Miss L, there she is: dainty and demur, sweet and enduring, your neighbor Miss L who has lived next to you for the past twenty years. Every morning you see her shuffle out from her porch, coffee-less (because she’s a champion) but with wide awake, eager eyes for the newspaper on the bottom slant of her driveway.
You see her there everyday, from the foggy-cornered windows of your house. It would be easy to unlock the door, walk outside, and greet her; but it would be easier to stay inside.
You think to yourself: I’m sure she does all right. I’m sure she her children call her, her other neighbors commune with, the tabloids satisfy her.
Maybe not. What if not?
This trail of thought stretches far, and is very much a core human curiosity and need. We live in the loneliest neighborhoods as ever. As housing tracts crunch lots in economic wisdom, our relational bandwidth for genuine relations with our neighbors crunches exponentially. It’s sad irony.
A Holiday to Remind
Tomorrow, September 28th, is National Good Neighbor Day. They put the “Good” in there because there is a distinction: you can be a good neighbor, or you can be a bad neighbor. You might ask, “What is bad about a ‘doesn’t feel like walking outside on the frigid asphalt’ neighbor? That’s a smart neighbor–who likes warm feet!”
Don’t worry: no one is throwing stones. It’s important, though, to once in a while re-consider a fleeting thought: What does it mean to be a good neighbor?
The holiday was created in the 1790s by Becky Mattson of Lakeside, Montana, a local realtor with a heart for ‘a good neighboring.’ She noticed that neighbors–unseen families and individuals who lived cloaked beside each other–had only sidewalks and yards connecting their lives. She appealed to President Jimmy Carter, and he issued Proclamation 4601.
Carter saw a salient connection in the relationship between neighbors and that of the nations of the world: “The same bonds cement our Nation and the nations of the world.” He then called on all “the people of the United States and interested groups and organizations to observe such day with appropriate ceremonies and activities.”
From Carter to Starter
Being a good neighbor doesn’t have to entail a surprise jump house or cul-de-sac party. It can be much, much smaller; and sometimes the smallest things make the biggest impact.
Here are a few ways you can be that neighbor who changes lives one gesture at a time.
If you were to ask me one thing I strongly dislike about this generation, it’s the interaction (or lack thereof) between strangers when walking down the street. When you walk by someone, do you say ‘Hi’? Do you look down at your phone? Does the other person look at his/her phone; or at the street; or at anything other than your face?
It won’t frighten him or her. Say hi to your neighbor. In English. In Chinese. In Polish. You can’t count the amount of muscles that gather to rejoice in your lips when someone acknowledges you. Everyone needs that.
Help clean up.
Are there trash tumbleweeds rolling by your street or in front of your neighbor’s house? Did someone get tp’d (toilet paper adorned, as I say)? Did the trees in their season send volleys of leaves on your neighbor’s lawn? Clean them up.
And you don’t even have to leave a note or tell them you did it (anonymity is potent). If they see you while doing this, go to the first point and say hello.
Stop the car.
You might be in a rush: there is a sale at Ross; the boss has two strikes on you for tardiness; Eminem’s song just came on the radio and your feet want to express your joy on the pedal. But if you’re not, drive slowly and look at your neighbors as you leave your neighborhood.
Avoid the temptation to look forward and say to yourself, “She saw I wasn’t looking. She probably thought I didn’t see her. It’s no problem!” But you saw her. Wave your hand and smile. Or do an air fist-bump; I bet Miss L would fist-bump.
Extend a hand.
Perhaps one of your neighbors is the most punctual in the neighborhood: Every Saturday he mows the lawn, sweeps the driveway, walks the dog… or walks himself. There’s a garden tool with your name on it, and your neighbor’s waiting for you to retrieve it. Lend your hands!
Cook a meal.
There’s always one thing that we can do for our neighbors that doesn’t require us to leave the house much: cook. Your neighbor’s belly has never been treated to your culinary expertise, and it longs to feel the warmth of your house with your native smell and your house’s color tones that don’t at all match his. Invite him for a meal, and you won’t believe the conversation that will take place.
If it feels awkward to invite him/her to dinner, that’s okay! Anyone would rather be awkward than lonely; and food cures a thousand diseases.*
This last one kind of encompasses the rest. When we “look up,” we become aware of what is going on around us. We become aware of our neighbors, and they become aware of us.
Even if, say, you never wave, you never cook a meal, sweep up leaves, or do anything that resembles a physical “labor of love,” it is most important for you to look up. If we keep our eyes peeled on the sidewalk or on our phones, we will never know the needs of our neighbors.
There is a need next to you: it may be bigger than you can handle, or it may be for a cup of flour. Eventually, if you keep looking up, your eyes will catch your neighbors, and it will be the best thing that will ever happen to you.
Don’t have cold feet. Be a neighbor.
*This is not accurate and is in no way serious or professional medical advice.