The day we moved into our house 10 years ago, our 80-year-old next-door neighbor, feisty Kathleen Rice, baked us a cake. It was a simple yellow pound cake and Lee Anne and I never ate any of it (I tend toward the savory rather than the sweet—no offense to your memory, Kathleen), but the gesture floored us. Who in the 21st century bakes a cake for the new neighbors? It was a gift of a type that I was not used to either giving or receiving, the type of traditional gesture that is part formalized good will, part selfless act, part karmic downpayment of neighborliness. I never forgot that cake, and it remained in my mind every time I helped Kathleen bring in her groceries or shoveled out her sidewalk when it snowed. Courteous, quiet, conversational without being overly chatty, and willing to put up with the occasional outdoor dinner party that ran late and exceeded normal conversational decibel levels—Kathleen was the kind of neighbor one dreams of having when one lives in close proximity as we do here in Kingston, in our neighborhood at least.
When Kathleen moved in to a nursing home five years ago, I could have cried. Looking on the bright side, however, I thought that perhaps our new neighbors might be a young couple who Lee Anne and I might befriend, share impromptu cocktails with, be intimate enough to borrow the proverbial cup of sugar from without the drama that comes with knowing someone too well.
When Kathleen's house was turned into a rental property, I didn't think much of it. While I would have preferred homeowners living on the block, with all the smear of responsibility that implies, very few leave our parents' home and go straight into home ownership. Everybody rents a place for some period of time, short or long, and there is no moral deficiency in renting. Lee Anne and I had lived in rental properties until we were in our mid-30s.
The first couple who moved in next door were indeed young, in their early 20s, with two children. My designs on making friends with them were dashed as they unpacked the U-Haul, however. As the young patriarch of the clan struggled the furniture into the house, he did double duty by loudly berating his wife and ignoring his kids, who were full of questions about their new house. Over the course of the year they lived next door, we often heard adults shouting and children crying. I wasn't sad to see the back of them when they left.
The next renters moved in suddenly—I guess I was at work at the time—and with the implacability and size of an occupying army. Within days there was a rotating cast of people, women and children mostly, hanging around the house. The women yelling into cell phones, and at each other, and at the children. The children's boisterous cries and mewling as background accompaniment to the complex and dark adult narratives playing out on the porch, in the yard, and on the street. Friends and relations pulling up to the curb with a honk—without fail with a fucking honk; the honk celebratory, impatient, or rebuking, depending upon the situation. I have received an unwelcome education in the many uses of the car horn.
I have practiced forbearance. I have tried to mind my own business and not react to un-neighborliness. I have gone out into the street multiple times after being awakened at 2am and asked groups of loud people to disperse. I have done this calmly but firmly. I have called the police when this tactic has not worked. I have spoken with the landlord, who is polite but seems not to care. I have thought: #firstworldproblems. I have told kids to get off of my lawn. (You realize you've crossed a threshold in the aging process the first time you inform an adolescent that he is indeed on your grass and you are not having it: Welcome to cranky-panted later adulthood.)
This annoyance as carried on for three years, modulating in intensity depending on the season and the mysterious nomadic patterns of the tribe next door. Just when I think I'm down to my last nerve, the house goes quiet for weeks or months at a time, as if sensing I've reached my limit.
My neighbors were very much on my mind some weeks ago when I spoke to Will Pye for my podcast. Pye is the author of Blessed with a Brain Tumor: Realizing It's all Gift and Learning to Receive (The Love and Truth Press, 2014), which tells the story of how his near death from cancer at 30 and subsequent spiritual journey brought him to practice something he calls radical gratitude. I wanted to find a better way to cope with neighbors than gritting my teeth or calling the cops. I was hoping, in the words of David Foster Wallace, to approach a hellish situation "as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down." Perhaps that's putting too fine a point on it, but I thought Pye might be able to help.
What he told me (available verbatim via the Chronogram Conversations podcast) boils down to a simple practice: Surrender to whatever situation you find yourself in—including imminent death in Pye's case—and embrace all the possibilities of it rather than resisting it. Viewing everything that happens as a gift may simply be a less painful way of engaging with reality. All gifts, all the time. Even neighbors, I guess.
It didn't take long for me to be called to test my fledgling practice. Eating dinner one balmy Indian summer evening, listening to nocturnal insect noise through open windows, Lee Anne and I were forced to hear a protracted argument on our neighbors' porch. After 10 minutes of surrendering, I went outside and asked my neighbors to stop yelling. To which one of them replied, "YELLING?! HELL, WE AIN'T STARTED YELLING YET!"
Back inside, I reflected on the continual gifts that my neighbors bestow on me with their rudeness and incivility. It's a gift, I told myself. It's a gift. And then a revelation: If my neighbors' bad behavior is a gift, it's a pretty shitty gift. And just like that, I ruined my practice of radical gratitude. Now I'm trying to perfect a practice of radical giving. Maybe I'll bake a cake. For my neighbors.