On the very day this column is released and read by millions, three contiguous households in the heart of my block will be involved in the Big Dig project of the decade here as we bury our power lines together. Such a project by myself would seem nearly impossible, but together as a sort of communal barn raising it became more realistic and attractive.
My family has been blessed with a fantastic neighborhood. Throughout our decade here I’ve been consistently surprised to see how simple neighboring can be. Having grown up lacking role models or concerned neighbors, I tend not to take what my children experience in this neighborhood for granted.
Perhaps you desire a network of relationships on your block, but may find it difficult to get started. For me it has all derived organically from appreciating and benefitting from the gifts and talents of those in my immediate vicinity. Surely there is a rich array of talents and interests ready to be harvested near you as well.
You may ask, “What if my neighbors are jerks?” Surely you can still find something in them that will be of intense interest to you.
Perhaps the guy down the street that brews the best beer on the east side, and is happy to share, will be a good place to start. Or how about the one that owns the medieval styled apple press, the fisherman, the one that lived in a commune back in the 60’s, the biologists, gardeners, the boatbuilder, the woodworker, the kayaker, the runner, or the teacher? These are just a few examples within a stone’s throw of my house.
You have interesting people on your block too, and the fact is that they aren’t as stand-offish as you might think. We’re all simply busy. What you have working in your favor, however, is proximity. Close proximity is essential in having regular and consistent contact with any acquaintance. Since you’re all living so close together you might as well be friends right? You’ll be healthier because of it, and you’ll spend more time outdoors having casual conversations rather than being holed up like a hermit.
Engaging others in their areas of interest provides an immediate point of contact, and generally results in making you a more well rounded person. In my neighborhood it often feels like I get far more than I give. I feel less isolated than I normally would, and I’ve learned from bona fide experts. As I’ve enjoyed friendships with these neighbors, most of which would have little in common with me in an office setting, I can’t help but want to be a positive influence in return. However, it didn’t start with me wanting to be a do-gooder. Rather, I was blessed and continue to be. Without even thinking about it I live to add to the neighborhood cornucopia simply because it brings me more joy.
In the near future we’ll be opening one of those free little libraries you may have noticed springing up along sidewalks around town. Our’s is being built by our neighbor, so once again this is a communal effort that doesn’t rest on one person’s shoulders. This allows for more time to simply enjoy the process. My hope is that the giving and receiving of books will be enjoyable to passersby, a destination for walkers, and that it results in kindling a passion for reading in children and adults alike. It should be enjoyable though. If it becomes tedious drudgery I’ll simply yank it out of the ground and give it to somebody else. Neighboring doesn’t need to be a chore. Enjoy and get the most out of it.
After enduring a long bout of seemingly endless fighting and yelling in our house I’ll occasionally catch myself thinking, “What must the neighbors think?” Due to frequent and regular contact, however, I already know the answer. They realize I’m just a dad doing the best he can while encountering numerous setbacks, mistakes, and failures. All of these are common to the human experience. I needn’t worry about being judged wrongly or out-of-context. Doesn’t this sound better than “Keeping up with the Joneses?”