Picture this: a verdant park full of sunshine and open spaces, tennis and basketball courts, a sprinkler pad, playground area. In this park, people are LARPing (Live Action Role Playing…I know, I didn’t know either) in full dress. Kids are learning to ride their bikes. A tot practices walking with a tiny walker. Across the park, a diverse group of kids roll down the hill while a young mother sunbathes and the father chases after their child. Puppies abound. Women in colorful saris walk after their rollerblading children. A sweet little girl no older than about two and a half runs with a kite string in her hand as her father looks on, tossing an errant frisbee back to a couple. A preteen walks the trail, writing in his notebook and singing to himself. In a far corner, a larger group takes a break from tossing a ball to eat barbecue while beneath a shady tree, a young couple kicks off their shoes and toasts with stemware, a fancy picnic, by my standards.
In Central Park, this would be nothing out of the ordinary. But where I live, in Beaumont, Texas – a place named among the nation’s worst for wellbeing by the Gallup Healthways Study – I have to pause and really appreciate the diversity and joy around me. Of course, out of the over 150,000 people in the area, just 674 were polled as to their well being. The study itself is based on rising obesity, environmental issues, and employment, but as is often the case, most journalistic outlets equate this with dissatisfaction and unhappiness, especially on the heels of another study last year that analyzed the tweets of those in this area.
Of course, I’m not one to look at my environment and toss aside the very real concerns mentioned in the first study, but these polls are opinion polls, and I’m not too inclined to put much stock into them until someone begins going door to door to weigh and measure citizens and study their mental health. Of course I wish my corner of Texas were more pedestrian/cyclist friendly. I wish for more life in my historic neighborhood. I wish there were less racism and more art. I sincerely wish our economy depended less on the refineries that surround us. But I also know there are good people here. People who look out for each other’s kids and play catch in the park with any child interested. Artistic people. Intelligent people. People who come together after natural disasters to lend helping hands. People taking chances to build the lives they want in the place they live now, not the place they plan to move down the road. People who recognize that to live in a great place, you must invest in that place. (Like The Giving Field or Boomtown Film & Music Festival or the ever-growing farmer’s market.) And I also recognize that there are places, popular, top-of-the-wellbeing-list places that have the same sorts of problems we do – and different ones altogether.
What I do know (and what I often have to remind myself as a self-proclaimed homebody) is that, just as in any place, the more you step out your front door and away from whatever is keeping you inside, the more your immediate environment expands, and while I won’t be LARPing any time soon, I will carry the memory of walking hand in hand with the man I love, laughing and talking and people watching in wonder for a long long time.