Love Thy Neighborhood

Hello, hello/I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello.

— the Beatles, “Hello, Goodbye”

Yesterday Jodi spoke with our neighbors across the street, a friendly couple a bit younger than us, with two small children and a dog, and personalities that draw you in and make you want to smile and visit.

They are moving to Alexandria.

As they talked, the husband and father said something telling: “I’ve talked more to my neighbors since we sold our house than in the previous X years.”

This was not a reflection solely on the rest of us: several homes are for sale or have sold in recent years, and he admitted that he, too, spoke more to the outgoing neighbors than those who appeared to be staying.

When Jodi and I moved into this neighborhood, it appeared we were among the first of the “new generation” of home owners, meaning most of the families seemed to have been here since the 1980s or 1990s. Their children were teens or older, so we didn’t necessarily connect on the level of family—but we didn’t connect on many other levels, either. We attended a neighborhood cookout early on, and met our first local babysitter (Rest in peace and pray for us, Joey!), but that was about it.

We used to joke that maybe this was “Minnesota Nice”: meeting at the mailbox or the curb, or talking across fences; shoveling a sidewalk or snow-blowing a driveway, or waving in passing; but never hanging out in backyards or kitchens. Everyone was nice enough. Everyone was a “good neighbor.” But few of us seemed to be friends.

Yesterday it occurred to me, as I listened to our neighbors and their extended family talking and laughing as they loaded their belongings to leave, that this isn’t Minnesota Nice. At best, it’s a Midwestern thing, and at worst, it’s on us.

When we first married, we lived for six months in Canton, S.D., in the second story of an old house down the street from the courthouse. An older woman and her chihuahua lived downstairs in the house; the dog’s name was Angel, but we can’t remember the woman’s. We lived there through one of the worst winters in a generation, and the neighbors across the street were kind to us on multiple occasions, helping us move snow and get going in the mornings. We brought cookies to their door the day before we moved to Michigan, to belatedly thank them and let them know we were leaving. I’m not sure we ever knew their names.

In Michigan, we lived with my sister, then my folks, before finding a house of our own. On one side lived a gal who went to high school with me, her husband, and mother-in-law—we got to know them a bit, because I already knew her. On the other side was a Habitat for Humanity house in which assorted people lived, but it was hard to say whether they were a family, whether they had a livelihood, or what went on there except when things got noisy at odd hours. Across the street was a lovely little yellow house, well-tended—my impression was that an older person or couple lived there. I don’t remember ever seeing them.

Obviously our other two neighbors in Michigan didn’t reach out to us, but did we ever reach out to them? As neighbors—as self-proclaimed Catholic Christians—did we extend a hand to the couple across the street to see if they needed anything? Did we step into the messy lives of the people down the street to try to listen, love, or help?

We didn’t.

And what about here? Have we invited our neighbors to our home? A couple of them, a couple times. In 14 years. We sometimes see people we don’t recognize passing through and eye them suspiciously.

Do they belong here? How would we know?

Yesterday it dawned on me: we have good neighbors, and we are always saying, “We should get to know them better.” But we never do. We think we will, then one day they sell their house, and we rush over to say hello, goodbye.

The cluster of neighbors to the south of us get together regularly to hang out and let their children play together. We have begun to stop by briefly on our family walks to visit with them—and we’ve moved our patio furniture to the front yard. These are baby steps, building on their efforts toward becoming a neighborhood of neighbors.

One day this past summer, I watched the little boy across the street practicing hockey with his dad in the driveway. He’s knee-high, and yet has perfected the leg kick that goes with a wicked slap shot. They were using a ball instead of a puck. I thought a moment, and recalled that we had a lightweight plastic puck for kids to practice with, as well as a pair of small hockey gloves we inherited at some point during the past several years.

I dug them out and brought them over. “I know we don’t know each other well, but we don’t have any hockey players,” I said. “Could you use these?”

The little guy lit up. The gloves were several sizes too big, but he put them on and sent the little orange puck skittering across the driveway.

It wasn’t difficult. It just required me to seize the moment, not put it off until later.

Today’s second reading at Mass was from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, Chapter 13, Verses 8-10:

Brothers and sisters:
Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another;
for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.
The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery;
you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet, ”
and whatever other commandment there may be,
are summed up in this saying, namely,
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Love does no evil to the neighbor;
hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.

Love fulfills the law of God: willing the good of another despite the cost to yourself.  St. Teresa of Calcutta—Mother Teresa—advised, “Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”

What are we waiting for?


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