Community.

Cruising down the road on auto-pilot, I’m engrossed in the conversation on NPR’s “Air Talk.” Host Larry Mantle is the calm in the eye of so many storms for me. He can broach a triggering topic, the mere mention of which would otherwise leave me crumpled and cursing, with such calm, compassion and thoughtful discernment. I treasure our time together.

Then a flash from my peripheral vision bursts my reverie. A simple blank place on a nondescript wall sucker punches me like my mother’s sudden passing. I struggle to keep my eyes on the road as I’m sobbing.

That blank sits on the façade of a building where we’d once hung, with great pride, the banner for our store, The Blissful Soul. It’s a lousy place for a sign, being too high up and far back from the busy street. Unaware motorists would whiz by without ever noticing our graceful logo and oh-so-carefully-chosen font.

So we did what we could to get noticed in those dark days before social media. We erected a bright blue awning over the entrance. We bolted another banner onto the chain-link fence along the property line. We painted bold notices across the storefront windows. We blasted event notices on the giant chalkboard in the parking lot—which meant terrified-of-heights ME climbing a ladder.  My little kids and grandma scribbled “VISIT THE BLISSFUL SOUL” in chalk on the sidewalk.

“Notice us.” “Look here.”

Some did.

Together with my husband, son, daughter, and mother, we nurtured a small but devoted following. Originally a candle store, we expanded to showcase local artisans. We offered book signings, art exhibits, concerts, psychic readings, chair massages, native American ceremonies, energy circles, nonprofit fundraisers, aromatherapy and herbalist crafts.

My personal favorite? The mime-on-unicycle plus a “gong show” by my six-year-old son—who explained to our customers how gongs help us talk to God. But I might be biased.

Seriously. What more could we have offered?

And still, the whole endeavor was such a financial failure. Yes, we made friends, we created community, and we danced with them all under the stars. But the inflow never exceeded the outflow, and so the difficult decision to wind up the business had to be made. Our whole family mourned. All of which came rushing back to me when I saw the empty space where our sign once hung.

A music school took over the spot as soon as we closed, and their banner hung in that very spot for more than a decade.  My son and daughter took lessons there, and I relished my half-hour visits to soak up the remaining ambiance of The Blissful Soul. Though the layout had changed, the walls remained the lime green and cinnamon colors we’d painted. The cabinet in the bathroom was one we’d installed. A couch, though not ours, offered resting space as we’d done for our weary shoppers. It felt like I’d rented out my home to a very nice family while I’d be sojourning with mine in Europe—and that it was mine for the reclaiming when I was ready to come home.

 And oh how I was tempted, on some bereaved days, to go sit in that space, even though nobody had a lesson scheduled. It was a piece of a precious whole that I still grieve losing.

And now some fifteen years later, the old Blissful Soul-turned-music-studio is just so much blank space.

 Or it was until today, anyway, when I drove by and spotted the door to our old shop wide open. Curious, I stopped and poked in my head—only to regret it with revulsion. Those cherished lime and cinnamon walls were being repainted…a cheery, bright raspberry. Which did not make me feel cheery at all. This time, I made it home before weeping.

Now, it’s truly gone.

We’ve seen a lot of change in our community over the past few years, as our area “gentrified,” and rents soared. Beloved favorites like Camilo’s restaurant closed their door on so many of our family memories. The Coffee Table, where I’d racked up countless writing hours—so many that I credit it in Love Earth Now—shuttered before the book came out in print. Eagle Rock Lumber, where I walked for various household sundries for twenty years, wound up its 100+ year business last year.

Each a sad occasion and a loss. But this current, pandemic-inspired wave of shuttering feels even more unfair. I know well the thin margins that most small businesses operate on. To be forced, without notice, to close up for months on end—or to make do with a fraction of the customers—seems like piling on. How many more cherished places will we lose in rapid order?

I’m trying my level best to believe that each ending creates a space for something new, something that serves our evolving community even better. The new “little frees” give me some hope. One neighbor built a new little museum in front of her home with rotating exhibits and a tiny gift shop. Another erected a little plant stand emblazoned with, “Leaf a Plant, Take a Plant.”Over by the high school, there’s a sidewalk refrigerator and little free pantry which neighbors keep stocked with food and cold water.  Little free libraries abound, including the one in our yard.

Maybe, just maybe, we’re finding a way to supply more of what we need within our local communities. The Los Angeles County Museum is closed but you can take in the display at the Tiny at 706. The doors are locked at our local public library, but you can stop by my yard for a free book. Only outdoor dining allowed? The Rock Coffee House, which hosts our sidewalk fridge, offers picnic tables for dining al fresco.

These resources are no small matter here, where more than 7,000 people reside per square mile—and a one-bedroom apartment goes for $1,800 a month. And the monthly rent for a small retail space, like we once had? Now hovers around $5,000.

Beyond the financial savings, these offerings represent our collective caring, something all too rarely seen in these divisive times, IMHO. No matter your political persuasion, your race or ethnicity, or even your financial need, you’re welcome to read, dine, explore. No questions asked. May we see even more “little frees,” please.

I just found out that a tobacco store has opened in the space that The Blissful Soul once occupied. Which feels like yet another kick in the gut. How my mom loved smoking her cigarettes. She died of lung cancer a little more than a year after we closed up shop. Which made our three years of working the store together ever more precious.

And I suppose that’s the message here. Be ever more appreciative of who we’re with and what we share in this moment. I keep thinking that it’s “wrong” for my college kids to be home when they “should” be on campus, for example. May I learn to cherish these moments together, as much as I treasure my memories of favorite places—and all who made them memorable.

I bless the intrepid souls who forge ahead, even when business-as-usual seems an impossible dream. I hold in compassion all who must let go of their beloved businesses. And I pray that we gain a newfound appreciation of all that is good in our own communities. May we go on to create ever more respectful, compassionate, resilient, and Earth-honoring endeavors.

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