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Love Thy Neighbor; First, Know Them

I moved into this neighborhood 23 months ago. I am very happy here. Like many Americans, though, I have not met all my neighbors, not really (saying hey is not really a formal introduction or first conversation). Yesterday and today I did, and it has got me thinking, deeply.

It is now early June, and in April I found out that a man down the street, whom I will call Tom, would cut my grass for a very sub-reasonable price. One neighbor told him about me and I hired him, although I pay him so little that saying I hired him is incorrect. He offered to do it for me for the low price. Tom came by last night for the sixth time and was even blowing the leaves from my carport as a courtesy. And we got to talking. His adult son was helping him as well.

It turns out that his son has severe hearing loss and attended Gallaudet College in Washington, D.C., even playing baseball for them and coaching. His wife is also hearing impaired (as are two of her five siblings) and they met at Gallaudet. So we had a lot to talk about. It was very touching to see how much he loved his son, how he signed with him and was intimately involved in his life and very proud, and what a fine person his son is; he and his wife are expecting their first child very soon. My connection is that I have known many interpreters and some deaf persons over my life, and I grew up outside D.C. I now feel I know neighbors, not just people who live around the corner. Our Lord invested a great deal of meaning in “neighbor,” so we have no choice but to do the same.

Tonight was a different story. Walking my dog, I was approached by a little girl I had met before, who lives on a different street. She has a sister a year older, and I will call them Wendy and Haley (their real names are much more interesting). Wendy, the younger one, came up to me at the end of her driveway to say that Haley was bleeding because she cut herself. (Keep in mind these little girls are 6-8 years old.) There was no adult in the house; someone had stepped out for a while and was supposed to be back in five minutes. (In total this incident took 30 minutes and they still had not appeared.) Haley then came out of the house and showed me her wound. She was indeed bleeding, not profusely but needing a good bandage and care.

As the only adult around, I went in the house, washed her finger off and looked at it, and had her hold paper towel on it to stop the bleeding. I searched the disorderly house, but there was no sign of bandaids or first aid materials. Wendy had mentioned that her aunt lived around the corner, but she wasn’t sure which house. “She has a blue car and a black car.” I decided I needed to find an adult in their family, so off I went to find a house on the left side of the street with a black car and blue car.

I have to explain that I had my dog in tow through this. Butter weighs more than Wendy, but I had her hold his leash tightly while I went in the house. (When I say it was disorderly, that does not describe it; the house was also not really furnished.) Wendy managed to do that, but there was another problem: their dog. It is the stoutest, widest, heaviest, oddest-looking English bulldog I had ever seen. Do not think UGGA, you Georgia fans. This one was gray and black sort-of-brindle, and excuse me, ugly. Haley had gotten blood on him too. This dog was determined to hump me, and it had sharp nails on its front paws. So here I am, in the cluttered, jumbled house, being assaulted by an animal that could win the ugliest dog in American contest, trying to push him off me over and over, and attending to the girl’s cut.

Wendy probably could hold on to Butter because he was glued to the door I came through, either because I was in there or because the bulldog was.

“I am going to find your aunt,” I promised, with no idea how I was going to go house to house until I found her.

I need to say at this point that the little girls are African American, or at least bi-racial. Since I saw a picture of a very white middle-aged couple on the television set in the house, I will assume biracial. So that gave me an idea that if I saw another biracial or black person, maybe my problem would be solved.

I walked around the block. At the first house with a black car (it was really a very, very dark green, but I figured little girls wouldn’t be able to tell the difference), I knocked. An elderly man came to the door, rising from watching TV. He suggested I talk to the lady on the corner because she knew everyone on the block. He also didn’t know who the family member might be. Since I really didn’t want to keep knocking on doors—it reminded me of times in my life I would like to forget—I took his advice and retraced my steps to the house on the corner.

However, those folks have a large, beautiful golden retriever who resents the fact I walk Butter by its yard. Either it wears one of those shock collars to keep it in the yard or it is the most obedient dog on record, because it really wants to give Butter a talking-to for walking by its yard so freely but keeps its distance. Therefore, I really wondered how I was going to get to their door if I had to get past the retriever.

Fortunately, and this is providence, or what people today call a “God-thing”—a phrase I despise, but have used—a woman came out of the house right before the corner one where lives the lady with all the secrets of the neighborhood. Forgive me, but the young woman is biracial and had a black child with her. So I assumed and took a chance. She is actually the little girls’ godmother, and she came and helped them out and made the calls (the little girls did not know numbers or have a phone).

I don’t think Haley was injured much, but they were scared. I remember the feeling of being a child, hurting or bleeding, no family adults around, and just not knowing what to do. The bulldog was funny in retrospect, Butter behaved himself quite admirably, and I got extra walking steps in. All good. And maybe I was supposed to be there at that time.

All this is fresh and I wanted to record it, but for another reason. I live alone, other than with Butter and Nala, who are not much for conversation. I listen to a number of podcasts about writing, creativity, and the writing life. I need solitude for writing, long periods of it. I have one such period this weekend and hope to dump quite a bit of verbiage into a novel I’ve been picking at for over three years, perhaps longer. It needs at least 25,000 more words, but what it really needs is good words that end the complicated and many layered story.

Yet solitude is not what we were made for. We were made for community. Solitude, as Martin Buber said, and I’m paraphrasing, is only good in doses and because we can open the door and see people again. In listening to podcasts and reading books about the writing life, I hear and read a good bit about the virtues of solitude, reflection, failure, contemplation, and what a colleague calls interstitial time.* And I agree, fully. But only because that solitude is a luxury for me and only because I can open the door, metaphorically (usually it’s a car door because I have to drive somewhere) and see dear ones.

As a writer, I am not much a one for writing exercises or tap, tap tapping away without much purpose other than to see what comes out. Not that all writing starts with the purpose fully formed; in fact, I don’t think much of it does. I didn’t start this dual story of my encounters with my neighbors as a reflection on being physically present, being where one is needed, but that’s where it is ending. One cannot be where one is needed unless one notices, one chooses, and one acts, sometimes without debating the matter in the moment. I tell one more encounter story to that point.

Back last winter, it was in the low 30s and I left my house about 7:30 a.m. to drive to work. I drove past one of the standard ranchers a few blocks down the street and saw an elderly woman sitting in a ditch. I drove past, then stopped in front of the next house. In very split seconds I went through this thought rotation: That woman is in the ditch. I wonder why. She fell, somehow. It’s early to be out. I hope someone sees her and helps her out. You saw her, Barbara, help her out.

So I backed up, lowered the window, called to her, found out she had fallen and couldn’t get up (I curse those old Life Alert commercials for turning that into a joke). I parked in her driveway and, well, pulled her up out of the ditch, awkwardly to say the least, and walked her into her house. She wasn’t injured, just cold. I didn’t get a clear sense of how long she was out there, and she fell because she was kicking leaves in the ditch after she came out to get her mail that morning. Our mail comes rather late, sometimes well after dark in the winter. I don’t know if anyone drove past and didn’t stop. I just know I was supposed to.

On another of my blogs I wrote about a woman who stands near the Home Depot on Shugart Road and panhandles, holding an “I’m homeless” sign, and how one day I’m going to get out of my car and asked her about her story. Not to write her story but to know her story, and those are too different things. Writers have to be careful that life doesn’t become fodder for writing projects.

**The word interstitial means "between spaces", and is commonly used to denote "in-betweenness" in several different cultural contexts. Thus “interstitial time” is between the spaces of when we are having to attend to work and chores and gives us time for the mind to wander, create, speculate, be productively idle, to be freed from necessities. At least, that’s how I see it. Apparently Dr. Who fans say “Interstitial time, also referred to as interstitial space, the interstitial gap, the interstix, and interstitiality, was a theoretical zone of nullity, "the gap between now and now." Literally, outside of reality.

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