acres of tree and now. . .

        See ya over at your place in a few…

  8. Excellent post. We do indeed talk to anyone and everyone. At the Folk Festival in Glenville yesterday, my husband and I found that the first 3 people we spoke to were from Pennsylvania–and delighted to share a conversation with us. It rubs off on people fairly quickly, just a little contact and someone willing to listen will do.

    I call myself a front-porch style storyteller, and I have had many people tell me after a performance that they miss the way their families would gather to talk and share stories. Why did they stop? That’s what I wonder. We make the choices we live with. Let’s choose to get back out on the porch.

  9. Loved your article. My mother was born in Westerly, W.VA but it doesn’t exist anymore. We love porches also and created a web site for porch lovers. There’s nothing like spending a whole day on the porch!

  10. .
    Having a choice and recognizing that we do have all these choices are two different things. When people are herded like cattle into a chute, and given a shot to the head by advertisers & marketers, they tend not to recognize that they could have opted out of that experience.

    That is often our only choice in the new global marketplace: Buy the crap they’re pushing on us, or walk away. But people are so conditioned to buy, and so dependent upon the whole consumption thing, that they don’t even realize that they can walk away. They don’t want to: Failure to consume actually makes them feel sad, lonely and empty. That’s how malls replaced parks and porches. And people never noticed.

    Or at least they didn’t, before the bottom fell out of the consumer economy. As bad as the results of that are, it may help to break the cycle of mindless consumption. Maybe people can be educated into investing in their minds and their spirits, their families and their communities, instead of the next pet rock. But they have to learn to recognize that they do have that choice, to build an economy based on people rather than profits. That’s what I’d like to see the Internet help with: Counter-propaganda.

    Thanks for allowing me to bloviate. CU.

    • Bloviate all you want. 🙂

      Shopping, also, causes neurons to fire and endorphins to surge. We’re slaves to our brains wanting to feel good. We’d get the same rush if we exercised, but shopping is more “fun”.

      I like stuff, but I’ve become very cognizant that I was buying stuff I didn’t love. As soon as I made that a prerequisite, my consumption plummeted.

      MFK Fisher said (and I’m paraphrasing) – given the abundance of food in our lives, we should never eat what isn’t delicious. Mediocre food spoils the palate and there’s no reason for it. I feel the same way about goods these days. If I don’t love it and/or need it, I don’t buy it. What constitutes “love”? Stuff that enhances my wa – that contributes to the atmosphere I want my home/garden/body/mind to project. Thoughtful consumption is no crime.

      I’m never going to be a minimalist – I’m too much the hedonist – but I can ratchet up the hedonism by insisting on exactly what I want and waiting for it rather than acquiring something to serve in the interim.

  11. .
    I don’t know that men get the same thrill from shopping that women do. For most of us, it’s an arduous exercise. They frequently don’t have what you want, so you have to go to several stores. The people there rarely know much about the products –they’re not being paid to. If it’s something important and/ or expensive, you have to do research yourself. Then when you buy the thing you find out it doesn’t quite do all you needed it to do, or it has some critical flaw, or it goes on sale for half price a week later, or a much better version comes out a month later. It’s exhausting. I’m glad I’m not a materialist by nature.

    I don’t shop for fun, but the stores are the only safe, comfortable public spaces any more. The streets are inhospitable, the parks are full of sad & scary homeless people, the beaches are full of turistas and there are smoke monsters and polar bears in the jungles ever since that show “Lost” came on.

    I mostly go out just for necessities, maybe once a week. I wander the malls and the big box stores, watch the girls showing off their finery, and maybe have a cup of coffee or a snack. I always have a book and my mp3 player to insulate me from the shopping experience. I try to spend as little as possible, though that isn’t easy in Hawaii.

    I’ve never been a connoisseur of anything. I like good food & drink, but hearty, ethnic, exotic and spicy are my idea of good food. I’ve never been one for wallpaper or plate decorations. Ambiance is never worth the price of admission. Snobbery is mostly based on money, not taste. I doubt most people can actually taste the difference between a $20 wine and a $200 wine, so why spend the money?

    I value experiences and insights, creativity and sensuality above all. If I could, I’d spend my whole life traveling and learning, spending long enough in each place to get a sense of how it is to live there. I’d be happy with a suitcase, a backpack or a seabag to hold all my worldly possessions, if it enabled me to be mobile. I’ve lost everything I owned, including clothing, several times, so I’ve given up on things, for the most part. Everything is temporary, expendable, replaceable, except what isn’t. The memories I have are stuff enough for me.

    As long as I have access to books and music, films and video, a computer and the Internet, art and photography, theater and dance, journalism and history, a life of the mind, I don’t need much else. Actually, that’s quite a lot, isn’t it?

    • Indeed it is.

      It sounds like your wa (and mine too) is fed by ideas. Our differences seem to lie in the fact that I enjoy stuff that reflects and reminds me of those ideas.

      I don’t do the library thing (they make me give the books back), so my house is packed with books. Further, given the amount I read, I insist on a comfortable place to read.

      I’ve been in our local mall exactly twice in the past year. Online procurement of my needs is getting to be the norm.

      Speaking of online, the cyber-revolution has turned my world upside down and inside out. All for the good. How did we live without it?

  12. Having lived my formative years in SoCal and most of my adult life in Chicago and Boston, I did not appreciate the notion of front porch people until I married into a southern family many years ago. The family harkened from Greeville, GA and lived in large antebellum houses with porches that wrapped around three sides and hand-caned rockers scattered throughout. After a pork BBQ, we’d sit out on the porch for hours as family and friends drifted in to visit and shoot-the-breeze with us. We don’t get that in our backyard deck culture. You have to be invited in most cases before people will come around back. I prefer the front-porch drop-in approach

  13. Pingback: READINGS | COVID-19, Day 77: Yes, I’m Waiting.

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