I have neighbors who were also friends who have just moved away. I look at their house now and they’re not in it, it’s empty, they’re gone. I’m sad. Why should I care so much? It’s what urban America does, it moves away — stays a while, then moves somewhere else. I’m used to it. These people whose daily cycles, real worries and deserved joys, faults and virtues, parents and children, and cars and gardens I know so well, I now know at best via Facebook, maybe Christmas cards, “we should get together again sometime.” Fine. That’s the way it is. I’m still sad.
Meanwhile, I’ve given some thought to what you might do to be the kind of person whose neighbors are sad when you to move away. I started looking for research in the social psychology of groups but it’s the wrong field; it’s about how groups function for good or ill, and not about how to be a certain kind of person. Maybe I’m talking about moral philosophy. Maybe Aristotle covered this; maybe Montaigne did; I don’t think Kant did. But I’m not looking it up. Instead I’m going to make a specific list of action items and we can theorize another time.
Show up on the doorstep with a plate covered with plastic wrap and say – obviously lying – you had some banana bread with chocolate chips left over, or you made too much turkey with portobello mushrooms.
Wear understatedly elegant clothes so casually that your neighbors will feel that just by living on the same street, they too are understatedly elegant.
Have occasional parties whose guests you are so surprised and delighted to see that they feel they’re honoring your party with their presence. Give them cheese with a little ash line in it, French bread you bought at a bakery on the eastern shore, plus a lot of cheap champagne, plus green olives, and in particular, hot crab dip. Propose toasts almost randomly, but give the reasons for the toast in great detail.
Help your neighbors hang heavy pictures on two hooks so that if a picture is bumped or dusted, it can’t tilt. Your neighbor never would figure this out in a million years.
Be honest with your neighbors when the goldfinch feeders they’re using are the kinds goldfinches don’t like. Then get on the internet and help find the right kind.
Help a neighbor arrange the old photos of her mother on a poster for her mother’s memorial service. Know your graphic design and the best glue choices. Know that during the design and glue process your neighbor will want to take breaks.
Sit on your front porch having a glass of wine and when your neighbor asks if it’s ok to join you, say “oh yes, please, we’d love that,” and mean it, even if you’re tired and your dinner should come out of the oven in five minutes. Just go inside for a minute and turn the oven down.
When you go over to your neighbor’s and find a visitor who is knitting, ask the visitor to help you start a shawl because you have yarn so beautiful you bought it even though you don’t know how to knit. Be amazed at the visitor’s teaching abilities.
Know one sparrow from another.
Ask your neighbors — in the kindest, most careful possible way — questions that are a little impolitic. Where did you grow up and why did you leave? Did you get along with your mother? How many times have you been married? Why did you quit that job? Listen carefully and then recount your own small town, your relationship with your mother, the number of your ex-spouses, and your job history. These are all just stories, after all, and what do people have to share except their stories?
Emit the kind of rays that a campfire does, so that people just naturally want to come sit by you, and so that just by looking at your house and knowing you’re there, your neighbors feel protected, surrounded by warmth, safe as houses.
Photo by Lawrence OP, via Flickr