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How I Learned to Love My Literal Neighbors
Image: 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.

Based on the area's demographics, most of our neighbors were not likely Christians. But we were. And to our shame, it had been they who showed us what it meant to be a neighbor.

When we pulled out of our driveway for the last time on a Sunday morning, we vowed that we would not make the same mistake in our new home.

Two days later, we arrived at a forlorn old house set atop a winding road leading out of our new town—population about 2,200. We gave ourselves just enough time to unload the truck and unpack a few boxes before we drove a half hour to the city and bought a grill at Sears. We didn't even have a kitchen stove. We set up the grill, picked a date, and hand-delivered invitations to the handful of homes closest to us.

Only about half of the neighbors we invited came to our cookout. The other half didn't respond. Apparently, neighborliness isn't instant coffee.

But it was a start. More than anything, it reaffirmed for us the commitment we had made to "dwell in the land" (Psalm 37:3) where the Lord had brought us.

While we had sold most of our material goods in the garage sale, we brought my Arabian horse with us. Hidden down a brush-filled path behind our old brick farmhouse was an ancient, roomy barn we redeemed. We built some stalls and put up a fence, even before unpacking most of our boxes. One of the families that came to the cookout had a young daughter who loved horses. It didn't take long for us to bond. When the family decided to buy their first horse and told us their plans to build a new barn behind their house, we urged them instead to keep their horse in ours. So they did. Now, a dozen years and a few more horses later, they still do. We share the barn, share the chores, and—following their purchase of the field adjacent to ours—we share the pastureland, too. No money is exchanged, just space, time, a love of horses—and neighborliness.

Kindness and Kin

It hasn't always been so seamless. The rural South can be a hard place for outsiders to break into, especially outsiders from the North.

After we'd been here a year or two, I saw a farmer haying the field next to ours. I stopped him on his way out, hoping to buy some bales from him. After I waved him down, he stopped his truck and rolled down his window.

"Excuse me, sir," I said. "Are you interested in selling any of that hay?"

He narrowed his eyes a bit and peered at me. "Ah yew that Yankee guhl?" he asked.

It was a small test. But it would have been an easy one to fail. Instead, I chose not to take offense. "Yes, sir, I am. And I'm looking for some hay."

He looked at me for a few seconds. "Alright, then," he said. Then he gave me his phone number.

There were other awkward neighbor moments birthed by the Mason–Dixon divide. One time I knocked on the door of our neighbor across the street to bring over a piece of misdelivered mail. She thanked me and said, "Why don't you come on in?" I hadn't planned to come on in. I didn't want to come on in. But I wanted to be a good neighbor, so I did. We just stood there for a few moments. Finally, she asked if I wanted to look at their Christmas tree. That seemed better than standing around, so I did, and then made my exit as quickly as possible.

It wasn't until another neighbor asked me to "come on in" while I had a lunging dog on a leash and she had a yapping dog on the other side of a flimsy screen door that I realized what was going on. When people in the South ask you to come in, they aren't really asking you to come in. They are being polite. Kind of like asking, "How are you?" when you don't really care to know. In the North, we don't even bother with being polite, hence my confusion.

Of course, some of our neighbors have invited us over and have really meant it. And vice-versa. Graduation parties. Birthday celebrations. Retirement dinners. Exchanges of chainsaws, snowplows, generators, firewood, and extra hands after storms. Offerings of eggs, manure, tomatoes, gardening tips, and plant cuttings in season. Get-well wishes and condolences.

My husband and I aren't the most sociable people. Neighborliness does not come naturally to us. We are still busy people and prefer our home to be a place of retreat rather than hospitality. But by no means do I intend to paint the virtue of neighborliness as the pursuit of a great, sacrificial calling. To the contrary, it's so simple and obvious a thing that it can be easily overlooked and undervalued—as we did for so long. After all, it's easier to love people in the abstract than up close, or for a short term rather than day in and day out—through the barking dogs and roaming cats, the abandoned vehicles and the loose horses, the campaign signs for the other party, the noisy construction projects, and the heavy smell of chicken manure on freshly fertilized fields.

The words kindness and kin are etymologically related. And it makes sense: We have found that in both offering and receiving small acts of kindness, our neighbors have become more like kin.

Like the time our neighbor told her father, a hospital chaplain, that my husband was on his way to the emergency room by ambulance after an accident—and he was there to meet us when we arrived. Or when the same neighbor went into labor during a power outage following a huge storm, and I stayed with the older children while she and her husband went to the hospital.

A year or so after we moved to Virginia, a young couple bought the acreage next to us. We were disappointed. We'd been hoping to buy it as soon as we had some extra money. We noticed that when the new owners marked out the plot for the new house they'd be building there, it was set back, out of the line of vision of ours. In the country, this is a great kindness. They soon put up a barn and brought horses. They bore children. We had no family of our own nearby, so they began to invite us to take part in their family meals on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and birthdays. We go to the kids' T-ball games. We tend their animals when they go away. One of the boys likes to help me do my barn chores. He uses his own manure fork, which he requested for Christmas, to help me muck stalls. He likes to check for eggs in the henhouse and proudly carries home the ones he finds. His mother says he gets upset if anyone else eats "his" eggs. Sometimes, she says, he waits out on the back deck of their house, watching for me to come out to the barn to do the evening chores. When he sees me, he hollers for me by name. And I respond in kind.

Because sometimes our neighbor really is our neighbor.

Karen Swallow Prior is professor of English at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, and author most recently of Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me (T.S. Poetry).

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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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