For the last five weeks, I’ve been getting in an early-morning walk with my upstairs neighbor.
She’s on a mission to lose weight. I’m just happy to have someone with whom I can walk the trails in Fairmount Park. My proximity to the Wissahickon section of the park was one of the reasons I chose my condo three years ago, but I’ve been apprehensive about using the entrance across the street by myself on mornings since it tends to be sparsely populated.
So when she suggested getting together to walk once or twice a week during one of our hallway encounters, I was game — though I knew she was more of a morning person than I would ever be and I haven’t exactly been bounding out of bed on the days I set my alarm for our chatty excursions.
But once we’re out the door, I love every minute of that time. K is endlessly fascinating, an exuberant and witty conversationalist prone to dramatic gestures and exclamations bespeaking a colorful background in everything from arts administration and nonprofit fundraising to jewelry design and antiques investment.
We talk theater and music, the books we’re reading and the one she’s writing, our favorite haunts and local events and anything else that comes to mind. Mostly, it seems, we inspire each other, as two creative spirits who can sometimes feel boxed in by the pragmatic demands of the world.
Yet what I appreciate most about these walks is simply that she and I are neighbors connecting over more than just the walls that often define such relationships.
In a time when so many of us have become insular, retreating at the end of the day to the private sanctuary of our homes and families to tend our lives in isolation, I appreciate that the three floors in my condo unit feel like a small community. I have neighbors who are actually neighbors — the kind who express care and concern, who smile and linger in moments that could pass with little more than a hello, who made a point of introducing themselves when they saw me moving in during those hectic first few weeks back in 2010.
At the time, I told myself I would bake cookies for each one. I know it’s usually the other way around — the existing residents welcoming the new with such small gestures — but that would be my gift of goodwill, my assurance I would be the kind of neighbor they’d be happy to have around.
Well, their doorsteps are still empty — though I resurrect that intention every Christmas — but there has been no shortage of amicable harmony between us. Sure, the couple downstairs sometimes throws parties where loud laughter and conversation spills into the hallway, but she is, for the most part, sweet and benign, and he, along with another neighbor upstairs, is always willing to lend a hand when it snows in helping me dig out my car. That upstairs neighbor is also the one who left small gifts outside each of our doors one Christmas.
K and I have forged a bond that goes a little deeper. In some ways, it’s an inherited one since the previous owner of my condo would look after K’s place, and her cat, when she was away, and K did the same for her. She approached me when I moved in to ask if we could make a similar arrangement but somehow it’s become more than the occasional key swap and mailbox-clearing duties. Since she’s a single woman, I sometimes bring her a meal or treat from my culinary adventures. And she invites me up to tea. When my dad died, I returned from St. Lucia to find flowers, a card and a box of soup waiting for me. When one of her good friends passed earlier this year, she returned the vase for the flowers I’d given her with a sunny bouquet of daffodils.
It’s an undemanding relationship based on consideration and simple pleasures. Yet I remember one morning when I arrived to share a quick breakfast with her, she remarked a friend she’d been talking to just minutes before was stunned that she was having coffee with me, her neighbor. Why not, we both wondered.
But as a friend who traded in her single-family home for an apartment earlier this year found out, being a gracious neighbor isn’t a built-in trait. After leaving the street that had been her haven for years, the one where she could walk a few houses down to a kitchen table that welcomed her and put a name to every face around her, she moved into a complex where no one made the effort to acknowledge her presence. It was crushing. And though I told her to give it time, I doubt she has found the familiar comfort she was seeking.
Yet I can’t help thinking this is how we build community. We don’t have to become close-knit companions with those who live beside us, and, yes, we have our families and our friends. But to greet those who live among us as more than strangers is how we practice and teach kindness, how we learn to see the value in others, to build a sense of safety in a world of pillaged security.
I know of friends whose neighborhoods throw annual block parties, who rotate through their neighbors’ homes with monthly potlucks, who work at sustaining such ties. To me, these connections are priceless, making of mortar and brick a living, thriving entity, a place with roots as vital as those put down in our homes.
– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times