June 2022


Who lives next door?

When I was about seven years old and learning to ride my “big girl bike,” I forgot how to use the brakes. Looking around for anything that would slow my momentum, I grabbed hold of the chainlink fence that lined our sidewalk, just in time to stop myself from wheeling uncontrollably down the steep Seattle hill. Bad strategy: the twisted metal tore straight through my palm.

Our neighbor, a nurse named Jane Fine, came out to help me and bandaged my hand before I left for the hospital to get stitches.

We hadn’t lived on that street for too long, and the neighborly care and affection are still vivid memories. Over the coming years, Jane’s teenage sons would play basketball with my dad in our “half-court” and patiently coach my sisters and me as we missed the rim in endless games of “H-O-R-S-E.”

I still remember the Welcome Wagon goodie basket delivered by a local group that was dropped at our door when we moved into that house, and I can still see the community center where we would go to talk about neighborhood issues, watch hometown performances and participate in the Halloween costume competition.

That was 1969. I live in a different city now, and it’s a very different time.

So much has changed in the way we live.

New neighbors moved in next door to us a few months ago, and keeping with my childhood experiences, I dropped off some San Francisco treats and a welcome note with all our contact information. We invited them to dinner and offered to be a backup location for the delivery of packages or for the safe-keeping of a spare key. And while they texted a grateful response, we’ve never gotten to know each other.

In fact, I can hear them on the adjacent deck and in the next backyard, but I don’t remember their names. I haven’t met their kids, and I have no idea whether they have a dog.

On the other side of our house sits a small apartment building inhabited by renters who are also strangers. Some of them are familiar, like the young man with the big German Shepherd and the older one who frequently blocks our driveway with a car that is too big for the spot.

We’ll say hello or nod when we pass on the street, but again, we don’t know each other.

* * *

Because I don’t know them, I don’t feel much of anything about them except occasional annoyance when trying to maneuver my car out of the garage or when I find a stray cigarette butt dropped into our backyard from the apartment above.

As my husband and I were leaving our house the other day, a fire truck rolled up to that building, and the firefighters jumped out of the truck to follow a woman who was motioning them inside. Was it a fire in the building attached to ours? Probably not, since no one was yelling “fire.”

But at that moment, I realized that I cared about the risk of our property burning down, but I didn’t have the instinct to offer to help the actual people. I didn’t know them, and the firefighters were already there. This is embarrassing for me because it’s not the person I want to be. I was not a neighbor like Jane Fine was to me when I was a kid.

I believe this disconnection is at the heart of our collective hurt.

When we don’t know each other, we can’t feel each other’s pain or notice the signs of one of us needing help. Without that intimacy, we can’t experience the world in any way other than the one we’ve lived. We become people whose tendency is to mend ourselves and fend for ourselves.

The problem is that when we don’t know each other, our bubbles become our very small worlds.

So what do we do if we try to create bonds, but others don’t respond?

I think our only answer is to keep trying.

The conscious effort of looking for small ways to connect and to know each other on a one-to-one basis is the easiest first step towards rebuilding the sense of connection and community that is missing in so many places. And it’s something every one of us can do.

The effort required is small and the potential upside is being part of a movement that can begin to rebuild a sense of community connection that could lift us all.

As William Stafford says in A Ritual to Read to Each Other

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dike.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,
but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider—
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

* * *

Yes. The darkness around us is deep. So where can you share your light?

Share it Small: Ask and remember your neighbor’s names. Bring their paper to the front door. Let them know how to reach you if needed. Do more than just nod as you pass by.

Share it Big: The research I did with Dr. Serena Chen for my book, The Parlay Effect showed real evidence that when we commit small acts of “seeing each other,” not only do the people we see repeat our actions with others but others who observe the interaction replicate it, too. So your moment of getting to know someone could be the beginning of countless connections that turn people next door into neighbors and even into friends.

Share it with Me: We all learn from each other. If you have had a revelation, a breakthrough, an insight, or a triumph, we can learn from you so please tell me about it here! I’m collecting stories of these cascades of good for ongoing community building and to track The Parlay Effect in action. I would love nothing better than to hear how you lifted, were lifted, or observed something in others that made you feel good and recognize your own power.