Katherine Roberts is a folklorist and a writer. She lives in the North Carolina Piedmont, where she enjoys being outdoors, spending time with her two children, and building community. She attends Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship.
“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” (Mathew 22: 37 – 39).
We hear “neighbor” used metaphorically in the church to mean all humanity. And surely Jesus would have us love everyone on the planet. But can we? We can be kind. We can be generous, compassionate and caring. But to love is to know. And we can only know so many people. Why not start with those in our midst, the ones we do not get to choose?
“Are neighbors far away?” my son asked, studiously buttering his bagel. “That song at Sunday school says neighbors are far away.”
Our children have been learning the song, “Jesu, Jesu Fill Us with Your Love.” It includes the paradoxical line: “Neighbors are nearby and far away.”
“No,” I said. “They’re nearby.”
The day my son turned five this July, we gathered several neighbors around our dining room table after dinner and sang happy birthday to him. He, his sister and the two kids from down the street made short work of their cupcakes and scurried outside to play in the lengthening shadows. The rest of us lingered at the table to visit: three forty-somethings and three octogenarians, chit-chatting.
At the end of the evening, my children and I walked our remaining guests home. Usually so still and quiet, our suburban street came to life with the children’s laughter and darting bodies and the low, gentle voices of three elderly women walking abreast. It was a community moment, the kind I have been nurturing for almost a decade.
When I took a faculty job in our small North Carolina town, my husband and I thought we’d be living someplace close to campus. I fancied one of the older southern bungalows in town, where I could sit on the porch and watch pedestrians, cyclists and cars hum by. We soon realized those places were open only to the very wealthy. We bought the house we could afford in a post-war suburban neighborhood just outside the town limits. Its small, brick ranch houses and empty, winding streets didn’t match my image of where I wanted to be.
But I decided if we were going to live here, I wanted to know who was behind the doors of those ranch houses. Shortly after we moved in I made invitations to an open house at our place and slipped them in all the mailboxes in our vicinity. I baked a load of pies and cookies, and the day of the event I perked a tank of coffee and waited by the living room window to see what would happen. I had no idea if anyone would stir from those quiet houses.
Slowly, a few people began to walk up our driveway and they continued to trickle in for three hours. Three elderly women from just down the street; a handful of young mothers and their preschoolers; another professor; a contractor; a church secretary; a landscaper; a realtor; an unemployed single mother of a teenager. The house filled with lots of different people, some of whom had never met each other.
Eight years later, we are still here and in relationship with many of the people who came to our open house that day.
Staying put has been hard for me. I grow antsy and impatient. Our neighborhood often feels like a tomb. People stay indoors too much. I am bored with the empty streets and yards. I periodically check the real estate listings, looking for a house in a neighborhood closer to town, one with more children and sidewalks and people walking to and fro. But I always find a reason for us not to leave the place where we live.
Oh, I don’t mean that they are easy or are just like me and we hit it off all the time or at all. At times we cross boundaries, offend with our politics, and confound each other with our interests. I mean I have come to love them through time and repeated encounters. And I feel like they love me and my family back. We have developed place-based relationships, ones predicated on being available and visible.
Recently I slipped out after supper to take the dog for a walk. It was my first moment alone all day. I was mapping out in my head the long route I’d take when I saw a neighbor cresting the hill in front of me. He was walking his dog, too, and waved when he saw me. For a moment, I considered waving and scurrying onto an adjacent road.
Instead, I let my plan for a long, brisk, solitary walk evaporate. I waved and dialed back my pace down to a stroll.
“Did you recover from your camping trip?” he asked, giving me a side-long embrace.
I smiled sheepishly and rolled my eyes. The last time he’d seen me I was in our driveway, pulling sleeping bags and tents from the back of the car. Exhausted and over-extended from a weekend of family camping, I wanted nothing more than to be alone. I had mumbled a brief greeting when he and his young grandson walked up the drive, asked that the kids play outside and then disappeared into the house.
They had lingered in the yard and on the porch with my husband and our children in the sweltering heat while I buzzed around inside, washing clothes and putting things away in splendid, air-conditioned solitude. I was rude that day, and I was feeling self-conscious about it.
“We camped but once when the kids were little,” he said as we started our leisurely walk together. “It was at the beach. They got eaten alive by mosquitoes and one of them got bitten by a squirrel.”
“I lost it at some point and stormed off down the beach,” he said, shaking his head. “I must have walked for three hours.”
As we circled around toward his house, he asked if I wanted a paw-paw.
In a shady corner of his yard he showed me the little patch of trees he’d planted a couple of years ago. There, hanging from spindly branches, were several plum-sized, yellow fruits.
“It’s the first year they’ve produced,” he said, pulling a paw- paw loose and dropping it in my hand.
After supper the following night, my family and I shared the paw-paw for dessert. We each got one small spoonful.
To promote constructive dialogue, the editors of The Mennonite moderate all comments and comments don’t appear until approved. Anonymous comments are not accepted. Writers must sign posts or log into Disqus with their first and last name. Read our full comment policy.