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Being There

I painted our house the other day. It’s a small, ranch-style house, so don’t get too impressed. My dad and father-in-law chipped in, too. But I spent most of the day, every day for four days, standing outside of our house scrutinizing every last detail of my amateur work. And during that process, I met more neighbors than I could have possibly imagined.

The first day, I was in power mode. I was slightly annoyed when passersby stopped to tell me they liked the color or to ask me what I was planning to do with the shutters. But by the second day, I found it amusing. People I had never met before stopped on their daily strolls to comment on my progress. Or to compliment my work. By day three, I felt downright proud of my contribution to freshening up the neighborhood.

I had so much positive feedback that I found myself daydreaming about a second career in house painting (until the soreness kicked in). By day four, I had found my groove, and I was excited to show my new neighborhood acquaintances the finished product. They were curious about the new light fixture. The new house numbers. What I was planning to do with the landscaping. (Landscaping…?)

My big project, that had at first seemed daunting and somewhat lonely, had turned into a neighborhood project. I had so many neighbors stop by one day that I started laughing to myself between visits. I am not a terribly social person. People sometimes wear me out. But here I was, painting my house by myself, and enjoying more social contact than I’d had for a year.

I learned something that week about neighboring. It literally took no effort (apart from my backbreaking labor). All I had to do was be there. I was wearing ugly paint clothes. I was clearly otherwise occupied. I didn’t have my cute kids running around or fun music playing or snacks displayed or anything that would create a warm and comfortable environment. I didn’t have to impress anyone.

Now that I’ve completed my painting project, I try to make a point of just being outside sometimes. I planted sunflowers out in front the other day. I’ve never planted flowers before in my life. I did it, in part, because I like pretty things. (Plus, the landscaping comment.) But also, I just wanted to be outside for a while to see what would happen.

Sure enough, a neighbor from down the road came into the yard to see everything I’d done and to catch me up on her life. An older couple walked past and remarked about the improvements we’ve made. Some kids snagged my older son for an impromptu remote control car brigade. It was so easy. We were just there.

As I spend more time as a neighbor, I’m learning that the best way to be a good one is simply to make yourself known. Not necessarily in some showy, gregarious way. That’s certainly not me. All it takes to start being a good neighbor is being there—in the neighborhood—with your neighbors. The rest, I’d like to believe, will present itself as the time comes. Because I’m done painting. And honestly kind of tired.

But I suppose one can never plant too many flowers.

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