Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Meme 3: Know Your Neighbors

Let me share with you what I am learning ....

I've lived in small towns (one had a population of 34, and we were a family of 5).  Everyone knew everyone else - sometimes too well, I'd say.  Even in slightly larger towns - from a couple hundred up to a couple thousand people - everyone knows - or knows of - everyone else.  Again, a mixed blessing.  Often harder for younger siblings growing up in the shadow of rebellious elder brothers or brainiac overachieving  older sisters (ask my brother and sister how that feels).  Hey, I know you - my dad went to school with your mom back in the 40's - 50's - 60's - whatever.  Yeah - you know me - NOT.

Moving to the city and living in a University Residence, once again, everyone knew everyone -and we shared rooms with people we had never met,  from all over the world.  Strangers became neighbors and friends, and the community regenerated every year minus a few faces and with new additions.  Connections ebbed and flowed in this temporary community, with some threads carrying forward through the years.  But during those integral years - we knew each other, for good and bad.  We shared communal kitchens, and communal bathrooms, and knew who snuck a boy into their room, or was cutting classes, or was stressed out - or who wasn't coming back next term.  It was a strange kind of knowing.  Microcosmic and almost microscopic at times.

I lived in a high rise apartment for a couple years, and only knew one other person in the building - and I knew them before I moved in.  Now living in a not-quite suburban neighborhood, surrounded by people, I have casual "good neighbor" friendships with the people living on either side of me - where we can say hello, goodbye, let each other know if we are going out of town, who our housesitter is, shovel each other's driveways if we know the other is not able to - but not "real friendship" type relationships.  I know one guy who lives down the street - but he used to shop in the store I managed, and his neighborly status was secondary.

I am familiar with the faces of many others in the neighborhood, after 15 years, but I can't say I know them.  Not by name - not anything about them except seeing their kids grow up, or chasing their dog off my lawn, or picking up the empty beer bottles scattered along the  boulevard and throwing them back onto the lawn of the neighborhood party house with the Good Dad Guy who lives several houses down the block.   The party-house guys I "knew" far too well - everyone on the block knew them  -  especially on long weekends when we were inviting the local constabulary to pay them a visit when the party spilled into the street at 2 am.

The whole "knowing by reputation" or "knowing by sight" or even just "knowing by name" is dangerous (loaded word) because it is not really "knowing anything" about the other person.  When I think about the people I "know" in this way, I wonder how well they think they know me.    The truth is - we know each other not at all.  And, unless both parties break down their entrenched preconceptions, we cannot, or perhaps will not know each other.  One of my neighbors once thought I was a biker chick, because so many of the people coming and going wore black leather jackets, pants, chaps, caps.  Not bikers - just leather boys and girls.  All she saw was leather - and the only people she knew to wear leather were bikers. Nope - just some queerfolk dressed up to go out and get maybe undressed. :) Those were the days.

We all judge people by their appearance, by our presumptions and assumptions, by their associations and affiliations, by rumor, gossip, innuendo, fragments of re-re-re-recycled conversations,  - you know - the oral history of our "community."  We all do it.  I do it. You do it. It is one of the less desirable parts of the human condition.  There is nothing more disconcerting that being introduced to someone at a social event or open circle and hearing "Oh, you're Susan - I've heard all about you!"  My response usually ranges through some of the following snappy comebacks - from whom?  Laugher.   What else can I say. Hope it was either true or entertaining. Nice of you to still talk to me?  yeah - its all true? Don't believe any of it.  "well, that will save time" is my favourite.

Maybe it all comes down to "proximity".  All I need to do, to know the people in my geographic neighborhood is to stop and say hello and ask an open ended and sincere question the next time we meet up accidentally.  All I need to do to know the people of my spiritual neighborhood is the same thing - be where they are and ask a sincere question.  In both cases - I have to listen to the answer with an open heart and an open mind.  What I think I know is only what I think.  It is not what I know.  That subtle difference makes all the difference.

Here's the thing.  People change.  I have changed. So have you, over the years.  People for whom I once may have had a profound dislike, or was indifferent to in the past (justified or not) have become close friends, or at least warmly embraced acquaintances.  (Don't worry - I don't mean you.).  People who used to be part of my daily/weekly life are now distant lights on the horizon, or completely out of sight.  (remember - its not all about you, either).  We are shaped by our life experience, by our associations, by our learning curves.  Knowing our neighbors means knowing / understanding that people will change over time.  A wise man once told me that all things change, and that is always for the best.  Even if it doesn't feel like it in the moment.  And this, brothers and sisters, can be the inherent danger of sharing our darker emotions with others.

When I unload / vent / blow off steam to Person X about person Y - I am speaking my truth in the moment - regardless of True it really is.  I feel better after I put a load of energetic poop down dangerously near the shoes of the person who is my shoulder to cry on, my buddy, my pal, my sounding board.  If they are a loyal friend, they take my side, vindicate my self-delusions, if I'm lucky help me see my part in it.  The conversation ends, and we go on.  I get to deal with the object of my venting, patch it up, make it better, do whatever.

But unless they are a truly enlightened soul (as so many of my dear friends are) the person I have vented to only knows the "last lecture" about Person X - and may carry y emotions and their subjective opinions into their future.  And share them - with good intentions.  Or they can then think - my gods, Susan is such a bitch, complaining about Person X - forgetting that the venting may have been "in the moment" - and to someone I thought was safe - working out my thoughts outside my head, and helping me put it all together, cobbling some kind of perspective via verbal overflow.  Then - when I kiss and make up with Person X - Person Y may think that I am a total hypocrite - because they are still "in" that last conversation.  It takes a lot of maturity and emotional distance to not pick up other people's crap - either pro or con - and carry it with you.

How do I know this? because I have been The Person Venting, The Person Vented To, and the Person Vented About.  So Have You.  And You. And YOU too - don't say you haven't. You lie only to yourself.

From there - the "I heard her say this" or " I was there when they said that" - becomes a battle for context and compassion and consideration - and the acknowledgement of time passing - energy moving (hellooooooo magical people - don't we believe this?) and relationships having some elasticity because of we all share the pesky human qualities of emotional frailty.  There is a case to be made for "that was then, this is now" -and while not all relationships can be repaired - at least there doesn't need to be a third person stirring the pot, carrying a well-intentioned torch, or putting out banana peels in the name of friendship or loyalty or love.  Oh yeah - you and me - we 've been that person too.  Fess up.

Sometimes our dislike or indifference is shaped by misinformation - misunderstanding - mis-perceptions.  If we listen to our cultural history - without having the validity of our own experiences, we will miss out on some truly worthwhile people.  That doesn't mean we should disregard other people's experiences, especially if there is evidence of illegal or abusive or threatening / frightening behavior - I'm not talking about putting common sense on the shelf here. Everyone's experience is different, and often our reactions to others speaks more about our state of being than theirs.  (getting angry at a leader because we gave them our power,  or never speaking up but expecting something to change, or being unhappy in our relationships so we poison the ears of others regarding their mate because misery loves company.... we've all been there done that - and usually it is only the wisdom of hindsight that helps us see our half of every relationship.)

One of the most powerful truths I ever had to learn the hard way was about how well I knew someone.  My take-away from that relationship was this "there is your truth, there is my truth, and then there is the real truth that lies midway between the two".  No matter how right one of may have been able to be proven to be in a court of law - the other person's truth still held enough sway to wreak havoc for years.  Don't let the ripples hit you on the attitude on the way out.  I am a much wiser woman now - and sad that I had to learn this one the hard way.

I'm not even going to speak about intentional harm, malicious gossip, dedicated destroyers of relationships and other spiders and snakes in the garden of human relationships.  We all have the power to cause enough damage through carelessness, self-absorption and our own foibles - those who maliciously crap in other people's corn flakes deserve a good thwap up side the head.  (dear reader, join me in the confessional, we have sins to atone for, and penance to do.  We can bring each other icepacks,  for the thwapping shall commence shortly).

So - in my emotional neighborhood - as I look at those who share this fragile ecosystem we call "community"

I want to know my new neighbors - I want to know them as friends I haven't met yet.  I want to start by giving them the benefit of the doubt, the hope of a first uncontaminated first and maybe even second impression.  Fresh face - fresh start - fresh opportunities.

I want to reintroduce myself to my established neighbors, to survey the landscape and maybe reset a few fence lines, maybe lend a cup of sugar, or just share a chat or a wave across the back lane that doesn't have to seem as wide as the desert.  We don't have to be best buddies, necessarily, but we can be more cordial - share a beer on a hot summer night comparing our crabgrass crops.  I know their faces - I know their names - I know about them - but maybe I don't know them as well as I could do - or as well as I once did.  I do know that they don't know me half as well as they might think they do...  or thought they did.

I may even want to re-meet some of my neighbors that have moved out of the 'hood, so to speak.- I want to understand the past, see if there is any common ground left to roto-till, and maybe plant an olive branch - or olive seed - and see what happens.  No expectations, no cherished outcomes.  Just some peace, and maybe the ability to co-exist.  Don't expect them to move back - but if we meet up at a social event, we can at least be more than stiffly polite, or awkwardly icy.  That doesn't set a good example for the young'uns, now does it.

One last thing.  The better I know myself, the better a neighbor I will be - and the better I will be able to know my neighbors.  Delphi's neighbors got to see that first hand - "know thyself".

Enjoy the day,

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