Neighbors, neighborliness, conflict, and listening

As I spent a bit of this evening bent over a kitchen drain that wouldn’t do what it’s intended to, which is drain, and as several attempts at unclogging said drain took time, I took to reflecting a bit.  In the past, I may have moved on to the next thing I desired to do or was curious about, hopping to the “next important thing,” but I’ve been learning to take the moments where things aren’t working as planned, where the universe is not cooperating with my agenda, to instead take a moment…

…and listen.

I try to listen for God, yes, and I do believe I hear God’s whispers in these times of listening.
But I most often hear me.
The inner me that’s trying to stay alive as I swamp myself with all the things “outer me” must attend to.
“Outer me” keeps a restaurant client from giving me the thousand-yard-stare when they asked for “More strawberry jam, please” more than a minute ago.  “Outer me” keeps me from running into my bicycle into the back of that Camaro on the south side of Reading that is so hard to make out in deepening dusk on the commute home.
In short, outer me is that necessary part that kept one alive several thousand years ago, on the watch for predators; that sense that even today helps Darfurians detect the hoofbeats of Janjaweed from several miles away.

But I generally am not on the verge of being attacked by a vicious attacker, and though I need that sense of outer awareness a bit more when I’m on the bike, if I always hop from thing to thing to thing to thing to thing that seems appropriate at the time, I starve “inner me” into a shadow of what I am intended to be.  I know this to be true because as others called me to slow down and listen, I found “inner me” to be naked, emaciated, and huddled in the corner; unable to do anything more that be acknowledged for awhile, before strengthening enough to speak. Culturally, we collectively have gotten good at starving this “inner me,” and it is fine poets, musicians, and conversations that draw us into our need for this essential component of who we are…if we’ve made the choice to slow down and listen to them.

So, I leaned on my forearms and stared at the brackish water for a bit.

Then, *crack* *BOOM!!!* fireworks went off down the street as they often do.  For some reason our neighbors who tend to spend their time lolling around the neighborhood during the day, stopping periodically to walk half a block to the corner and peer down Carter Ave, looking for some unspecified thing, then turning around for more front stoop sitting…for some reason these same persons awaken with energy to keep the neighborhood awake with periodic mortar rounds. And God knows where they get the funds for those fireworks.

I don’t know what to do about this.  I’m starting to get to know these folks.  Names aren’t easy yet, but they’re recalled better over a little conversation.  We talk about this and that; nothing too essential to either of us.  But we’re talking, and I’m trying.  In some ways we’re at a sensitive enough place in our relationship where if I came bursting out of the apartment like a bat out of hell and yelled some random angry phrase in their faces about disrespect, sleep, and life, I could destroy what little foundation I’ve built.  But maybe not.  I’ve chosen to stay inside tonight.  Maybe they’ll stop, and maybe not.  Either way, Wendell Berry begins to speak beyond my frustration. He speaks softly at first, then more authoritatively and confidently when I pay more attention, and the brackish water gets out of focus as I turn inward further.

“When a community loses its memory, its members no longer know one another.  How can they know one another if they have forgotten or have never learned one another’s stories?  If they do not know one another’s stories, how can they know whether or not to trust one another?  People who do not trust one another do not help one another, and moreover they fear one another.”  (Berry, “The Work of Local Culture” WAPF? 157)

In my desire to know my neighbors, I have tried to frame Berry’s bracing words in a more positive, action-generating way:

“When a community gains and holds its memory, its members know one another.  They know one another because they’ve learned and hold one another’s stories.  Because they know one another’s stories, they know that they can  trust one another.  People who trust one another help one another, and moreover they love one another.”

So, tonight, I will accept the lesson of the sink to slow down, remember, and be reminded of my responsibility to participate in building the kind of community where we know one another; share, re-share, and are reminded of our common stories; where we seek to trust; help; and love one another.

May it be so.


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