It’s hard to believe that the four month anniversary of my one year term at NeighborLink came and went yesterday. Even harder to believe is the fact that half of my tenure has been spent working from home, with 25% of that total spent in flux as my family jumped from one Airbnb reservation to the next.
From where I stand today, January is a lifetime of memories long past. I feel aged and older, having grown a countless number of ways. The terms “neighbor” and “neighboring” have become commonplace words for not only me, but my family as well. I look at people differently. The same could be said for houses, too. Compassion for others has risen to the surface in ways I haven’t experienced since my years of living overseas.
It’s amazing what can happen while immersed in a culture such as NeighborLink.
I’ve spent the last couple of days reflecting on these first four months. My emphasis has settled on the most meaningful life-shifts experienced during my time as NeighborLink’s Storytelling and Journalism Coordinator by way of the AmeriCorps VISTA program. Although the entire four month period has been eye-opening and laced with profound discoveries (with side helpings of heartbreaking and soul-shattering sights thrown in), I’ve compiled the three most enlightening ones that have carved deep lessons of life, love, kindness, and neighboring into my heart.
My First Ride Along
My first ride along came early in my third week at NeighborLink. It was an experience I was ill-prepared for.
The first part of the morning provided context for all of the minutiae that goes into getting most projects off of the ground. Aside from taking my first trip to Home Depot in who-knows-how-long, it provided a glimpse of how and where ramps are built by NeighborLink volunteers.
The second half of the day was spent visiting a handful of neighbors undergoing special projects. Two of these visits struck like lightning bolts, leaving me permanently charred. Both helped me fully grasp the value NeighborLink brings to the disadvantaged, alone, and hurting. Also significant were the lasting relationships that had formed between two pair of neighbors and volunteers we visited, and the fact that each struggling homeowner - despite such hardships as blindness and brain cancer - radiated with pure joy.
As we returned to the office for the day, I sat in the back of the truck in silence. Sure, it was difficult to hold myself together, but the most striking thing of all was the first true realization of where my job would take me moving forward. It was humbling, scary, and exciting.
One of my goals for February was to sit down with a homeowner in need and listen to their story. My hope was to create a moving portrayal that would penetrate the hearts of viewers while conveying the ultimate reason NeighborLink exists- all within the span of 3 to 4 minutes.
After finding our neighbor, I set out with NeighborLink’s videographer, Steve, to capture the story Out of the Woods. On the way to the home site, I felt vastly unprepared for the task. Not only was it my first actual storytelling project, but it was my first trip to a homesite without someone else to lead and direct me along. I was nervous, uncertain, and hopelessly afraid. I hoped I would not embarrass myself but was sure I would stumble over my words and fail to portray what was in my head.
As soon as I stepped into the house, all of my worries disappeared. Not only were the homeowners gracious and kind, but it only took two minutes for us to find a myriad of similarities between ourselves. Because of that, we spent nearly two hours talking, laughing, and crying as if we had known each other for years. Upon leaving their house, I felt so humbled and honored that God would gift me with such a special morning. I found it difficult to speak the rest of the day, such was the impact those two hours had on my life.
Stepping Up to the Challenge
Shortly after moving into our new house, my wife had the brilliant idea to create and distribute face masks for workers serving on the frontlines during the nationwide lockdown. Having seen other fantastic ideas of hers like this in the past, I knew I would be sorry if I failed to capture her story and share it with as many people as possible.
Although the video was shot when she was only getting started, her vision quickly took root and bloomed with unexpected results. She was immediately swamped with requests from all across the country. Despite the extra time and effort required from her project, she continued to pour herself into it day after day despite working a full-time job while being a mother and wife.
Her determination and persistence has always been an inspiring sight to behold. I cannot help but be motivated when I see her passion, work ethic, and grit. This time around it prompted me to come up with a neighborly goal of my own. Shortly after we filmed her NL Stories video, I launched a fundraiser to help those suffering through a lockdown-related hunger crisis in the Philippines. Although my goal was to raise $400 for food distribution, donors contributed $1700 to people on the other side of the world they had never met before. At the foundation of this all was my wife's incredible drive to step up to the plate in a desperate time of need and do something about it. I would have never come up with the idea for the fundraiser if it wasn’t for her example, as portrayed in the video above.
While the first third of my year has come and gone in a flash, the lessons I've learned have been invaluable. I can’t wait to see what the next four months bring to the table as spring turns into a very busy summer of neighboring. My only hope is that my skills and talents as a writer and storyteller can do it all justice.
I was startled awake from a deep slumber. Sprawled across the couch in the living room, I waited for my mind to catch up before opening my eyes into two narrow slits. On the floor was my phone. I picked it up, holding the darkened screen to my face and squinting when its harsh light penetrated the darkness.
11:30pm. Ugh. A stereotypical morning person, I felt every bit of it as my head returned to the softness of the couch. I really wanted to go back to sleep but true comfort could only be found up the stairs and down the hall in my real bed. Could I make it?
I pulled myself up into a sitting position. This was the part I didn???t like- when you move around too quickly or open your eyes too widely that you just know you???ll remain awake for the rest of the night. Eyes partially opened, I headed for the stairs and heard the shower running behind the closed door of the upstairs bathroom. ???Okay, then,??? I thought to myself, ???I???ll just use the downstairs bathroom real quick and crawl upstairs right after.???
The downstairs bathroom has something of a backstory of its own. Since we moved into our house at the very beginning of the lockdown, we have not been able to get a handful of repairs taken care of. The biggest one is a pesky broken window in the downstairs bathroom. Being a special order, no one had been able to come take measurements until late last week. Therefore, it???s almost always cold in the downstairs bathroom at night or first thing in the morning. Seeing as how I didn???t have much of a choice, I pushed the door open, gently reminding myself not to let the cold night air wake me up any more than necessary.
I washed my hands and reached for the light switch. As the room quickly faded from bright to black, something oddly out of place caught my attention: a pair of big, black eyes attached to the side of the sink were looking right at me. It was as if the ceramic fixture had suddenly come to life in the early hours of the night and I had mistakenly walked into a real-life version of Toy Story about home appliances.
???No,??? I told myself, as I briefly paused in the darkened doorway. ???Sinks don???t have eyes. That was just my imagination.??? I trudged upstairs and promptly fell asleep.
The next morning, I had forgotten all about the midnight encounter with the furry-eyed sink. My day began as usual. Three hours later, I walked into the downstairs bathroom to wash my hands. Standing in the middle of the floor wasn???t a walking sink with eyes but a furry animal with grey and white hair. A possum, to be exact. Apparently, it had decided that our house looked warmer and cozier than its own and found the perfect entrance through the broken window.
I slowly backed out of the bathroom and gently closed the door. Reaching for my phone, I asked Google how to handle such an unexpected neighbor. Immediately, I learned some really interesting facts. Apparently - just like humans - possums are ???highly motivated by food.??? Like some of us, they are omnivores and disease-free. Feeling better about the situation, I cracked the door open and tossed some oranges into the bathroom to buy a little more time. While the possum - now nicknamed Hungri by my kids - devoured the oranges, I kept stumbling across a recurring storyline in Google:
Some people believe that finding a possum in your home is a sure sign that a neighbor is conspiring to make bad things happen in your life.
Being highly un-superstitious, I found the insight amusing but wondered how to work the random piece of trivia into a future conversation or column (problem solved!).
Soon enough, my kids and I managed to nudge Hungri into a clean trash can and safely transport it into the backyard. It walked away slowly, seemingly unafraid of his three human neighbors. It headed straight for the grassy corner between our house and our neighbor???s house where the trunk of a nice, big tree pointed up toward the sky with branches stretching out toward our house and theirs. It looked like a good home, as far as trees are concerned.
The very next day, while finishing lunch at the dinner table, my wife heard a sudden noise from just outside our door. From her vantage point, she could only see a shadow slide across the ground before halting at our front porch. ???Someone???s outside,??? she said in a sort of whispery voice, lest the unknown visitor hear us speaking about its intrusion from inside of our own house. ???They just walked up on the porch.???
Cautiously, I looked out the window. I saw no one. However, something yellow and obviously out of place had suddenly appeared on our porch just beneath the mailbox. ???Someone left a gift,??? I answered before walking outside to scan the quiet neighborhood for any other oddities. ???It has a note on it???and jewelry, too.??? I brought it to my face and read the following words:
From your new neighbor that picked your violets.
Katie & Kyle
I smiled. What an unexpected treat, that a neighbor would carefully sneak onto our porch - much like Hungri did two nights earlier - and leave a secret to be discovered on the opposite end of our house.
Call me odd, but as I set the dual gifts down upon the table for my wife to inspect, my mind returned to the unusual Google search from the morning before. I remembered how many people believe that finding a possum in your house is a sure sign a neighbor is wishing the worst upon you.
I laughed at the thought, thinking the exact opposite had just occurred. I imagined our violet-picking neighbor sneaking onto our porch, much like the possum, to place a heartfelt gift right there to be discovered. No strings attached, just a simple act of kindness for the newest neighbor on the block. How great is that?
I studied the handmade jewelry she had included, wondering how we could return the favor in as possum-like a way as possible. The gears began turning. We???d have to make it special. Surprising. Stealth-like. Thankfully, we???d learned a thing or two about stealth and neighborly surprises in the span of two short days.
Oh, it???s on and will certainly happen. With a little thought and effort, anything is possum-ble.
Yesterday, after arriving home from a brief errand, I parked my car out front and was immediately greeted by a startling sight: there was a woman I had never met before sitting cross-legged in our lawn. While the two of us had never met before, I did happen to recognize her. She was our next-door neighbor, who I had only seen in passing a time or two. “I’m sorry!” she exclaimed as soon as I stepped from the street to the walkway leading up to my porch. “I’ve encroached on your lawn!”
In truth, I was grateful for the unexpected encroachment, as it was the perfect opportunity to meet my unknown neighbor at long last. “Don’t worry about it,” I answered, waving aside her concern with my one free hand. I stopped in front of her, a good eight feet or so between the two of us, watching as she placed a handful of small, purple flowers into a plastic bowl by her side. “They’re beautiful, aren’t they? I love how they cover the grass with so much color.”
“They are! But they’re at the end of their lives, so I was hoping to collect as many as possible before they disappear in a few days. I’m creating something new with them. A second life, of sorts.”
I briefly scanned my lawn. Plenty of the small, purple flowers still remained. I was kind of disappointed, because she was the second person in a week to tell me they would vanish pretty soon. “You can take as many as you’d like. And don’t worry about coming onto our lawn, we don’t mind at all. By the way, I’m Robert.”
She told me her name and her husband’s name, and we spoke as neighbors for the very first time. I told her that we had just moved in a month and a half ago, and it was good to finally meet her. Within moments, we stumbled upon a common connection both of our households shared: we all love working with herbs and garden plants. A few minutes later, we said goodbye.
I stepped inside, lifting a box of donuts in the air for my wife and daughter to see. While many shops in the area have been closed these last few weeks, the donut store around the corner has not been one of them (I’m not sure if that has been a good or a bad thing for my family). My wife and kids made a beeline for the box and I glanced outside the window at the woman still working in our yard. In forty-one years, I couldn’t remember a scenario like this ever playing out before. I liked it.
“Who were you talking to?” my daughter asked, claiming the first of six donuts in the box.
“Our neighbor. She’s picking our purple flowers to use in a recipe. She’s an herbalist.”
We talked about how cool that was between hurried bites of our chocolate- and maple-glazed afternoon snacks. Suddenly, I realized how simple but brilliant a potential gift-giving exchange could be for these new neighbors of ours. All we’d have to do is buy them pots of lavender, basil, or any other herb and need not worry about the threat of an embarrassing regifting.
I finished my donut, watching as my neighbor joyfully completed her task. With the bowl of vibrant, purple flowers propped beneath her arm, she stood to her feet and returned to her own lawn. It may have taken a month and a half, but I rejoiced- I could finally place a name to a face. I’m sure she was thinking similar thoughts, along with how she could finally enjoy a few minutes of normalcy after a month and a half stuck indoors.
A month and a half.
Much has changed in life over the last month and a half. I’m sure you feel it, too. For starters, how strange is it that it took me nearly two months to meet a person living in the house right next to ours? But now that life is getting back to normal - at least for those of us in the midwest - it got me thinking about this time we’ve lived through and the word we’ve become all-too-familiar with over the last few weeks:
I recently learned where the word originated from and realized how much value we can glean from it as we choose to move forward with life.
You may not know it, but quarantine is the Latin word for forty. Back in ancient Rome, when a woman’s husband passed away, she would seclude herself inside of her house for forty days of mourning. Afterwards, she would then be expected to move on in life. This usually meant remarrying or becoming a widow, if she were wealthy enough.
In later times, the word would be applied to the sailing world. When a ship pulled into port carrying disease, it would be set apart and closely monitored for the safety of those who lived on shore. All of the crew and passengers would be secluded for forty days - or quarantined - to ensure the disease would not spread needlessly to land.
Likewise, the number forty held vast significance in the ancient world. Forty - or quarantine, as the Romans would say - represented the end of an epoch and the beginning of a new, improved era; an impossible-to-miss marker pointing to a specific ending which lead to a revitalized beginning. Take, for instance, the 157 times the number forty is used in the Bible and the events surrounding each one of them (the Flood, the Exodus, Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, etc.). Yes, the number forty was always a big deal in ancient times.
Today, we stand at the end of an epoch and at the beginning of a brand new era. A crossroads, if you will. Standing here together, I believe we can all see the significance of the era we’ve just lived through. Will we allow its memory to fade away or will we carry it on into the future? The danger we all face is in forgetting the struggle, abandoning the lessons, and resuming life as it was before. But why go back to what was when this quarantine we’ve all lived through is an impossible-to-miss marker pointing us toward a brand-new era and direction?
I looked out of my window one last time to study the lawn. It was now bereft of all color but green. My neighbor, now indoors, was concocting a brand new life and future for those tiny, yet glorious purple flowers. Can you believe each one was destined to fade away and become a distant memory mere minutes ago? But with love and intentional thought, my neighbor’s effort has made all the difference in the world for those wild, purple violets. She has given them new life.
May it be the same with all of us as we move forward.