I love being a “neighbor,” that unique sort of friendship that is defined by where I live. Neighbors are not always the people that one would seek or choose as friends, but with work, we can build community with these who share our daily life.
When I was in kindergarten my family moved into a bonafide neighborhood. You know the place: Eggs and flour are exchanged on a regular basis. Kickball, kick the can, hide and seek are played by anyone who can walk; parents really do have eyes in the back of their heads (in the form of Mrs. Remmel or Mrs. McBride). Babysitting jobs are plentiful. Babies are celebrated with meals, boxes of diapers, offers to give an extra hand. Deaths were mourned by casseroles and attending visitations. When Halloween rolls around the kids on the block get special treats from some of the neighbors. In that place we belonged, and it was not weird or uncomfortable that we knew each others business. It was a safe place and that secure community allowed us eventually to go beyond ourselves to work, school, other countries, and be celebrated not just by family but by friends. This type of community seems a bit idyllic…definitely from another place and time. A “Mister Rodgers” moment, not something to expect in this modern day.
And yet…in every place that I have lived my neighbors have been a treasured part of my life, and in many of those places that feeling was reciprocated.
As a newly-weds living just a block off of Chicago’s Devon Street, one of the most ethnically diverse streets in the city, we lived in a 3rd floor walk up filled with Russians. We were the only English speakers. Or almost. There was the lonely, crazy lady in the next building who called the cops on us because we were talking too loud…in our living room. It was kind of wild conversation as she screamed out her window to make her accusations to the officer, while we made our case from our own window, four feet away. Afterward, there were days we sat and conversed with her through the screens, living room to living room. I think, when her caseworker showed up, she felt a little sorry for us.
But this colorful neighborhood was more often nourishing than challenging. Early in the morning Andy and I might walk to the Kosher bakery a block away and get FRESH, right out of the oven bagels. Andy taught English & geometry at an Orthodox yeshiva a few blocks away; I loved seeing succot booths dotting our neighborhood in the fall. One Orthodox man with his quiver full of children, tzitzit and long coats flapping, helped push my “woody” station wagon out of the snow; another caught Andy gazing awed up from the sidewalk at the stars on a clear, cold night, and smiled, “Ah, the wonders of G-d!” Andy bought flowers on a monthly basis from a Korean woman, in her shop across from the yeshiva. We sometimes would visit the Russian fish market or used book store, whose proprietor knew Boris Pasternak. And every two months or so my sister and I would meet for lunch at Sher-A-Punjab for an Indian buffet. I loved all of the diversity and have never lived in such a place since; and in spite of all of our challenging differences, we shared space together and bumped into one another’s lives daily.
When I was pregnant with Alex and Joseph, Andy was working as one of a handful of white teachers, in an all African American school on the far south side of Chicago. So we moved to a new neighborhood, Bridgeport, and lived over Frank’s grocery. Only the grocery owner was named Omar, and five times a day I would hear him washing up and then I would hear the sound of the Call to Prayer (on tape) reminding me that my neighbor was a devout Muslim and that it was time to pray. He later delighted in our young twins (always a treat from the shop for them!), and his own son repaired our car. There was the woman over the back fence who gave me a bag of wonderful clothes for me after the boys were born. The two Chinese grad students who lived above us, quiet but so in awe of the little babies coming in and out. There was the young woman who worked at Home Depot and was at a crossroads in life. We had many conversations about faith, and even gave her a Bible because she said that she would like one. There was the Korean family that owned the laundromat across the street. They attended Alex & Joseph’s first birthday with their two daughters and we attended one of theirs. I had wonderful conversations as I sat and folded diapers, getting neighborhood history, politics–it was like a slice of what I had read in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. And there was Alice…I honestly believe there was not a thing about 31st street and our little corner of the world that she did not know. She was missing a few teeth, had been married a few times, and generally had a hard life. But I learned a lot about being a neighbor, and being present in the lives of the folks you live with, as we chatted on her front stoop. I cried when we left 31 Street. I thought that I would not find such good neighbors again.
How wrong I was! Family issues brought us back to the North Side in the Lincoln Square neighborhood. We lived in a house. There were children around, or neighbors expecting children. Although this was the place where we were most like our neighbors, we had to work at getting to know them. Perhaps because we lived in houses with our own yards we felt we could isolate ourselves from those who walked by every day. But I love neighbors. I need to be able to connect on some level with these folks. So we made a point of hanging out on our porch, our little toddlers playing with sidewalk chalk, Andy and I starting conversations as people walked home from work. We chatted daily with the neighbors just one house north of us. It was not long before I knew the names of almost every one on the block and started to introduce people who had lived on the street much longer than me to each other.
Once again God has placed us in a unique and wonderful neighborhood, full of richness, shared stories, occasional get-togethers and borrowed eggs and flour. We live in a cul de sac full of duplexes in Madison, Wisconsin. Our duplex is farthest back, and we share walls and a yard with Steve (an aging hippie carpenter), his wife Rebecca (a nurse), and Steve’s younger sister Mary (also a nurse), and 4 rat terriers. They thought that they wanted a family to live with them, “a nice quiet family.” Well, we are a homeschooling family of 7 with two cats and a lot of noise. It is CRAZY, and yet it is home. I love that our boys hang with neighbor kids from families unlike ours, creating elaborate games to play, spending hours outdoors connecting with each other. I love that we come from many walks of life, but there seems to be an unwritten pact among us that we are neighbors and that means we look out for one another.
Living in community is an intentional endeavor. It takes work to be present, and courage to risk being open and being known. We could sit back and hide, choosing not to get involved in the stories of those living near us. (We have other communities, after all!) But, even in these days of impermanent placement and frequent moves, our lives are so much richer because of our neighbors. The neighbors to the north of us, Keith & Jen and their daughter, just moved out of the city; Dulce, with her two sweet kids, has been talking of moving on for the last couple seasons. The community that we have had the past three years will change, and we grieve the loss. But here is a new opportunity to participate in the stories of others and let them participate in ours: I’m looking forward to welcoming our new neighbors.