“Love your neighbor, yet pull not down your hedge.” – George Herbert
Once I called the cops on my neighbor. He was not, as you’d expect, obviously deserving of such a measure. He does not drive me mad with his stereo, like the guy who lives below my poor old parents, whose vibrations make my mother pour salt in her coffee instead of sugar. Nor is he a drug dealer, like a woman with whom my wife Fern and I once shared a thin wall, whose office hours began an hour after we had gone to bed. On the contrary, my neighbor Bart is a hard-working man, a rancher, whose only offense was that he owns a big ugly water truck which he parked one winter ten years back across the street from me. Perhaps the truck came to symbolize some difficulties in my life at the time that had been keeping me from the longer view. Perhaps pure and simple petulance made me loathe it: it was spoiling my view. Whatever the reason, I scowled at the old beast whenever I opened or shut the drapes; I complained and apologized about it to my guests. All it took was the remark of one such guest—it’s against the law, you know, to have something like that in the city—and her advice, free of both cost and consequence, that I ought to turn Bart in, and before I’d ever so much as said hello to him (and years before I knew his name) I had summoned an officer to the scene.
The officer listened soberly as I lodged my complaint, which suddenly sounded so silly that, thinking quickly, I embellished it: “I’m worried about the fluid dripping out of the truck. What if it poisons my dogs?” He took out his notebook, asked for a few clarifications—“Tell me again what the problem is”—took a slow walk around the tanker, sniffed and even tasted the fluid, and then went over to bother Bart. I watched the exchange from the window: he assumed his sorry-to-bother-you stance, tipped his hat, stated his business. Bart scowled and peered over the officer’s shoulder towards me. The officer said something that made Bart laugh (right about then I realized the two were friends), and Bart’s response added to their merriment. After a while they shook hands—this man whom I had called to uphold my rights and the one who had wronged me—and the officer departed.
Later that day the truck was moved around the corner, and never again has it blocked my beloved view for more than a night or two. Since then, I have come to know Bart. We have paused in the street to chat about the spruce tree that I have been trying to grow in my front yard or the border collies that we both happen to own. Looming between us, however, keeping us from ever being friends, keeping me as the permanent outsider, the one not to be trusted, is the Offense, my immense indiscretion in enacting the fantasy that all of us have entertained but few have had the foolishness to pursue: summoning the police to a neighbor’s door.
Or at least I think I feel the Offense. Perhaps the event is under a decade of dross in Bart’s brain, never again to break the surface, and this haunting is my eternal punishment. At least I am not alone in the feeling. Neighborhoods are breeding grounds for paranoia, and with good reason. What we have between us—my neighbors, past and present, and I—is much more than a fence; it is a familiarity, unbidden and inescapable, with each other. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil abideth in my neighbor’s yard; it hangeth over the fence we share, drops its fruit before my feet. My side of the fence line harbors such a tree as well; my own fruit is there for them to behold and to hold. The good is that which does not damn us: the kinds of meat we barbeque, the styles of music we prefer. But the bad, oh the bad, our mutual shame: what they call each other when they feud; what extremes I can be driven to in managing my kids.
If this is all we were to each other—mere vessels to catch the overflow, mute as clay, incapable of response—elbow-to-elbow living would not be so taxing. But we do not, alas, just gape at the misshapen fruit. We turn it over in our hands, we nibble and gnaw, we even bite into it, honing our teeth. Thus, although I am no snoop, I know that Casey, the neighbor to the west, is a T.V. addict, prime candidate for a twelve-step program. “No wonder his daughters are so bug-eyed and jumpy,” I confide to Fern. As for Denise, with whom we share the east fence: Viewed from the street, she is the most capable, competent single mother you have ever seen. But the story from over the back fence is a good deal less pretty. Twice a week at least she comes unhinged, so that Fern and I have considered—not seriously, mind you, but still we have considered—calling the Child Protection Agency. “So that’s why her four kids are so shell-shocked,” we say. What’s more, I know that my neighbors are saying or at least thinking similar things about me and mine.
From this derives paranoia’s equally ugly twin, guilt. When we raise our hands in greeting to each other in the street, our smiles are often winces in disguise, our psyches shredded by a hundred little needles. We are guilty not only for our own offenses but for those of our spouses, children, visitors, pets: I wince not only with the memory of Denise’s upstairs window slamming shut as my booming beery voice crescendoed through the midnight air during my last patio party, but also for my son Adam, whose baseball bludgeons the flower beds that Joanne, Casey’s wife, has been nurturing, and for my dog, who if he had his way would do all his duty on Bart’s front yard. We do penance for offenses both real and imagined: Once I angrily threw out a wooden pallet that had lain for weeks in front of Denise’s house after Adam tripped over it, then spent the next six months thinking she was thinking I stole it. My eventual confession dumbfounded her; she’d never been anything but grateful, and she’d long since forgotten about it. We are even capable of assuming guilt for each other’s guilt: If only I could be more like the good monkeys and plug my eyes, ears, mouth, then my neighbors would not be distressed at the sight of me!
There are times when our curbside encounters become orgies of apology, reassurance and absolution. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those…” Surely these words are meant less for strangers than for neighbors, whose violation of each other’s space is frequent and mutual. Whether or not they are part of our weekly mantra, we instinctively abide by their spirit, striving to make sure that forgiveness is mutual as well: “I hope we didn’t disturb you with all our carrying on the other night,” said a young man, Mabuto, with whom I once shared a fence, the morning after he hosted a backyard bash. In point of fact, I was bothered as hell, had lain awake writhing most of that short summer night, while music from his native land of Kenya—percussion, mostly—played over and over on the speakers in his yard, and while his guests feasted and laughed and shuffled their feet under the party lanterns. Towards dawn, I had taken refuge in fantasy, imagining a squadron of police cars, summoned by aggrieved neighbors on all sides, descending on the scene. Light of day brought a new perspective, however. Mabuto was a good, quiet man nineteen days out of twenty. The music was not so loud, it was just close. The guests were not wild, rather just happy. “No, no, I was not bothered at all,” I said.
Call it forgiveness, that magic balm. Or call it a white lie, veneer over the cold concrete of truth. Whatever impulse the words are rooted in, they are necessary, so that guilt and paranoia, those exhausting feelings, can be eased. The result is a temporary relief, but not a greater intimacy: Mabuto stopped short of inviting me to his next party, and even if, in an excess of good will, he had done so, I am sure I would’ve declined. For unlike the work of lovers, which is to break down any barriers that come between, the proper work of neighbors is to keep the fence in good repair. The neighbor in Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall” knows this instinctively. “Good fences make good neighbors,” he intones over and again, in response to the narrator pressing him as to why they must meet each spring “to set the wall between [them] once again.” He can’t, or won’t, say why, and the poet, mistaking terseness for dullness, calls him “an old-stone savage” moving “in darkness.” If he were more given to words, he might’ve said, “Keeping this wall intact serves both our ends. Better that we raise it even higher, for we can never truly be at home if we can not be alone.”
In reality, what’s old about Frost’s neighbor is his wisdom. His words are a more upbeat, proactive version of that law which Moses, fresh off the mountain, lay down against “coveting” our neighbor’s goods. A simpler form of this commandment can be heard in that most common of warnings drilled for generations on end into children’s ears: Don’t bother the neighbors. It echoes within us as well, scripting our actions. Everyone who has lived in a neighborhood—a huddle of neighbors—has his or her morality tale of the one whose trespasses were extreme. In my family’s lore she goes by the name of Mrs. Bellifont. Amidst the cumulative barrels of flour and crates of eggs that she scammed from my mother over the course of two decades, several highlights loom, outlandish requests delivered over the back fence where she would stand and call “Irene! Irene!” Would my mother be interested in buying a coat—used only once by her to go to a funeral? Would my mother mind replacing the zipper on a pair of her husband’s pants? Would one of the Kempa boys please go to the store for her to buy some dog food? (Her own daughters were busy sunning themselves in the back yard.) To these and to dozens of other impositions over the years, my mother’s answer was almost always no, and now, decades later, we boys lodged in neighborhoods of our own have over-learned the lesson: For fear of being perceived as such an irksome creature, we say no to ourselves when we consider approaching a neighbor for even the smallest of favors. Before leaving town one winter weekend, I thought of asking Casey to shovel my walk if it snowed and of offering to do the same later on when he was gone. The mutual benefit of such an arrangement seemed obvious. But analysis, as usual, torpedoed the thought: What if the work wasn’t mutual after all? What if it only snowed when I was gone?
Only in our hour of need, and then only reluctantly, will we entertain the drastic act of knocking on a neighbor’s door. Once I searched for a half hour throughout my disheveled house for a corkscrew, with no luck. Casey and Joanne are wine drinkers, I well knew, but rather than bother them, I tried to invent a new device with a ceiling hook and pliers; I even gouged into the cork with my electric drill, a bad idea. Finally, flushed with irritation, I knocked, and within thirty seconds I was ready to pour.
Other kinds of fears as well serve to enforce the distance. The common wisdom of the day is that neighbors, generally speaking, are nothing but strangers with whom we are forced to share borders. They come and they go. We have no reason to trust them, nor they us. Recently, when a friend who was new to a neighborhood tried to organize a block party, the others looked at her like she was a narc. These fears are not entirely groundless. Who but one of my father’s neighbors, one of those who tips his hat or opens the door for him, has been stealing his newspaper from the apartment landing a couple of times a week? Who but a neighbor of mine snatched the snow shovel off my front porch one morning while I lay sleeping? Even those whom we think we know harbor secret sides.
And yet, and yet, we crave connection. At the same time that we are loathe to bother our neighbors and even though we may be wary of them, we want them to bother us. The doorbell rings, and the kids and the dog all yelp with excitement. “It’s the new neighbor! The new neighbor has come into our yard!” I hold open the door. “Come in! Come in! Come on upstairs.” I practically have to drag her past the threshold. The reason for the visit gets stated first, couched in an apology. One must have a reason to ring a doorbell. “Of course you can use the phone. Sorry to hear you’re locked out.” When her business is done, I try to get her to linger, offering a seat, a drink, asking open-ended questions. She is polite, but her real goal, I well understand, is to gracefully escape, so that she can sit quietly in her car until help comes.
I love it when calamity strikes—not the personal kind, for that can easily scare neighbors away, but the collective sort. When the power goes out, or when the snow drifts so high that the fence is nearly buried, all this fluttering in our heads is muffled; deeper currents connect us. “How are you managing over there?” we call out to each other. “Do you need anything?” Even more wonderfully, we freely and guiltlessly ask for candles or matches or some other sundry supply. The communion makes us positively giddy.
In ordinary times, this good will is mostly dormant—but it is there. For months now, the UPS carrier has been leaving Denise’s packages on my porch, an error which irritates her but which suits me fine, for what happier role can a neighbor play than to be the bearer of gifts? I always shovel a few feet onto Casey’s sidewalk after a snow, and if Casey gets out there first, he always shovels a few feet onto mine. When one of them leaves town, we grow extra-vigilant, whether we are asked to be or not: If a door flaps open in the wind, we shut it. If newspapers start piling up, we take them in. Once, when Joanne’s sprinkler system malfunctioned, Fern kept her garden alive. And more than once when Fern and I were not at home, Joanne has lured our dog the escape artist out of the street and back into his pen.
Reluctant as we are to ring each other’s bells, we instead depend on our children to serve as our ambassadors. We freely send them forth with their pledge cards, raffle tickets, coupon books, can drives, with their little rehearsed speeches and practiced politeness, and we receive the children of the neighborhood in return, in a kind of grass-roots United Way that not only keeps uncounted good causes afloat, but that also nurtures relationships among families that would otherwise be cut off. At times our children bear gifts instead of sales pitches: A friend tells how, when she was moving into her house, she sent her oldest daughter Katie to call on the next door neighbor, who had been peeking relentlessly through the blinds for days. The door, Katie says, was at least triple-locked, but when it finally swung open and the little old man met the young girl bearing a plate of cookies, a connection was forged that no adult exchange could have accomplished. Whether they are selling, giving, or effortlessly plying the art, long since lost to grownups, of simple socializing, our children themselves are our gifts. Last summer, while I was up on the high ladder painting the house, I delighted in talking to Denise’s little girl, who sat eye-to-eye with me for hours at her bedroom window, something that no adult in his or her right mind would do.
Small talk and indirectness suffice most of the time, but ultimately they do not satisfy. Unexpectedly, like a flash of sheet lightning, there comes to one or another of us a moment’s insight into the passage of time—the accrual of years, the arrival of decades, even—and the old restlessness wells up. This person who has lived within earshot for so long: When, if ever, have I called on her? If not insight, then instinct might urge us, in an upsurge that coincides most often with spring. After the winter of isolation, self-absorption, and brooding comes the stirring of the sap, the budding of leaf and spirit, a reinvigoration. The narrator in Frost’s poem arranges the wall-mending event not in the spirit of work but of play: “Oh, just another kind of outdoor game, / One on a side.” The game is complete with magic spells and elves and the “mischief” that goes by the name of “Springtime,” which causes him to goad his neighbor, so that they might enjoy not just a good mutual sweat, but a repartee as well.
Towards the end of Walden, in the chapter called “Spring,” Henry David Thoreau describes how during the season of rebirth we can once again feel the divine spark in each other. Instead of “spend[ing] our time in atoning” and asking others for forgiveness, we can, he says, forgive ourselves. Only when we do this does Christ’s “greatest commandment,” to love our neighbor as ourselves, become worthwhile. “Through our own recovered innocence we discern the innocence of our neighbors,” Thoreau says. A thrilling thought, that the indiscretions of the past—the overheard insult, the dog shit, even the decade-old phone call to the police—can become nothing but winterkill, twigs on the stalk, to be pinched and snapped off, just like that. We can realize, individually at least and perhaps in unison, that beyond the figments of paranoia and guilt we are truly innocent.
A sense of urgency behooves us. The first stiff breeze will scatter the apple blossoms. Too soon, the sun will hang higher and hotter in the sky, and we will retreat indoors. But until then there is time to hang out the “yard sale” sign, to bring before our neighbors’ eyes the evidence of our private lives and good-naturedly debate its worth. There is license, if we only had the courage, to knock on doors to say, “Neighbor, invite me in. I want to see how my life looks from your point of view,”or if the door is not held wide in welcome, to say, “Neighbor, do me the honor of coming to my home.”
Unspoken behind the invitation is this: We must not waste time; our kids are growing up, and when they leave we will have even less cause to connect. Trust me, I will not misbehave. None of what I’ve divulged in this essay is identifiably you. I would like nothing better than to trim the hedge with you.
Poet and essayist Rick Kempa lives in Rock Springs, Wyoming. Recently retired after thirty years of teaching at Western Wyoming College, he has embarked on a path of full-time writing, editing, and walking. www.rickkempa.com