Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Won't You Be My Neighbor?

Better is a neighbor who is near than a brother who is far away.
—Proverbs 27:10

I live in my childhood home. There is something charming—and almost anachronistic—about raising my own children in the same house my parents bought when I was nine years old. I know every corner of this century-old farmhouse by heart, and every room holds memories in its walls. I am comfortable here. But as familiar as this house is, we are, in many ways, living in the middle of unfamiliar territory. A foreign world lies outside our doors.

Of course, it’s not as though a whirlwind has pulled us from our foundations and given us a yellow brick road where the sidewalk once was. Our street, in fact, looks almost as it did twenty-some years ago. The buildings themselves have hardly been altered; their structures, their yards, and even their paint colors are largely the same as they have been for two decades. The difference, rather, is their occupants. Most of them have been replaced. A couple of familiar faces remain, but after 17 years, they no longer recognize me.

The residences on our block—including ours—are mostly rentals or "starter" homes, which means that the people who are here now won't be for long. We’ve spent three years trying to learn the names of most of our neighbors, and within that short time, several of them have already moved on.

We rarely see many of our neighbors, and with so few of us likely to remain for more than a year or two, putting forth the effort—and it is an effort—to meet them feels almost futile. Some will never even make eye contact before ducking hurriedly into their house-shaped bunkers. They live in hiding, and then they leave.

* * * * * * * *

Twenty years ago, meeting our neighbors seemed easy. With so many kids sharing the same block, spontaneous encounters were practically inevitable. There was a time that children formed a part of the landscape, a time when I could recite the names of the occupants of nearly every house within view of our front yard.

I could tell you that the neighbor in the white house across the street would step onto his front porch at five o'clock each night—you could almost set your watch by his appearance—and call for his son John, stretching his short name into two long, operatic syllables. And John, with the blond rattail flying out behind him, would race his bike home for dinner.

In the fading red house facing ours lived two little girls, younger than I, whose father owned Southside Mini-mart down the alley. I envied them. They could skip over to their father's business after school and have their pick of free candy.

Two houses down, with their mother and the hard rocker step-dad they called Tony, lived Chris and Jennifer, unkempt in their oversized Def Leppard t-shirts. They smelled like dirt.

And at the end of the block was a family with three children who attended our Christian school. They had a friendly brown and white dog named Ginger, and their mother taught me how to sew Barbie skirts by hand.

But for all our quotidian interaction, we never grew close to the people around us. We knew their faces, and we knew their names. We said "hello" when we met on the street, but we never so much as shared a meal. We never really knew them.

Most of these people are gone now. I don't know where. Or why. Or how long ago. Maybe some of them are dead. And, to be honest, I have a hard time caring.

* * * * * * * *

Ours is a small college town, so the student population is in constant flux. As unsettling as that can seem, it's at least to be expected. What distresses me more is how rapidly the rest of the population turns over.

I often wonder what subtle effects our modern nomadic lifestyle has had on our society. What would our neighborhood look like if the people in it had stayed? How much different would our attitudes and expectations be if we knew we couldn't just pack up and leave every few years? And what investments would we be willing to make in our relationships with the folks next door if we expected to find them still living there in twenty years?

* * * * * * * *

Twenty years ago, those casual encounters with our neighbors cost us nothing; it likewise cost us nothing to say our casual goodbyes. Because forging friendships with our immediate neighbors requires more from us than it once did, it’s just possible that those friendships will seem more valuable in the end. But what, exactly, will it take to reach these people in the first place?

Most of us are just not home enough to regularly bump into one another. We spend too little time in our own yards. We're busy. We may have collected enough virtual "friends" to keep us from feeling the need for the kind with flesh and blood. We invert our sense of community by allowing Blogger and facebook to turn our private spaces into public spaces and iPods and cell phones to convert our public spaces into private spaces. Even when we do find ourselves forced into some kind of neighborly small talk, our fragmented culture has made common experiences next to impossible to find.

Bleak as it sounds, the only sure-fire way of making contact and forming relationships with these disparate individuals seems to be disaster of some sort. A massive windstorm this fall knocked out power and downed several trees around us, damaging a number of nearby homes and vehicles. Destructive, yes, but also an easy and natural topic for conversation. It provided an opportunity to finally meet some of the people on our block. I even had a chat with a man on the corner who had the top half of a giant pine tree resting comfortably on the roof of his camper. Before that day, I had never so much as seen his face.

My husband does a much better job of making friends with the neighbors than I do, but even so, it hasn't been easy. Sharing food has been somewhat successful—excess garden produce in summer, hot cross buns at Easter, homemade cookies at Christmas. A couple of neighbors have even accepted our invitations to dinner, but we have a long way to go before we could say we know them. When we tried to share a plate of treats with one man across the street, all he said was, "No thanks," and shut the door in our faces. Maybe he thought we were trying to poison him.

These people could be suffering some horrific trials in their lives, and we would be blissfully unaware. And tragically unable to help them—tragically unable to love them.

We've all heard the story of the Good Samaritan. We've all gotten the message that "Love your neighbor as yourself " doesn't literally mean to love your neighbor; it just means, as the old rock song suggests, to love the one you're with. But what if loving my neighbor actually meant loving my neighbor? As in, the person next door? The one with the Buddhist prayer flags and the political bumper stickers covering his door? The middle-aged single lady who plays the cello? The young couple that leaves for work in the pre-dawn hours and comes home at lunch to walk their tiny dog? The former police officer with the gorgeous flower garden? The registered sex offender whose front door was inexplicably smashed to slivers one night? What about those neighbors? What would it mean to love them?

Unless some of them stick around, we may never find out.

* * * * * * * *

I, too, have been a nomad. I may live in my childhood home, but I've taken a long time to arrive back here. As my facebook "friend" list reflects, I have put down shallow roots in other states, in other countries, only to pull them up again and be transplanted elsewhere. But there are fibers in that soil, traces of me, that I've left behind with every move. Those transitions, however necessary, are never entirely painless.

I'd like to say that we'll stay comfortably rooted forever in this house, but that may not be up to me. And honestly, I have the same wanderlust as those around me, the same hope for something bigger, something better, something we can call our own. Our family is growing, I tell myself, and we'll need more space. I truly do want to hold some kind of principle of rootedness, to maintain a deep sense of belonging to a place, but on this point my principles and my desires work at cross purposes. I don't think we'll ever leave town. At least I hope not. But even if we stay here in this neighborhood until our dying days, I can say with almost prophetic certainty that most of my neighbors won’t.

It’s our modest hope, however, that in the meantime we will build a few friendships here that will cost more—and be worth more—than a shallow hello.


Erika said...

Lovely Hannah, you always get the wheels turning.

Brittany Martin said...

Great post, Hannah. And even when you're not in the college part of town, nobody seems to stay put for long. We worked hard to meet our neighbors in our last neighborhood--had some to dinner (and us with them), celebrated each others' birthdays and such. We prayed for them and our kids did too. It was such a blessing to work at loving our neighbors, and have really positive responses. However, we were forced out of that house because our landlords went into foreclosure and the place was sold at auction. But as soon as we moved, other neighbors left because they were also in danger of foreclosure and had to sell, so even only a few months later, the neighborhood has changed drastically! We're now in the country where we've discovered it's very difficult to meet neighbors, since everyone is so far spread apart (but at least more of them are Christians)!

Stephanie said...

I had no idea this kind of isolated feeling could happen in a small town, too. Especially in the very home you grew up in. I never felt isolated growing up 45 minutes south of you, but I haven't stopped feeling isolated since I left. Do you think becoming an adult plays a part in becoming isolated?

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