When I was a young child, I got in trouble a lot. And those were just the times I was caught. I’m thinking especially of the few years (about first and second grades) when I lived in the glorious outskirts of Knox County, Tennessee.
We lived in a house on a hill in the middle of the woods and had few neighbors. My brother and I stole money, smoked cigarettes in the chicken coop, rode horses bareback, walked on frozen ponds, and set the woods on fire. Not bad for a couple of kids under the age of seven.
The neighbors across the way were just as wild as we were. Eddie was my age and had his roosters fight each other and showed us how he could steal his cousins’ keys and start his car in the gravel driveway. These were adventurous, scary, chaotic years.
But there was a calming presence in my life back then that not only made an impression on my young mind, but also has stuck with me ever since. Our only other neighbors were an elderly couple who lived at the end of the winding gravel road. They lived in a real log cabin—this made quite an impression on me the first time we came upon it on one of our adventures. And instead of yelling at us for trespassing, they came out on their long, covered porch and chatted.
I couldn’t remember being around such old people. But what struck me even more than their vast wrinkles was how calm and peaceful they were. Something was different back here in the woods. Whenever we roamed over their land on some misadventures they’d come out and talk with us. Eventually we were invited in for a glass of cold water or some treats. I remember homemade cookies one time.
With some distance of time and experience I cringe, of course, as I recall how trusting we were. I know now that going into a stranger’s house hidden back in the woods doesn’t always go great. Aside from daring my brother to climb up into the cougar’s den one summer, going into that log cabin might have been the most dangerous thing we ever did during that wild season of our childhood.
But there was something beautiful and timeless about those calm moments spent with peaceful, hospitable people that changed me. Not only did it make an impression on me back then, but it shaped my impressionable imagination for years to come. Their open door and kind voices and welcoming presence and offered cookies showed me that this was possible: to have a neighbor whose mere presence in your neighborhood orbit was a blessing.
Their calm cabin was like a cup of cold water in my frenetic young life at the time. And now that I’m older, no matter what neighborhood I’m in, I wonder: what kind of neighbor am I? For those whose orbits I am in, am I a surprisingly calm or kind or generous presence?
Wendell Berry describes a community as a “membership”—one made up of all the people and animals and buildings and pieces of creation. So, I am a part of the membership of my neighborhood. But what kind of part am I? Am I present enough to make an impression on my neighbors? Am I open enough to host people who are roaming about on their adventures or misadventures? Do I make more cookies than I am going to eat, just in case? Is being on my step or in my living room like a cup of cold water for my neighborhood?
I don’t remember the names of that couple who lived at the end of the winding gravel road. (Well, as a young boy I doubt I ever really learned them.) But even as a young boy I was sure thankful for those neighbors. And as one of the older fellows in my neighborhood today, I sure hope I am a hopeful, helpful, refreshing part of the neighborhood.