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Discovering the importance of community connections

Much to their surprise, writer and author Jamie Windust discovers a new sense of belonging in their neighbourhood

What is the importance of community for wellbeing? Everything, as Jamie Windust, a nonbinary author, editor and presenter living in London recently discovered. Jamie hates moving house. But when they had to, moving a mere mile up the road allowed them to overcome their preconceived notions about not fitting into a community. In fact, they discovered new promise in this same neighbourhood – that of keeping them balanced and grounded. Or as Jamie asks rhetorically, if you can’t keep it local and feel connected, then where can you feel connected?

The first thing that I like to say to people when I meet them is, “Hi, I’m Jamie Windust, style icon, model, and writer, and one of my most hated activities is moving house.” It’s a real crowd pleaser. It’s always good to be upfront, isn’t it? I can’t be the only one who hates it. The boxes, the deconstruction of life. The fact that you have to be efficient because otherwise you’re screwed: you know you’ll need a cup of tea, but the tea bags are in a box that’s underneath an old collection of magazines you’re keeping ‘just in case’ you want to put them on the new coffee table. Moving is a task that was created to show just how inept certain human beings can be.

But once I’ve decided what socks to bring with me to my new abode, I remember what moving house actually means. It’s a change of scenery, yes, but also the beginning of a new time period in life. Fine, I’m being dramatic, but for me, moving house has always signified more than just geographical change.

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“I’d always seen my neighbourhood as something I never really felt connected to. All it took was a global pandemic to make me realise that I only had to give them a chance.”

Home alone

In July of 2020, as the world decided whether or not it was open to the idea of getting ‘back to normal’, I moved house and was venturing out for the first time. I was living alone. This was it. This was my sitcom moment! During university and subsequently in those adrift years post-degree, I’d lived with the same people. From flat to flat, to a house to a flat, back to a house, we moved around the same small town in Surrey, in South East England, for three years. Now, after leaving Surrey and moving to South West London, we’d all decided to go our different ways. My path was a lonesome one, and I knew I’d need comfort: an environment that I felt at ease in and that was in my local area. I knew that if I moved out on my own and changed area, it would be too much for me to manage. I’d feel lost. Untethered. I needed something to make me feel safe and connected, so I moved a mere mile up the road. Change, but familiar change.

I’d lived in leafy South West London for two years and it had served me well, allowing me to build a ritual of casual smiles and rushed ‘good mornings’ as I bobbed around its sunny pavements. But when I moved out, the network of friendly strangers and coffee shop baristas took on new meaning. My home had changed, yet my surroundings outside of my new four walls remained the same. They contained new promise and more power than I’ve ever realised. They were the things that had once been unimportant yet now kept me sane and grounded as I ventured into my new etching of life.

Living alone can be (shock! horror!) lonely. Especially as the pandemic-swept world re-opened. I wasn’t a fan of alcohol or football, so the majority of the ‘reopenings’ were useless to my social calendar, and I remained in my lockdown routine. However, seeing the same people every day from my local neighbourhood took on new meaning. Seeing the smiley coffee lovers in the queue at my local coffee shop was like walking into my family home when I would go back for a surprise visit. It took on the same resonance. A feeling of familiarity. A warmth. It was like the smell of a roast dinner on a Sunday at your gran’s house, but this time in a queue of South Londoners wanting a flat white on a Tuesday morning.

Reevaluating the importance of local community

I’d always seen my neighbourhood as something I never really felt connected to. Yes, I lived there and I paid council tax and I put the bins out if I really had to, but moving out on my own at a time when all we had was our local and digital communities meant that I was proved wrong. I had presumed I wasn’t allowed to be a part of it because of my identity or because of the way I looked. From concerned looks from mothers as they took their kids to school, to my fear of walking home at night, to the builders down the road who would always have too much to say as I made my way to the tube. It was scary to be authentic and eccentric in a place that you’ve never lived in before. It all boiled down to a fear of the unknown. What was going to happen in this new, unfamiliar environment? But what dispelled that fear is taking the unknown and getting to know it; popping the fear bubble.

This fear had all been in my head. I had presumed that me and the people around me would have nothing in common, or that they’d think I was slightly odd. All it took was a global pandemic to make me realise that I only had to give them a chance. Sad really, but I’m glad it did because it showed me that the world is a kind place once I lead with kindness rather than with fear.

“My path was a lonesome one, and I knew I’d need comfort: an environment that I felt at ease in.”

Home is near the coffee shop

Now, it’s been nearly 18 months living on my own, and I am experiencing ‘place’ like I never have before. I feel content with walking in the same triangle most days, listening to the radio that kept me company in lockdown as I go. From home, to coffee, to town, to the park, to home (ok, that’s me walking in a square isn’t it really, but allow me the metaphor). My favourite hub of connectivity has to be my local coffee shop. (It’s called Wacka, which I would recommend saying to yourself in the mirror and watching what shapes your face makes as a result.)

In lockdown it went from wintry queues outside, two by two as if we were embarking on the Ark, to slowly opening up and being able to realise the full potential of this little caffeinated hotspot. It revealed its cosiness even with the restrictions that it had to follow for our safety. I now work outside this coffee shop with my laptop most days, having become a regular of sorts. It’s a cosy feeling, finding a place to put down roots. Whatever I’m feeling, or whatever day I’ve had, I can decamp to my seat outside Wacka and feel comfortable in the familiarity.

Staying balanced by staying local

My sense of home has changed in the best way possible. I feel tethered to this community and this space. Not in a way that feels tight or restrictive, but in a way that feels warm. I thought recently about relocating and genuinely didn’t want to move too far away from the coffee shop and its friendly milk wizards. I know it may feel reductive, but ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’

Living in a fast-paced world, in a fast-paced way of work surrounded by constant news and energy, it can feel like we have to uproot ourselves every year just so that we can be seen by others to be on the move. We don’t want to be seen as stagnant. But for me, I feel at ease being able to appreciate that home is comfortable and friendly, and if I’ve found that in my leafy green suburb with my cosy baristas and lines of trees, then I don’t need to leave. I deserve calmness and warmth, and it’s ok to remain within that. Never say never, though! If I do get the old boxes out again and start packing up my life, I’ll make sure that I take my new neighbourhood out for a test drive first. See if it gives me that warmth. See whether it feels the same as walking home with a cup of tea in the sunny September chill. Whether or not I fancy the local barista. Whether or not I can lose myself in the smiles of the neighbours and feel snug knowing that this could be my new home. It’s all about being in touch with myself and my feelings. If I like it, and it feels like it could be home, then there’s only one way to find out if I’m right.

I had once lived thinking that staying home and staying local meant you were boring or dull. Why would you want to stay in your local area when there’s a whole city to explore? But what the past year has taught me is that if you can’t keep it local and keep it within your own neighbourhood and feel connected, whole and happy, then where can you feel connected? I realised I don’t need the hustle and bustle of Soho or Brick Lane all the time to feel connected to my city. Sometimes all it takes is a ten-minute walk to pick up a coffee and a slice of cake on a Saturday afternoon, with the radio on in my ears and the knowledge that I’m not fearful of fitting in anymore. I have found my lane, my people, my coffee shops, my annoying dogs, my local buskers, my familiar waves and awkward glances. My community of like-minded people, all just wanting to fit in.

Photos by Jamie Windust (self-portraits)

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