Tag Archives: Peter Lovenheim

When “Neighborly” Doesn’t Work

photo by annethelibrarian @ flickr.com

A while ago I chatted with Peter Lovenheim, author of the non-fictional narrative In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community On an American Street One Sleepover at a Time, He sipped coffee, and I ate a cupcake. We talked a bit about neighborhoods and neighbors. I even blogged about it.

Given my solid track record in easily making new friends wherever I have lived, it never occurred to me that I might make enemies. After our family moved into a new neighborhood, one neighbor came on particularly strong. She seemed fabulous. She brought me flowers for no reason at all, bought my son special books and funny little toys. She invited me over for tea at her house; I reciprocated with coffee and dessert.

Looking back at it now, I should have seen it coming. She was like that guy you date three times and then he professes his undying love for you. It feels a little premature, but you go with it because it feels good. Passionate. But then one day — out of the blue — he goes all ape-shit on you and breaks up.

In our case, after many months of relaxed interactions, we received one venomous phone call during which my neighbor accused me of doing something (which, for the record, I didn’t do).  It’s all a misunderstanding, I assured my husband. We can totally work this out. That night I planned to clarify, to let her know there was no “situation,” that I had done nothing. I wanted to prove I was innocent. She wouldn’t even come to the door. Finally, her husband came to the driveway and assumed the international sign of a really pissed off person: arms crossed in front of his chest, legs set wide apart, a scowl on his face.

Proverbs 27:17 warns: “Visit your neighbor sparingly / Lest he have his surfeit of you and loathe you.”

I guess I should have paid better attention to Proverbs.

Suddenly, the easy-flowing conversations ended. No more chats about favorite hairstylists, discussions about favorite painters, plumbers or handymen. No more cheery hellos. For a while, I fretted daily at the injustice of it all. I couldn’t believe that Mr. and Mrs. Formerly Such Nice Neighbors could be so rigid and judgmental, even after I’d assured them I hadn’t done the thing they’d accused me of doing.  I couldn’t believe they would bear false witness against their neighbor.

As time has passed, however, my husband and I have found that silence makes a lovely neighbor. Hubby refuses to let Mr. and Mrs. Formerly Such Nice Neighbors change the way he does anything. Hubby still mows the lawn on his big ole riding mower. He plants day lilies and futzes around with the landscaping, constantly relocating perfectly good elephant hostas from one place to another. Sometimes, he still even says hello. Call me petty, but I am not interested in forging any kind of anything with these people.

As I see it, they owe me an apology.

I did learn something from The Formerly Such Nice Neighbors. I learned that while I am likable — and I am — not everyone has to like me. And believe me, there are plenty of people out there who don’t like me, of this I am sure. That being said, the world keeps spinning and the grass keeps growing. I also learned not everyone wants to be neighborly. It’s okay.

As time has passed, I’ve had a chance to focus on my true friends: who they are and the qualities they possess that I appreciate. My closest friends are steadfast, kind, communicative, funny, creative, giving and forgiving. Each of them offers me something to learn – about myself and my place in the world.

With friends like those, who has time to worry about angry folks?

Got any good/funny/awful neighbor stories to share?

Being Neighborly

photo by Our City Forest @ Flickr.com

Growing up, I knew everyone in my neighborhood. The girls across the street were my babysitters, and they let me sit in the funky purple bedroom and play with their Barbies. The older couple who lived next door to my parents had a tiny little poodle, and the Mrs Z. liked to watch me practice my gymnastics on the lawn. The neighbors on our other side were a little standoffish, but we understood this about them and still waved as they passed in their beige car. There was an older woman who nurtured a fantastic garden in her backyard. She taught me my first words in French: “J’adore les fleurs.” The people behind us had children, and my brother and I would stay out late playing kickball and running barefoot in their tall grass until it grew dark and we could no longer see the ball. I loved knowing my neighbors, and I suppose I have tried to reproduce similar kinds of connections no matter the type of community in which I found myself living.

Being a good neighbor has always been important to me. In graduate school, a cool guy named Roger lived downstairs and we regularly got together on Thursday nights to share dinner and watch Seinfeld, Friends and Melrose Place. In exchange for Roger’s many kindnesses — like his terrific banana bread and fettuccine — I tried not to wear my clogs inside my apartment because I knew if I did, well, my floor was his ceiling, so it would have been like stomping directly on his head.

Fast-forward fifteen years, and suddenly my husband and I found ourselves living in our first home: a cedar-sided, contemporary on a cul-de-sac. We didn’t know anyone, and no one seemed to want to know us. I was lonely. I couldn’t help myself; I set out to figure out who everyone was. Walking from house to house, I asked people if they would supply their names, their children’s names, and email addresses, so I could create a big ole neighborhood directory. As it turned out, nearly everyone was interested! In fact, in meeting my new neighbors, many people confessed they were embarrassed that they had lived in their homes as long as they had without knowing the people who lived on either side of them, but they always added, it seemed too much time had gone by to ask.

I was happy to be the New Girl and, at the very least, help everyone learn each other’s names. We distributed the directory digitally and used it to organize garage sales, to remind people to drive a little more slowly in the summer, to announce births and graduations, to share pertinent neighborhood information. People would thank me, and I would always tell them creating the list wasn’t a completely selfless act.

I did it because I liked, no . . .  I needed to know my neighbors.

Not too long ago, I sat down for cupcakes and coffee with Peter Lovenheim, the parent of a former student of mine. Peter is the author of the book In the Neighborhood: The Search for Community On an American Street One Sleepover at a Time, a non-fiction narrative which chronicles a murder-suicide that rocked his neighborhood in 2000. He wondered how such a thing could happen in the neighborhood in which he lived: the same neighborhood in which he had grown up.

In his book, Lovenheim sets out on a mission to meet his neighbors, to try to make sense of what happened on the night the tragedy occurred. In the process, he meets families and pets and witnesses daily routines, asks what it is that makes a place a home, and a street more than merely an address. In reaching out, he finds others also searching for connection and longing for what used to be and, in doing so, he inadvertently becomes a “connector,” bringing people together to help each other. Lovenheim writes:

In the Hebrew Bible, the word most often translated as “neighbor” rea can mean variously: friend, tribesman, fellow Israelite – pretty much anyone not a close relative or foreigner. “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18), therefore, is a broad injunction to treat kindly most of the people we encounter daily. But rea also has the narrower meaning of a person living nearby: “A close neighbor is better than a distant brother,” advises Proverbs 27:10.

In this age of texting and Skyping, email and Facebook, we have what I call the illusion of connection, but I believe many people crave deeper connections with each other. More neighborly connections. Quiet moments when people who may not share any kind of common past can share a street, can know each other enough to agree to take in each other’s mail, to water each other’s flowers, to feed each other’s pets, maybe watch each other’s children, share each other’s joys and — if it feels right — extend themselves during times of sorrow. In the very least, they can wave hello.

These days, my husband and I (along with our 11-year-old son) live in a different neighborhood. And with the exception of a few folks, I recognize nearly everyone in my neighborhood. Okay, so maybe I don’t have to sleepover at everyone’s house, the way Peter Lovenheim did, but it’s nice to be neighborly. I love that my son knows the neighborhood kids. In warm weather, they jump on trampolines, squirt each other with water guns, and play with LEGOs in people’s basements. In the winter, they sled together, slim slices of color against the white snowy field. With the help of neighborhood email, annual Halloween parades are arranged and concerns about suspicious vehicles are passed along. A Book Club was born, and a piano was last seen being rolled across the street from one house to another.

I have found that when you get down to brass tacks, many people don’t know their neighbors. Not really. When you ask people if they know their neighbors, many say, “Sure.” But if you probe deeper, you find that most people don’t know who lives in which house, what people do, the last names of their immediate neighbors. People living next door to each other don’t know each other — at all. Folks drive in: garage doors go up, garage doors go down. I’m not saying this is an inherently horrible thing. I’m just asking people to think about the scenario that happened in Brighton, NY in 2000.

Could you borrow a cup of sugar from someone right now? Would it feel weird to even ask? Do you have someone in your immediate vicinity whom you could go to if you felt unsafe? Because in an emergency, having to drive ten minutes to a friends’ house is sometimes too far.

In this New Millenium, where there is so much media hype telling us to be afraid, knowing one’s neighbors can offer a lot of solace.

Peter Lovenheim is on tour speaking in various venues about his book. If you are lucky, you will catch him!

Do you know your neighbors? A little? A lot? How important are your neighbors in your life?

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