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by Katherine Willis Pershey

Katherine Willis Pershey is a minister in Western Springs, Illinois. In addition to writing a personal blog, she is a contributor to the Christian Century, a storyteller for A Deeper Story, and the author of Any Day a Beautiful Change. She and her husband, Benjamin, have two daughters.

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The art of neighboring

I have amazing neighbors. I love my whole block, but two families in particular – the Lloyds and the Majerniks – are a big part of our lives. A constant stream of favors flows between our houses.

We have the biggest garage so we store our neighbors’ extra bikes and snow tires. The Majerniks have the sandbox and swingset, which are magnets when the weather is temperate. The Lloyds have the oldest kids, so in addition to providing many of the hand-me-downs and the leaders for bike rides around the block, they are also generous with the wisdom they’ve gained by being a few steps ahead of us in the parenting game.

This remarkable community of neighbors is partly a stroke of luck (or providence, depending on your worldview). While we knew the Lloyds through our church before we moved in, we met the Majerniks when they arrived six weeks later. But it isn’t all mere serendipity. There are a few key practices that have nurtured our neighborliness.

First, we eat together. My oldest memory of life on our street is sitting on our front stoop demolishing an enormous chocolate cake – a moving day gift from our realtor – with the Lloyds. We didn’t have any other food in the house; we didn’t even have a kitchen table. I’m fairly sure the Lloyds had to provide the knife and forks. Our three households have gone on to eat countless meals together. Sometimes barbeques, sometimes potlucks, sometimes, “Hey, we have this huge ham, do you want to come help us eat it?” Nothing seals relationships like breaking bread together.

cakePhoto by BPPrice

Second, we help one another. I remember the first favor I asked of my next door neighbor: would she mind if I let my daughter stay outside playing with her son while I ran into the house to change the baby’s diaper? Asking for a favor creates a tiny social debt. It meant I “owed” a return favor. That first small request was also an invitation for her to make requests as well. Don’t be afraid to be the first one to ask for a cup of sugar.

That being said, we don’t take advantage of one another. For all the casual ways we swap favors, when one of my neighbors offered to fill in some of our childcare gaps on a regular basis, I knew this was different territory. We kept track of the hours on a shared Google doc, and I paid her accordingly. Likewise, when we split a Community Supported Agriculture share, we were careful to ensure that we also fairly split costs and pick-up duties.

Finally, we trust one another. The fact is you can’t trust everyone; you have to be mindful of red flags. But when trust is deserved, extend it. We’ve traded house keys. We watch out for one another’s kids – and, when necessary, intervene when they misbehave. That piece is tricky, of course. Once my husband hollered at a neighbor boy for being too rough with our then-toddler. Although the parents knew that their son had earned the lecture, I reckon they were still grateful that my husband apologized to both the parents and the boy for raising his voice.

These families are obviously more than neighbors to us. They have also become dear friends, connected not only by proximity but also by perspective.

I have more traditional neighborly relationships with the rest of the people on our street, but the same principles apply. Last year we had our first block party. There hadn’t been a gathering of all our households for as long as anyone could remember. It was delightful to drink lemonade in lawn chairs on the parkway while the kids enjoyed the novelty of playing in the street. Every single family showed up, if only for a brief time. I finally learned the name of the one neighbor I’d never met; now we greet one another daily with a smile and a wave. The only thing we really have in common is that we live on the same street, but that’s more than enough to be good neighbors.

To be sure, one can also end up with inconsiderate neighbors. A property line can easily become a battle zone; the only time I’ve ever been called to jury duty, the plaintiff was suing his neighbor for trimming his overgrown oleander bushes. There was clearly a history between the sparring households. If you have neighbors that are hard to live by, you might be aiming for forbearance, not friendship. And in those cases – as in any case, really – the best we can do is to simply keep on practicing the most golden of rules: do unto your neighbors as you would have them do unto you.

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