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How I Learned to Love My Literal Neighbors
Courtesy of Karen Swallow Prior

How I Learned to Love My Literal Neighbors

Sometimes it's easier to love people in the abstract.

When my husband and I were getting ready to move from Buffalo, New York, to rural Virginia, where I'd taken a job, we wanted to bring as little as possible. We held a big garage sale during our final three days in our house of seven years, the first home we'd owned. Our duplex was part of a post–World War II tract development that straddled the city line. It had become a transitional neighborhood, one of many in a depressed region of the Northeast rust belt. Fewer and fewer of the houses were occupied by owners, and the renters rotated in and out like farm crops in the country.

Both of us had been raised in the country, in fact. So living on a lot the size of a postage stamp in a sea of mass-produced buildings stacked up against each other—even the small variations in architectural details followed a pattern—had never been our style. But it was a place to rest our heads during those busy, building years of our marriage. I was teaching and working on my doctorate while my husband traveled, playing music on the regional church-coffeehouse circuit. We weren't home much.

As committed Christians, we took seriously the parable of the Good Samaritan. We understood that the people whom my husband played for, my peers at the university, the students I taught, those we met through church and volunteer activities, and the strangers we ministered to on overseas mission trips were all our neighbors.

But we were so busy loving our parabolic neighbors that we had neglected the literal ones.

Not Instant Coffee

We came face-to-face with this failure during our garage sale—which is also when we came face-to-face, for the first time, with a good number of those neighbors.

During three days of trading for pocket change pots, pans, towels, end tables, plates, and an inordinate number of flowery dresses, we learned that while we didn't know most of our neighbors, they seemed to know us. One little girl hung around at the sale for most of the last day. When her mother, whom we'd never met, came to collect her in the afternoon, she said that when her husband had asked earlier about their daughter's whereabouts, she'd said that she was spending the day with us. And she called us by name.

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Displaying 1–2 of 2 comments

Marcia Bosscher

August 07, 2013  2:40pm

Thank you, Karen! It can take time but is so worth it, this neighborliness.When my husband and I moved into a small house in Madison with two small children, our first encounters with the gruff, chain-smoking widow next door were anything but friendly. Our children, used to university housing, were oblivious to lot lines. She took them very seriously. Over the years we became, if not friendly, certainly cordial. But one summer, when we were just too busy to keep up the lawn, she took it upon herself to mow ours as well as hers, not once, but three times. I read it as judgement and begged her not to do it-how can you let a 75 year old widow mow your lawn? The first time, I brought over a six-pack of her favorite beer, the second time a loaf of homemade bread, each time begging her not to mow, promising we would get to it. The third time I ran out when I heard the mower, pleading with her that we truly would get it done. Her response? "How else do you tell neighbors you love 'em?"

Nance Wabshaw

August 07, 2013  1:42pm

Thank you for the reminder that it is up to us to create community.

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