In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the answer to the question ‘Who is my neighbor?’ is ‘Everyone.’ I appreciate this story because it opens up the world to boundless love regardless of race, class, religion. But, while they’re not mutually exclusive, there’s no substitute for truly knowing the people who physically live around you, those who embody the classic definition of a neighbor.
Have you heard of the Roseto Effect? In the ‘60s, doctors were stumped as to why the residents of a small Pennsylvania town of Italian immigrants had remarkably lower rates of heart disease than the general American population. Research commenced. For 50 years doctors studied diet and vocation, but Rosetans ate meat and butter and drank wine heartily, and they worked physically demanding jobs. The answer ended up being simple. The people of Roseto looked out for each other. Everyone knew one another. No one competed. They had a true community of people practicing the ancient art of neighboring.
When we ditched our condo in the city for a rural farmhouse, we expected and yearned for this kind of experience. Our dream was to settle down and live in this house forever, to dig into community, to make a rich life for our family, to have a place where our kids would return and bring their kids many years down the road. So when we moved in I imagined women lining up at our door bearing carefully latticed cherry pies, invitations to neighborhood barbecues, and lessons in canning, pickling, and knitting. We did meet our two closest neighbors right away, and they have become invaluable friends, but the idyllic Roseto-like neighborhood of our dreams, where everyone knows everyone and the pie flows like water, didn’t quite materialize, at least not at first.
We moved in December, so the first few months in our new community were taken up with Christmas and getting settled into our house. We waited patiently for the knock at the door that would bring freshly baked cookies or an invitation to a white elephant gift exchange. We may have wallowed in self-pity a bit. Finally, we realized we might have to put forth some effort, so when spring came we got to it.
Our house is set back from the road a bit, and our view of the street is obscured by towering maples, bracken, and blackberry brambles, so we couldn’t just hang out on our front porch and wave to people walking by in hopes of becoming BFFs. We had to hit the pavement. We walked the street while our kids rode their bikes and stopped to chat with families in their front yards. We helped start a Nextdoor.com site for our neighborhood. Bryan instituted the neighborhood wave, which actually caught on (we wave to everyone we pass either walking or driving). We talked about throwing a barbecue and inviting everyone nearby, but felt odd being the newbies. I may or may not have stalked a neighbor I knew of but hadn’t met on Facebook in order to arrange a coffee date. We craved knowing and being known by the people who lived around us, but we didn’t know how to move past the first hump of casual acquaintance and get to the level of comfort, safety, and friendship that true neighboring brings.
When we started to meet people we discovered that many of our neighbors, while familiar with the two or three houses immediately near them, didn’t know anyone else. Once we had met about 10 families, I decided to start a book club. I asked all the women I had met if they’d join, and while some said they didn’t have time to read, several were excited and said yes. Five women came to the first book club. Two of them had only lived in the neighborhood for two years, but the others had lived there nine years, 19 years, and 25 years respectively, and some of them had never met! It was so fun to be able to bring people together, and it seemed as if others had the same desire we did: to see a strong community develop. We just needed a spark.
Now, a year and a half in, we are starting to get glimpses of Roseto. We’ve had dinners and bonfires, play dates, book clubs, birthday parties, and a wedding this summer. Our neighbors babysit, take care of our animals and plants while we’re gone, fix leaky propane tanks, deliver dump truck loads of garden compost, clear trees, exchange gardening tips and recipes. The cheerful generosity of our neighbors is overwhelming and humbling. We tell each other almost every week how grateful we are to live near each other. I think our hearts, and our community, are getting healthier everyday. But I still want some pie.
RACHEL WOMELSDUFF GOUGH Writer, learner, chicken farmer.