This summer, my book group read The Art of Neighboring, by Dave Runyon and Jay Pathak, a short book that teaches the importance of being a good neighbor. The book’s premise is that if we knew more about the people around us, we would likely have fewer misunderstandings and more enjoyable relationships in our neighborhoods. A poignant analogy made by one of the authors was the scenario wherein someone called a tow company about a broken down car in his neighbor’s front yard. The caller had simply had enough of the old car being parked on the street for so long. There were also knee-high weeds growing in the front yard, which clearly indicated that the residents just didn’t care. When the tow company came out to remove the car, someone shared with the caller that the two inhabitants at that home were an elderly woman dying of cancer and her adult daughter, who was the sole caregiver for her. Once that information came to light, several neighbors banded together to assist with yard work, provide meals and car repairs. What a difference knowing the facts and caring for others can make!
Early on, the writers ask the readers to fill out a grid representing the eight closest neighbors to them. At the end of the book, the same grid appears and the readers are supposed to be able to offer more facts that they have discovered about those same neighbors, assuming they had been transformed by the reading of the book.
I began this book in the midst of having my fifth baby, while also attempting to provide summer experiences for my school-aged children (insert: offering lots of free time outside). On the day of my book group’s last discussion about it, I came to that second grid. I felt I hadn’t done one single thing about getting to know my neighbors any better than before I had started reading it.
I pondered this situation as I drove back onto my street from running errands. Halfway up the street I slowed to watch a lady cross in front of me with her toddler in a jogging stroller. I smiled and maybe waved and continued on to my house. Suddenly, I realized I needed to affect some sort of change before my discussion group that night! I turned my car around, pulled up to this neighbor and introduced myself. Her name was AnnMarie. I asked her if she runs and told her I had just had a baby but was hoping to get back into the swing of things and she suggested we exchange phone numbers and try jogging together sometime. I was so pleased and surprised, because as I looked into her face, I realized, despite our close proximity, we had never even bumped into each other in the neighborhood. Yet here she was, willing to be as gutsy and friendly as I.
A few days later, we met up at 6am and started running the still-dark streets of our neighborhood.
We now do so with almost consistent regularity. (It’s been a bad sick season, so cut us some slack!) In doing so, we began to slowly open up our thoughts and hearts to one another. Though there are lots of differences between us that could be emphasized, it was refreshing to see how many things we could find that we had in common as well. In these early morning runs, we have discussed childrearing, the contrasts we face as I raise rather extroverted children and she one introvert. We sometimes discuss current events and politics, family dynamics, traveling, cooking, health and camping.
After a few weeks of running together and coming home to children inquisitive about my new running buddy, I invited her family over for a low-key evening so that my children and husband could put a face with her name. I think because the friendship was still so new, neither of us could anticipate how a whole official dinner together might look, so I asked her over for drinks and appetizers instead. She said “yes” and I began to prepare. I was committed to keeping things simple, but I also knew that my family would be hungry at 6pm. So, while I had some filling appetizers, and AnnMarie said she’d be bringing a dip and some wine, I decided to get my favorite ham from Costco and grill up some vegetables as well, in case our guests decided to stay.
The hour arrived, they came and saw we were rather normal and my husband assessed the same of them, so they stayed and we hung out and let the children play as we nibbled. It was an easy evening of good conversation and as I said goodbye, I couldn’t help but be grateful for the new, unexpected friendship.
Five months after our first run, my neighbor, AnnMarie, is now one of my dear friends! She is someone with whom I enjoy spending time and is also a person I am learning from and encouraged by at every encounter. I had no idea such a beautiful, fun, kind and thoughtful person was living just a handful of doors down from mine. Yet, there she was, just waiting for the asking. My children now request daily if they can go see her sweet daughter and my husband just inquired yesterday about a double date.
Often we drive or walk past the homes closest to ours and know so little about the inhabitants within. It can be easiest to create community elsewhere and ignore that which is closest to our homes.
If there’s one thing I have learned from my AnnMarie story, it’s that you never know what someone will say until you ask. In my case, I asked for a run and I got a friendship to go with it.