“I always go back to belonging. It is the first source of invincibility. Of happiness. The confidence that comes from a comrade, from a friend whose counsel you seek and mischief you ignite. A coconspirator… someone to hold the flashlight over your shoulder as you roll out the treasure map. This is the stuff of a life abundant. Every one of my friends is a bird that lands on my shoulder. They can always fly away. But when they choose to land, to come back time and again, I call them mine. And I belong to them.”
- Jedidiah Jenkins
Six or so years ago a couple of young men stood face to face with one another, their young families intow bearing witness, stating their intention to grow their friendship and merge their lives. One had already staked his claim by purchasing a home in the area and put down even deeper roots having undertaken a rather significant remodel. Now he looked beyond the walls of his own home to consider who might occupy the space that would soon become vacant next door. The invitation was extended to his would be neighbor and now here they stood in the very place that would soon serve as the scene of so many memories to come and the backdrop of their unfolding lives. They made a gentleman’s agreement that they would indeed become neighbors, both committing not to move for at least five years. Their word was their bond and the promise sealed with a firm grip and shake of the hand.
What I respect and admire most about the decision that Jon Dodson made on that particularly day as he stood there in broad daylight with Blair Humphreys and made a wonder-filled, almost childlike pact that must have resembled two boyish friends becoming blood brothers just before setting off on a grand summertime adventure is that the decision was chalked full of desire when so often times we make decisions based upon some false or forced sense of duty, responsibility, and obligations. It sounds so obvious and assumed I know, but he actually made a conscious choice, an act of will, intention, and determination.
Jon stepped beyond what we’ve come to expect of others and, more importantly ourselves when it comes to human relationships. In a day and time when we’ve settled for the shallow, noncommittal, fickle, and surface level he has delved deep and cultivated the kind of friendships that few experience yet are available to us all.
What began between two men and their families has grown exponentially now to include an ever-increasing number of others. One neighbor extended the invite to join them on NW 20th Street and that neighbor invited another and another and another. Casual acquaintances and business partners were turned into lifelong friends. Cousins and other extended family members moved onto the block. Pretty soon younger siblings graduated college, got married, and purchased their first homes nearby. Fellow church members decided that they’d like to share even more of life together by living in closer proximity. On and on I could go detailing the events that led to the formation of this community. At last count there were probably more than a dozen or so individuals and families who have moved into a few block stretch on the far eastside of Gatewood to share the blessed gift that is life and that life together.
Jon & Katie Dodson along with their four children are in the midst of a rather epic tale. Imagine a sunny summer late saturday afternoon: The chores have been done. Kids have come and gone from the pool. Errands run. Naps had. And now as the sun begins to set ever so slightly, casting shadows and providing a much needed respite of shade, front doors swing wide and families of all kinds file out in less than uniform fashion balancing plates of food piled high in one hand and a bottles of wine in the other. It was as if a communal dinner bell had been rung as the sidewalks became full of foot traffic all moving in the same general direction.
The gate to the backyard is propped open of course. No need to ring a doorbell around here. Stuffy formalities such as these have been cast aside and long-forgot. Hugs and kisses given freely, handshake and highfives aflyin’.
After an extended time of gathering and greeting a grandfatherly figure stands upon a chair to get everyone’s attention, bring them in close, speak a few kind words of welcome, offer thanks and say grace for this not-so-particularly-special occasion. The prayer is a lot more like a heartfelt toast than a hollow religious act. With his head held high, looking around to make eye contact with those who have come together, he speaks words of truth and blessing that somehow manage to honor the full range of experiences that have transpired since this big extended family has gathered last.
When did we forget how to slow down, soften our hearts, open our homes, share a long meal, and raise a glass in good times and bad and feast upon the fathomless mystery that is life? I’m so grateful that an increasing number of folks just like Jon & Katie Dodson are calling it back to mind and practicing the long lost art of friendship and hospitality in newfound and rediscovered ways.
Hospitality, at its core, is all about opening up your heart and home; welcoming the other, even the stranger, and loving them as our very own. For the Dodsons, home is a “a restful and welcoming space, that makes room for both the chaotic and the peaceful. When everything is too quiet and put together it doesn’t feel quite like it should.” Jon implores us to “let go of the ideal so that we can actually experience the ideal. Home is not an instagram photo nor life a holding pattern for the next picture worthy moment. There’s something perfect about the imperfections of our life, our home, and our marriage.”
Jon lovingly looks at Katie as they sit across from me on an antique sofa which appears to be an heirloom of sorts and gets even more sincere and practically philosophical as he wonders aloud about the most meaningful parts of life: “Most moments are mundane, sacredly mundane. There’s something quietly and almost secretly beautiful about a normal day: a Liturgy of Life.”
Part of Jon and Katie’s life practice is “Making contribution a daily ritual.” And they have done just that in a rather noticeable fashion over the past couple of years as they’ve entered into a fairly major life transition by leaving a promising career in banking to pursue a more integrated personal and professional life of urban development. Think about the iconic Tower Theatre on 23rd Street, the historic Sunshine Cleaners building on Classen Blvd across from 21c, or the old Swanson’s Tire Shop on Hudson - the new home for Good Egg Dining Group’s latest mexican food concept just to name a select few.
While Jon has been referred to as a “rising star in urban development” it is perhaps the lesser known aspects of his life that impress me most. Take for example:
A community wide initiative known as “A Better Classen” that was formed as a part of ULI Oklahoma in response to The Dodson’s repeated difficulty in making their way safely across the street without being run over or cursed out. If our city is going to become increasingly walkable and connected from neighborhood to neighborhood and district to district then we must do something about such busy and dangerously speedy thoroughfares such as these. And do something, “contribute daily” as they say, is exactly what they’ve done.
Jon & Katie could have simply thrown up their hands in resignation that they just simply have to use a car to get from point A-to-B or they could double down and stubbornly commit to a walkable lifestyle in spite of the obstacles and then get to work on busting these barriers not just for the ease of their own family but for the good of the city as a whole.
Jon believes that Oklahoma City ought to be “bikeable” as well. Did you know that there’s not a single mile of protected bike lanes in all of the metro area? It’s true. But rather than sit back and cross his legs, passively waiting for the infrastructure to be built, Jon has advocated for the much-needed change by selling his car and pulling out his bike and becoming a bit of a road warrior for an 18-month stretch of time.
You see the city differently when you aren’t shielded behind sheets of steel and glass simultaneously fidgeting with the radio dial and texting while rushing from place to place. I think fondly of the countless times I’ve crossed paths with Jon as he biked around Auto Alley, Midtown, Uptown, Plaza District, and beyond. He’d hold up a hand and wave, flashing one of those classic ear to ear smiles of his, as if he knows something the rest of us don’t, like the universe had somehow tipped it’s hand revealing another one of the secrets to a good and meaningful life.
You can talk all about wanting to live in community with others, sharing the average and even not-so-ordinary parts of life, or you can, as the Dodson’s have done, put a gate between your two fences so that your neighbors and their children can come and go freely as they like. I’ve heard it said that the distance between the values we claim and the ones that we actually practice is the degree of frustration that we’ll experience in life. I tend to agree. And bit by bit we must learn to close the gap.
Most recently the Dodson’s and their neighbors built a communal table that extends from one backyard to the next, crossing physical property lines and challenging the personal boundaries that so many of us have been conditioned to put in place. Sure, we have succeeding in guarding ourselves and protecting our personal space and family time, but we have done so to our own soul’s detriment: we are as isolated, alone, and as relationally bankrupt as ever. Good fences don’t make for good neighbors at all… good fences, well they just make good fences, that’s all.
When the walls come down, we remember what it’s like to welcome and be welcomed into the heart and life of another. It has a settling effect upon us. The people in our lives find the freedom to enter in and the peace to stick around awhile. Those who stay, become true friends. And who’s to say that a friend is someone that you have to make special plans with to see once a week at most. Why can’t your friends simply move right next door. Why can’t you raise babies and build a life right alongside of each other. If it takes a village… then why can’t you create the community of our choosing? You can. Maybe you should. Perhaps you must. Let each relationship in your life reach its fullest potential. Strangers will become friends and some just might become neighbors and a special few will take up residence within our hearts and become family: those who stand and say “I call them mine. And I belong to them.” ⊙
Gatewood Historic District is home to University, Gatewood Addition, and Carey Place, which each have their own distinct flavor. Carey Place is a unique and much admired walkable street lined with spectacular Mediterranean and Spanish influenced estates. Another attractive feature to this community is the energetic and exploding Plaza District, home to local art studios, restaurants, bars, and boutique shops, as well as the Lyric Theater. Neighborhood schools include rapidly improving Gatewood Elementary and one of the most sought after middle/high schools in the region, Classen School of Advanced Studies . Homes prices range from $100-500k.