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I’ve heard many sayings about how to be a good neighbor, such as “Good fences make good neighbors.” Maybe that is true in the city where most people can’t name three people who live within a block, but when you live out in the country, there is much more to being a good neighbor. I’ve had a lot of neighbors with all of the moving that we have done, and have had a lot of time to try different ways to be friendly. I’ve learned many of the little nuances of being a good neighbor, and would like to share some of them here.

People like to talk about themselves. When I introduce myself to a neighbor, I always keep my introduction short and sweet. Then I ask them about the area, their house, their family, their garden, the neighborhood… whatever subject presents itself. I have found that most people really get into telling me about one thing or another, and within a few minutes we are comfortable in each other’s presence. Compliments and subtle jokes almost never go amiss when getting to know someone. Of course, for all of this to work, you must remember what has been said so that you can continue on it the next time you meet. And most of all – remember names! I am horrible with names, so I try to use their name at least 3 times before I leave. I like it when people remember my name, but I am not put out too much if someone is sincerely forgetful like I am and is really making an effort to know me.

Something I have found that differs in the country versus the city is that strangers aren’t treated the same. In the city, we are surrounded by strangers. We don’t have time to make eye contact and smile at every person we pass. We don’t have strong enough wrists to wave at every face we see. For the most part, we ignore strangers, and can even avoid friends and acquaintances if we so choose. But in the country is a completely different experience. Everyone is greeted in some way, whether its a nod, a handshake, a wave, a friendly smile, or a verbal greeting. It doesn’t matter if you have never met the person in your life; they still get your attention long enough for you to acknowledge each other’s presence.

Whenever we move in somewhere, I put together a little package for each of our neighbors. I make a card with all of our names clearly printed on it, then I try to deliver it in person if I see that our neighbors are home. The package varies. Sometimes it’s home-canned jams or salsa, and other times its a knitted dishcloth or homemade cookies. We all love presents, and something homemade speaks volumes.

Before I ask anything of a new neighbor, I make sure I do something helpful for them first. Then, when I ask something of them, I don’t feel like a taker. Neighbors in the country tend to cooperate a bit more than neighbors in the city. For instance, they share tools and resources a lot more often. If you have a shed that you need help building, then your neighbors should be the first ones you ask. If you see that your neighbor is raking leaves, your first response should be to ask them if they would like a helping hand. If you borrow something from a neighbor, make sure you return it in good time and condition.

When I was younger, we had a regular meeting with our neighbors every Sunday for brunch. I really miss that occasion, and would like to do something similar when we find ourselves in our permanent home. Friends are wonderful to have, and if they are your neighbors then you are lucky indeed.

Of course, as experience has taught me, it is not always possible to befriend your neighbors. I have always tried to be as friendly as possible, but some people just aren’t good neighbor material. We had one older guy who was really knowledgable about gardening and plants, but he was a bit off his rocker. He was good for about fifteen minutes of conversation, but then it always ended up with him talking about the end of the world and how God was going to bring war on the heathens and sodomites that populate the planet. There was also the fact that he stole water and electricity from us, never took care of his yard or house (half his house was in ruins, with the roof caved in and garbage spread all over the floors), and once accused us of shooting at his house when in actuality we were killing squirrels that were stealing freshly planted corn from our back yard (not even the same direction as his house was).

That was just one example of a less-than-wonderful neighbor. There are other things that have grated on me, that I have tried to learn from. Some of these qualities are excessive noisemaking, not returning loaned items, gossip, excessive negativity about anything from politics to minor annoyances like fast cars on a dirt road, asking for help but never giving it in return, religious preaching even after being told it is unwelcome, not keeping dogs leashed or fenced-in, creating nasty smells by burning tires or not keeping livestock clean, tresspassing, acts of vandalism, and outright meanness.

It seems like there’s always one sour grape in the bunch, but on the whole getting to know and working with neighbors has been a positive experience that I would like to continue. Of course, being able to choose our neighbors through an intentional community would be exciting, but even if we follow our dreams on our own we will still try to make friends with whatever people we end up living next to. I don’t say this often because of the religious undertones the word has, but neighbors are indeed a blessing. To overlook them is a great loss.

November 2009

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