Last week, my mom helped me give our front yard a face lift. We now have beautiful flowers in pots, a birdbath, a couple of birdfeeders, and an in-progress fairy garden.
Today a neighbor came to ask if he could fill a bucket of water from the side of our house; I said yes. A few minutes later, there was another knock on the door. He was back, standing on my front porch and gesturing toward the feeder Mom had hung a few feet away.
“A suet feeder.”
“And that,” he motioned toward the jaunty blue feeder that was hanging on the other side of my yard, “that for birds, too?”
“Huh. Well, that’s nice. That’s real nice.”
We have really great folks just next door, the kind of neighbors that everyone wants. They just get us and we get them. They’re solid and steady and are our go-to people for borrowing eggs or a cup of sugar – and for dealing with stray dogs and neighborhood drama. We’ve discussed everything from race relations to the legalization of gay marriage to our dreams for the future. We’ve prayed together for the people on our street and for our community and for each other. In other words, we seriously hit the neighbor jackpot.
Not too long ago, I made a late-night batch of chocolate chip cookies and ran a few over to them. Walking back, the streetlight shone on a few of the dealers who hang out here. I know all of their names and we share a comfortable friendliness. As I went back into the house, I felt a tiny whisper in my heart: If you only love those who love you…
I gathered up a few more cookies and walked back outside. Loving my next-door neighbors comes easily. Loving those with whom there is no easy connection is much harder, but having a conversation over something – like warm chocolate chip cookies – seems to help. I know you wouldn’t think so, but it’s easy to almost forget about our neighbors. The sights and sounds of poverty can become almost commonplace. Today I’m asking for grace and humility to see and understand and engage. Maybe I should make another batch of cookies.
You know the emoji I’m talking about.
Also known as: my face when my husband buys a candy apple for $1 from our preteen neighbor girls (“Candy apples!” I heard him say enthusiastically to the two young entrepreneurs on our front porch, “Did you make these yourselves!?” ….they did.), shuts the front door behind them, and promptly places it in the garbage.
What a guy.
*When the girls asked if I needed one, too, David told them that we would share it. They weren’t convinced: “How you gonna both eat one?”
“We can bite out of opposite sides!” he said, “Won’t that be cute?” They giggled.
Yesterday I was working from home and felt a tiny nudge to go outside. There’s a house just down from us where folks are hanging out pretty much all the time – on the porch, on old chairs pulled up around the porch, in the front seats of their cars. The socialization starts around ten each morning and goes past when I go to sleep. We always say hello to the neighbors there, but the conversations don’t go much beyond a friendly exchange as we walk past.
So I poured myself an iced coffee and carried it out to the party porch. I said hello to a few of the folks I knew, met a few of the ones I didn’t, and was sipping on my coffee and awkwardly hanging around (’embrace the awkward,’ someone told us when we moved in here) when someone asked me about the Nebraska tags on E’s car. Come to find out that he had stayed in Nebraska for four years – just a few streets over from my home there. We talked about snow and Omaha and the midwest. We shared a sense of place, a sense of home.
I think it must be a human characteristic, to talk about shared places and shared home. My Navy brother-in-law tells me that he’s found all the Georgia boys on the base and that there’s something intangible that they have. I love seeing Nebraska license plates when I’m driving through Atlanta. My sister’s boyfriend’s dad grew up on the same lake where my mom stayed summers as a kid. We love discovering shared place.
Our hope is that sharing place here will create connections that couldn’t possibly be manufactured any other way. There’s not a formula and we don’t know how to do this well. But it does seem that the first step is sharing this street and putting down my work long enough to talk about the best way to cook canned salmon and how to make gravy with cream of mushroom soup and “speech class” for six-year-old grandkids who stutter with the man who stays up the hill past the Burger King.
(I have never cooked canned salmon. But apparently it is quite a delicacy.)
In this part of town, you don’t ask someone where they live. You ask, “Where do you stay?”
We’re lucky that my sister E has decided to stay with us for a while. She writes so thoughtfully about poverty and culture as it plays out in our neighborhood: https://madetofighttofix.wordpress.com/
David and I drove back from the beach listening to this podcast from This American Life, about segregation and educational outcomes. It’s well told. It got my wheels turning in a big-picture-theoretical way; then yesterday morning I was walking the dog as the children who live in the houses around me were walking to school and it hit me…. the podcast was talking about these kids. My neighbors.
My mind is turning with a hundred questions. Big questions, the very asking of which makes me uncomfortable. Still, I’m learning that (especially in this neighborhood) the only way to live with yourself is to embrace the uncomfortable. So:
How can I be ok with the fact that the children who live on my street attend an underperforming school? How is it acceptable that these kids are getting a sub-par education when they are the ones who need the extra boost of a good education? How can I ignore the fact that the dealers who hang out on the corner and the young men who play dice till wee hours of the morning went to this school or one like it? What does the research say about revitalizing low-income neighborhood schools? What if all my teacher friends and I got jobs there? What if the higher-SES families in our neighborhoods sent their kids to this school, instead of driving them to charter schools? What would happen? Can just one school in a bad part of town change, or does it take system-wide change? What does it look like for me, as a speech-language pathologist, to truly love these neighbor kids as myself?
Kevin’s name isn’t actually Kevin. It’s Calvin. Whoops. (Just for the record, he also goes by Fly. Additionally, he has a first name. I feel rather honored and privileged that he told me what it is, because I have never, ever heard it spoken on Vine Street.)
Calvin’s birthday was a couple of weeks ago, and we got him birthday donuts. We don’t really know how best to love our neighbors; we’re playing it by ear – but donuts seemed like the right thing to do. I drove to our neighborhood Krispy Kreme, a pretty janky location, where I was told upon arrival that they were out of plain glazed. What Krispy Kreme is out of plain glazed at 8:30 am on a weekday? So Calvin got the deluxe birthday dozen – the assorted variety kind. He seemed genuinely pleased when I offered them to him and wished him a happy birthday, tucking them under his arm and ambling down the block.
He later told David that a cake would have been better, because a cake he could have eaten all himself but donuts are too easy to share. Maybe next year, Calvin.