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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16 Comments

  1. kariane

    Good neighbors are truly a blessing! We lover our little group of neighbors. Other ways we routinely help each other are: keeping an eye on each other’s homes and picking up the mail when someone goes out of town; making a point to wave or head out to talk when we see one another outside (we live in an area zoned forestry, so our homes are not very close together); keeping one another informed about local wildlife spottings (I especially appreciate this with two young boys who spend tons of time outdoors). While I hope it never happens to you, natural disasters can also be a bonding time (silver lining): We made sure everyone had enough food and water as well as a safe place to stay when we were all trapped on our street due to landslides as a result of a huge flood that came through our area. Then we all helped with the demolition and repair of each other’s homes following the event.

    • Katherine

      Oh my! So far we’ve only experienced really tough winters – it’s been so dangerously cold a few times that the big highlight of the day is spending 20 minutes bundling up with triple layers just so we can dash the 30 feet over to the neighbors’ house. I’m sorry you went through that, but glad you had a mutually supportive community.

      • Marilyn Wambold

        Katherine, I really love the way you write , I always feel as though I’m cozying up with an old friend when I read your blogs or articles. I can see the tree lined streets with the kids cavorting around and hear the laughter of all. Thx for sharing

  2. Carly

    This sincerely should apply to people in life!!! Everywhere. Can you imagine if the immature society emerging right now applied this lesson across the board? Goodness, we might be on the path to WORLD PEACE! And I’m totally jealous of your neighborhood… We live in apartments, and between nosy neighbors, loud neighbors, and the local drug dealers, it’s never quiet or peaceable!

    • Katherine

      It is a lot harder to be a good neighbor when you can’t trust or connect with your neighbors – such a bummer, as it really changes your whole experience of “home”, I think.

  3. Susan

    we’ve lived in the same house for 20 years and barely know our neighbors. So sad. We just purchased another home and want to change this. We are trying to get to know each and every one of our new neighbors and as we meet them are writing down all their names, kids names and pets names 🙂 so we’ll remember them all.
    It takes effort, but is worth it in the end.
    BTW, that cake in your photo!! Yum! do you have a recipe?

    • Katherine

      Stock photo! But yes, every time I see it I get hungry for whatever it is. 😉

      Blessings as you meet your new neighbors – may your new neighborhood be a true community for you and your family.

  4. Tara Schiller

    I have had some great neighbors in my life, and there really is nothing you can do to replace that experience. What a great post. Thanks for sharing tips and tricks, but more importantly, for letting us into your life a bit.

    -Tara

    • Katherine

      Thanks for reading! I really loved writing this, as it’s easy to express my gratitude for a community that gives me such joy.

  5. Linda Sand

    When I was a child, my oldest brother was accident prone. We knew if he crashed he bike which neighbor we should go to while Mom went to the hospital again. My daughter also knew which neighbor to go to if I wasn’t home for any reason but I paid my neighbor for the babysitting. Now I don’t know any of my neighbors–it’s harder to meet them when you don’t have children playing together.

    • Katherine

      This is true. The kids sort of lead the way here – their desire to play with one another and share toys, etc., certainly pushed the grown-ups out of whatever “good fences, good neighbors” mindset we might have had.

  6. Liz T

    We recently moved into our first home in a small subdivision. Back yards are nonexistent so all of the kids play in the front yards or street. We have so many kids on our street for my daughter to play with and have made friends with most of our neighbors. We help each other out, borrow sugar, watch each others kids, etc. I never knew this kind of community could exist, but I’m so grateful it does, and we are able to experience it!

    • Katherine

      Wonderful! Enjoy your new neighborhood. 🙂

  7. Cara Thompson

    I’m saving this post because we just bought a house! It’s important to me to intentionally reach out and value our community.

    I’m focusing in on hospitality (not natural for me) but I know that no interaction is an accident.

    • Katherine

      Blessings as you establish your new home – may it be a haven, and may your neighborhood be a true community. Thank you for reading, and for taking the practice of hospitality as seriously as it deserves to be taken. 🙂

  8. Bek @ Just For Daisy

    We have great neighbours too and it truly is a blessing!

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