Wednesday, August 11, 2010


  If you live somewhere for more than a few months, you surely will meet one or more of your neighbors. There is no assurance that you will have much in common or even want to have anything to do with your neighbors, but on a very basic level these are the people you share the world with.  

  The discrete nature of our respective yards, fences, and doorways represent a small piece of private territory that we come home to every day. For many, this transit from the larger world to home and hearth, takes place in almost complete isolation from the people just over the fence, across the street, or on the balcony above.  That may be the best strategy in a society where it isn't obvious that we want or need anything from those living adjacent. No longer a tribal arrangement, our lives allow us to imagine that we create and obtain all that we need on our own. We strike out on individual pathways. Independent of others except perhaps our immediate family and those we must traffic with in order to make our way in the world.

  I'm prompted to insert the phrase here, "No man is an island" from John Donne. But even in a tribal, clan, or team situation, refuge and sanctuary from the teeming masses is a requirement for the human soul, I believe. We need space and time for reflection, unchallenged by grasping demands. From neighbors, from anyone.

  It has been said that "good fences make good neighbors." Surely because some are prone to abuse the unwritten rules of sanctuary that we want to enjoy. Either by imposing on neighbors with unwanted (even if well-meaning) attention, or by engaging in uncivil behavior that spills past the boundaries of one's own walls. Because at least at first you don't know the caliber of person living next to you, it can seem wise to avoid all engagement.

  For me, the relationship of neighbor is a non-committal one, defined slowly over time. We've made no compact, though we recognize each other's need to castle within our respective keeps. But what kind of world agrees to shutter eyes entirely to the humanity that is a stone's throw away, in favor of distant arenas for showing fellow-feeling?  Still, it seems prudent to look for lasting friendships outside of our neighborhoods. Instead, seeking friends within the pathways we carve while pursuing interests, devotions, avocations, and family obligations. Nevertheless, there are times when neighbors grow to occupy a higher status than mere neighbor. At a minimum, we hope that our neighbors have some civic sense, if only to look out for each other's security or at least to respect each other's boundaries. It is a bonus, then, when a sympathy between neighbors appears.

  I think of occasions growing up, watching my parents and their interaction with our neighbors. There often was at least one neighbor with a propensity to cause friction. In the mix may have been one neighbor who never engaged the rest, even denying eye contact. In contrast, there were the neighbors who knocked on our door and invited us to their garden for home-made strawberry ice cream. We had the elderly lady on the corner who waved her gilt hairbrush in agitation at the young kids riding bikes and scooters over her lawn. The large family on the corner, with a sweet black Labrador Retriever, whelping puppies in their basement, causing neighborhood kids to yearn for one of their very own. I remember the quirky family that dressed up in Renaissance garb, members of the Society for Creative Anachronism. I never knew exactly what that was, but lately suspect I might qualify for entry somehow.

  Today in our neighborhood, there is a moving trailer packed and ready to carry away the temporal belongings of a dear young couple and their baby. Vicariously, I'm aware of the sense of adventure and the courage to face change that they are embracing. Moving is exciting, tiring, daunting, and somehow liberating. It's a chance to cast your lot with a whole new cast of characters. Including those characters who'll be your new neighbors.

  If I'm asked to vouch for them, I'll tell the 'hood they're going to that you can't ask for better. Who wouldn't want the young man who was compelled to sit on our porch, with borrowed book and tepid cup of coffee for cover, in order to keep an eye on an escalating fracas taking place across the street. A young woman's safety seemed threatened, and this good neighbor wanted to be discreet. Yet he refused to ignore the threat as if it had nothing to do with him. His wife, a writer, grew up around here, went to school a block away. She is unafraid to declare her community obligations, and respectfully encourages us to follow our own, whatever they may be.

  Somehow I don't think the sense of community this couple has relies just on familiarity and a sense of local ownership. I know they will carry it with them into unfamiliar territory. Their baby girl stands to grow up to be a decent neighbor in her own right. And so much more.

  The neighborhood here will miss them.
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