Good Neighbors

“Harriet’s moving,” Loren, my husband announced, walking through the front door.

“Where to?” I asked.

“Minnesota. One of her best friends lives there and talked her into it. She wants to get her masters in nutritional science. The house goes on the market next week.”

I felt stunned. Would Harriet be moving if we’d been better neighbors? Her husband had died unexpectedly in his 40s two years earlier. Loren and I had made the typical gestures immediately following Henry’s death. Since then, Loren had helped Harriet get Henry’s motorcycle up and running. I had said “hi” and initiated conversation when we bumped into each other, but otherwise ignored her ongoing grief. We failed to check back to see how she was doing in the months following Henry’s death.

How might things have gone differently for Harriet if several neighbors had gathered around her, being intentional to invite her into our homes and include her in our networks of social activities? I could have invited her to “stitch and bitch” on Thursday nights. Minnesota is a long way to go for a friend.

I read an article in the newspaper this morning about two young men at a well-known university who have been asked to appear on “Oprah” and “Good Morning America.” What did they do to garner such attention?  In the wake of all the dire economic news, these two men set time aside every Wednesday to extend free compliments to anyone passing them on the college quad. They recognized their fellow students, faculty and staff as neighbors worthy of their kindness. How radical!

How much time and effort would it take to get to know our neighbors on more than a superficial level? The spiritual consequences of not knowing our neighbors are significant. We grow isolated and depressed. Then we drive across town to meet with a therapist and get antidepressants for what might be cured by a heart-to-heart, over a cup of coffee and upside-down pear cake with our neighbor across the street.

In my old neighborhood, it was easier. Our houses were close together and the street so narrow that we could sit on our porch swings and talk to one another. On Halloween night, we sat outdoors greeting each child by name. My best friend lived up the block. I called her to stay with my 7-year-old so we could rush the 3-year-old to the hospital for a breathing treatment.

In my new neighborhood, we’re friendly toward one another, but know few details of one another’s lives. Like the global market, we “outsource” our friendships. In the process, we lose opportunities to share, to depend, to function as viable community.

The recent effects of Hurricane Ike and the ice storm that struck Kentucky changed our isolationist habits, at least temporarily. In September, Jason and Leah offered neighbors an ice cold beer chilled with the aid of a generator. Neighbors gathered on their porch and told stories well into the night.  During the January power outage, George went door-to-door delivering firewood. I charged my cell phone at Joanne’s house while being served coffee and homemade oatmeal cookies. When the power came back on, we shut ourselves in our homes again and wouldn’t hear from each other till spring.

What if the economic downturn pushed us to work together with neighbors for our common good: building community gardens; sharing appliances and garden tools; coordinating childcare and recreation; organizing neighborhood potlucks and talent shows; carpooling for trips to the grocery store and post office?

It’s not that I think those who live close to me are more important than those across town. But if I fail to see my next-door-neighbor as a person worthy of my interest, how likely am I to see the pharmacy clerk, bank teller, Disabled American Veterans donation-pickup driver or librarian as real people, worthy of my respect and friendly greetings?

This is how I want the future to look:

I’ll borrow an egg from my neighbor. He’ll borrow a rake. She’ll tell me the story of her mother’s dementia, how she had to put her in a nursing home. I’ll tell her my mother wrecked the car. He’ll walk across the street to talk to Loren while he’s changing the oil. She’ll call to tell us her husband had a stroke. We’ll look after their dogs and visit them in the hospital.  They’ll hold our first grandchild in their arms.

Assistant Editor Leslie Smith Townsend is a pastoral counselor in private practice.  A composite excerpt of her memoir Body Beautiful appears in the anthology Voices of Alcoholism (The Healing Project. 2008).

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