Monday, January 25, 2010

MEME 6: Sit on Your Stoop

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

The poet Robert Frost wrote "good fences make good neighbors".  True enough - and we all need to know where our personal space ends and the other person`s space begins.  But nothing says "neighbor" like sitting on your front steps  or on your front porch and watching your neighborhood go by.

We don't have much of a culture of "stoop sitting" here in Canada - most of us are backyard inhabitants when the weather is good - if we have a house with a front and back yard.  We don't do much with our front yards - some are showpieces of gardening genius, some are green grass and a picket fence.  We like our little oasis of isolation "out back".  We may or may not know our neighbors.  Maybe our next door neighbors - but not the people down the block, or across the back lane.

Just for fun last year, Jacinthe and I moved the little green enamel patio table and chairs to the front porch deck for a couple weeks, and made a point of sitting outside for an hour reading the paper or knitting.  People seemed surprised to see us there.  It's one thing to see people puttering around their gardens, but to see people in Winnipeg sitting in front of their house, not drinking beer and waiting for the pizza delivery guy - seemed a bit strange.

But by day three, the regular passers by were acknowledging our presence - and by the end of the first week, people were actively looking for us to say hi to - in a quiet acknowledging kind of way.  We live in a quiet little urban suburb, a block from the local mall, with a fair bit of neighborhood foot traffic.  I think we will repeat the experiment again this summer.  Jacinthe is happy because that means we'll get new lawn furniture for the back yard.

It took so little to make a simple basic human connection with total strangers.  Not that we shared names and phone numbers or got to know them on a personal level - but our presence was acknowledged.  People now know who lives in "the little pink house".  All we had to do was show up - in the space where we are anyways every day.  We made ourselves visible - and it was painless.

The house to the west of us is a rental, and every year there are new tenants.  One day, a few years ago, the new tenant stuck her head out of her back door when we were coming home from work - we had seen her coming and going, but had never been able to engage her in casual conversation until now.

"I almost called the police today" she said very sharply, with no hello, or introduction.  "There was a strange old man wandering around your back yard this afternoon. He was stealing the walnuts that fell from your tree, picking them up off the ground.  I thought that he might be a burglar - or a child molester - but I wanted to tell you that the next time I see him, I'm calling the cops."  She looked so proud of herself, and started to close the door.

"Hey - wait a minute - that's just Gus - he lives down the block. You may have seen him walking to the mall every morning for his mallwalking.  He picks up our fallen walnuts to make some kind of herbal concoction to treat his cancer. He's okay - don't worry. Did you ask him what he was doing? He would have been happy to tell you."

"Well, how do I know he won't molest my son?  Of course I didn't talk to him - I don't know who he is.  He just looks like a creepy old man to me - so I'm still going to call the police if I see him in your yard."  It took a hour of conversation to convince her that Gus was no threat - and that he wasn't in her yard, he was in ours, with our permission, and that he wasn't likely to hurt anyone, given that he is 90 years old and bent over like a question mark.  All she saw was a strange man.  She moved out a month later, declaring that she just didn't like the neighborhood.  Bye bye.

She perceived a stranger as an imminent threat.  She couldn't see past her own fears to see Gus for who he is.  When he knocked on our door after we moved in back in 1995, I spoke with him through the screen door until I understood what he was about, and then of course went out and talked with him - like a human being.  If he thinks that making some kind of tea out of unripened Italian walnuts will make him live longer - and I have scads of unripened Italian walnuts falling to the ground - he and the squirrels are welcome to fight over them and may the best walnut gatherer win.  He never took them all - he always left enough for his furry competitors.  He just took what he needed and that was enough.  He gave us a basket of tomatoes one summer.  A more than fair trade.

He had the courage to knock on a strangers' door.  Given what he's seen in his lifetime, during the war years, he's the one who might have been afraid of strangers.  I had the courage to engage in conversation, that became a neighborly friendship. It was good - neither deep, nor wide - just good.   He stopped coming round the year before last - and I haven't seen him on the street - so he may have moved, or moved up to the big walnut grove in the sky. More for the squirrels - though with the environmental shift of climate change, we`ve had less and less walnuts lately.  Fewer squirrels come by.  All things are connected.

Life is like that.  "Wherever we go, there we are" - but are we really there - or are we hiding behind the walls of our habits, our fears, our guarded, gated personal interior landscapes? I know I do.  I'm painfully shy (yes, believe it, it's true) - and letting people get close to the authentic me feels like a dangerous proposition.  Simply sitting and reading a newspaper and looking over its top edge or around the side from time to time as people walk past and admire the flowers is not risky.  In some ways, it is oddly comforting.

In a world that is increasingly automated and disconnected, extending my humanity just a little bit helps me to cope with a big scary unpredictable world - and maybe helps others too.  By knowing who is walking past my house - I can understand that the "bunch of hoodlums making all the noise" are really just a group of teenage boys in basketball team jackets on their way to practice.  Now that they know I'm "there" - they take it down a knotch - not out of fear of being yelled at by the crazy cat lady, but because they now innately realize that they are walking past a "HOME" where that woman "LIVES" - not just a house on the street.

I can explore the boundaries between comfort and safety (a future post topic).  I can be present on the stoop of my life - and from there select the levels of engagement that I can choose to have with the passers by in my neighborhood (speaking more metaphorically).  I can make myself mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually available (not the same as vulnerable) to new life experiences.  I can look at the familiar with new eyes.  I can look at the unfamiliar with hope and curiosity.

Good fences make for good neighbors- but the difference between a fence and a wall is the height and depth and presence of gates and energetic permeability.  We all need good fences - good boundaries around our lives - because that definition can be helpful and healthy.  That doesn't mean a fence has to get in the way.  It shouldn't prevent me from seeing the very approachable world around me. It might help keep the neighbor's pug from digging up Jacinthe's tulip bulbs.  That's what a fence is for - definition, not division.

I never have to extend myself further than I am comfortable - but I can remind myself that most people are good people just caught up in the busy-ness of their lives and that we have more in common than we remember we have. When I am feeling isolated or lonely - I can remember that I am also a good person, with things to offer, and that I can always find people who have similar interests in common - if I choose to engage in new and vibrant relationship opportunities.  No one will come to my house to teach me Scottish Country Dancing. I have to lace up my shoes, and go to the community centre.  Who knew there were so many people interested in this folk dancing thing here in Winnipeg.  They have socials and everything!

So metaphorically and physically - I`m going to sit on my stoop more often.  And maybe, when I look across the way, I'll see you - sitting on your stoop - reading a good book and drinking coffee - and we can lift our cups to each other - and see if we are both there tomorrow.  Or maybe at Scottish Country Dancing class, whenever the next session is.

Enjoy the day,


  1. I've always felt that front yards were something of a waste. The house I grew up in for example has a huge front yard, and a tiny backyard. It left little room for playing or relaxing. In my home now we have a fairly small front yard and a massive backyard which works out great. We will be out on our back deck relaxing and at the same time we are visiting with the neighbours on either side of us going two houses in both directions.

    This backyard neighbourhood has led to movie night among the neighbours, late nights around one firepit or another, even a couple of big BBQ's. We might not get to meet everyone who walks down are street this way, but I'm pretty good with that.

  2. Some people are so silly. That woman is terrified of an old man because he's a stranger (and of course any strange man is naturally harmful). Yet she refused to entertain the possibility of getting to know him, thereby ensuring he'd always remain a stranger, and a "threat".

  3. Our culture teaches us to fear - the hypersaturated media environment blows everything out of proportion - and submerges rational thought. We continue to isolate ourselves and insulate our minds against connection (which builds community) and the gaps of the mortar in our cultural mosaic become walls of division between "you" and "me" - and then "yours and "mine" without introducing the possibility of "us" and "ours".

    We celebrate our individuality, but suffer alone in times of distress because we haven't got a safety net of connected threads to support us. Ahhhhhhhhh.... I could rant on ... thanks for the good comment.