Who Are We to Our Neighbors Now?

With social distancing so crucial to our survival, how will we help each other when help requires presence?

Photo by Tina Lear

We need each other.

We’re going to find out how much as the days go tumbling by. But as more and more restrictions are placed on our movements (either by outside forces or by common sense), how are we going to help each other? Fear has paralyzed not only our movements but our minds as well.

Last night, I started thinking about the block I live on. We live in the suburbs, in an upper middle class neighborhood right down the street from an elementary school and a high school. It still has a wonderful small town feel. For instance, the Raindew Pharmacy, a five-minute walk away, is one of those iconic places that always has what I need. And no matter how weird it is (once I needed a certain kind of stitch holder for a knitting project), they have it.

Anyway, it’s a neighborhood I love. But we’ve lived here seventeen years and we still don’t really know our neighbors. Here’s the sum of what I know:

  • Across the street, our super close friends who have a 13-year-old daughter that we consider to be part ours. Aside from that, it goes like this:
  • To our left, the very nice airline pilot (from Puerto Rico), his wife (from Ecuador) and teenage son. We say hello, and have very brief conversations maybe once every ten days.
  • Next to him, the family with the Trump bumper sticker on their car. Man and woman and two adorable children, quite young — one in a stroller. They’re nice enough, I guess, but we don’t really interact.
  • Beyond them, the house on the corner. A very elderly Italian woman who doesn’t speak English lives there. She never comes out.
  • Around the corner, next to the Italian lady, is a huge house belonging to I don’t know who. I’ve only ever seen him once, in the driveway, collecting his morning paper.
  • Around the corner again, the house where the electrician and his family used to live. It was a nice family, little kids — but they’ve since moved away. I don’t know who lives there now.
  • Keep walking and you come to the extremely strict Christian Korean family. Dad always looks serious, Mom looks nice, and the three teenage kids look like they’re living in a gulag. But seriously. As in, should we call social services? What is going on in that house?÷
  • Next door to them is a Long Island guy and his Equadorian wife and family. He’s just a kind of okay dufus. One of those guys who loves to shoot off the fireworks that are all BOOM and no beauty. I’ve never gotten the appeal. They have two children, one of whom is a little bodhisattva, a girl with a very deep loving spirit that stays with you long after you’ve met her. They also have a cat who’s just spooky cool. The cat is the unofficial mayor of the block.
  • One house beyond them, it’s the woman who had a deaf dog that responded to sign language, and her Asian husband who always bikes to work, and their daughter who’s going to school in France I think.
  • Then it’s the elderly couple with the wrong dog. The man is extremely nice, his wife is nice too but doesn’t read social cues very well and doesn’t know when the conversation has ended. They are in their seventies and their border collie should have landed in the home of a twenty-year-old triathlete.
  • Around the corner again you will find the house that’s been under construction for years, and someone finally moved in but I don’t know their name or anything about them. The lights at their front door are too bright.
  • Then it’s the retired fire department guy whose wife works at the elementary school in the administration. She’s had a stroke so it’s hard to understand her, but she’s very nice. He is too, in his All-Fire-Department, All-The-Time way.
  • Now we’re back on my street, and someone new moved into the house next to the fire department guy. I’ve only seen the women, who look either East Indian or Middle Eastern. One older, one younger.
  • Then the house with the kids Mahmoud and _____ (sounded like an Arabic pronunciation of “Joel” but I’m not sure). Definitely Middle Eastern, but I don’t remember the parents’ names. We’d just gotten a new puppy, so the boys loved coming around to pet her. For a while. Then school started.
  • Now the Italian family, three elders. A man, his sister, and maybe a cousin? He’s too old to drive. But he still drives. Always plants a beautiful climbing vine on his porch in the spring.
  • And then the house on the other side of us. For years, a very strange older couple lived there. Chain smokers who never answered their door. The only interaction I ever had was with the woman, who was incensed that those people lived across the street (our best friends who are from Guyana). She was sure something fishy was going on in that house. She raised Persian cats. Once, a couple years before their moved, we saw a crane at the side of their house, and a guy in full hazmat gear being lifted up so he could get through the window. Their house smelled so bad through the closed front door.
  • Anyway they moved, and last summer another South American family moved in. Young people, look to be in their thirties, with a couple kids. Industrious and, for now, mysterious. They’re not in a hurry to make friends, but I think there’s potential there. The work they must have had to do on the inside of that house — it scares me to think of it.

That’s everything I know about my neighbors. Except for our friends across the street, I know nothing of their struggles, their preferences their joys, their lives. Just the most cursory judgments, the kind we tend to make all day long.

It wouldn’t really bother me that much, except for now, I think about them differently. What if one of them needed help, the kind that can’t be given digitally? I don’t even know what could come up, but I bet there are some instances where the only answer is to call someone very close by and ask for physical help. When that time comes, we’re going to have to know each other’s phone numbers. Each other’s names. We’re going to have to understand what we ourselves have to offer in case of need.

But none of us have that information. And asking for it from them feels like an invasion of privacy. And only giving them mine feels too vulnerable.

That said, last Sunday I was walking our dog around the block, and the guy who lives in what used to be the electrician’s house was getting into his car, headed for church. I’d never seen him before. He stopped and looked at me directly with such a kind face and said, “How are you doing in this crazy world?” I was moved. I said, “Well, I’m just trying to put one foot in front of the other, I guess. Keep ’em on the ground, mostly.” And then we laughed about how nine months from now there will probably be a baby boom.

It was a tiny exchange, but there was a quality of heart that I’ve been noticing more and more as we walk through our neighborhood, talking to people who’ve been here for years, invisible, each orbiting our own separate worlds. Now, we are all in this world. Visible, and together in a visceral way. Hearts are opening everywhere.

I’m feeling my way into how to move forward through this pandemic, and these are the things I think about.

As always, it’s important to make time for listening to your own heart. I wrote a piece (before Covid19) called “What to Do With Overwhelm When the World Is Burning Down” that’s still valid. Maybe even more so now.

In closing, let me just remind you to keep your feet pressed consciously into the ground. Lengthen your spine. Soften the back of your neck. And spend a moment asking yourself what you might be able to do for a neighbor.
Let your heart open to the answer.

And take each minute, one at a time, remembering to make a space for listening to the person in front of you.

Make a space for doing that with love, compassion and wisdom.

Tina Lear is a writer, composer/lyricist, yoga teacher, and mother of three really interesting humans. She founded the Long Island Dharmata Sangha and is currently navigating the liminal world between her past and her future. Doing her best to be in the present. She lives in Floral Park with her beloved wife and their big little dog, Ruby.

Writer. Yoga teacher. Musician. Buddhist. Quilter. Animal lover. Visible grownup. Hidden child. Secret dancer when all alone. Makes good bread.

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