Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Building Fences

There's a towering old maple in our backyard that looks like it might be sixty or seventy years old. I love to sit under it during the summer. Love the way its long branches swish in the breeze. In a world of concrete and brick and florescent lighting, it always reminds me that the world is not closed, that nature exists, even in suburban towns. Unfortunately, our fences reflect the opposite. They look like something from the eighties, green wire and steel poles that look more like sentries on duty than a part of the landscape. A backyard isn't quite the same when the only thing that separates you from your neighbour is some plastic green wire. I've been thinking about adding some wooden lattice to those fences, but seeing as how they're expensive and we're still just renting, it probably won't happen. For now, I have to hope my neighbours aren't outside if I want some privacy.

My wife and I moved to Richmond Hill (about forty minutes north of Toronto) last year, and we liked this house from the outset. It's an old neighbourhood, and I imagine our duplex was built shortly after the Second World War. Many of the people who live here rent (a duplex this close to Toronto now sells for $650K), and it's an open, friendly blue-collar street. We met our neighbours within days, and were invited for beers and barbecues throughout the summer. As opposed to life in our previous place, a twenty-six floor high rise, we were part of a community. I've always felt that this is the way things were supposed to be, this sharing of our life. (If only because it's very difficult to live a Kind Life when the people around you won't speak to you, or think it odd that you want to talk to them.)


By the end of the first month, I had visions of Shane Claibourne's Irresistible Revolution. (Claibourne is a Christian social activist who moved in with a bunch of friends in one of the poorer communities in Philadelphia. The book is inspiring.) I'd heard sermons about helping people and doing it with your daily living and how we needed to be more than just a bunch of religious know-it-alls most of my life. So, I jumped in with both feet. We both did.

A year has passed, and my perspective has changed. Oh, I still believe in a Kind Life. Still believe that we need to, in the words of my missionary father-in-law, "be present," with our neighbours, I also better understand why people (who can afford it) build massive homes with huge plots of land so no one will bother them. A year of living IN, as you might say, and I'm less inclined to judge them. Fact is, if you're going to try a Kind Life in a neighbourhood like ours, you have to be ready for the shit storms that inevitably follow. Because they WILL follow.


In the past month, I've walked past a neighbour telling her teenage daughter to "shut the f*ck up, you stupid, f*cking moron," had to walk over to another neighbour who'd just been thoroughly beaten by her boyfriend and subsequently smashed the front window, and then waited with her while the taxi came, listened to a screaming fight one street over, where the only word you could consistently understand was "f*ck." There are days we can't open the window in our bedroom because the neighbours behind us smoke so much weed our entire house smells like a dead skunk.

And then, of course, there's the noise. Some days, I'm pretty sure I'm back in my hometown and its 1985 and the guy next door is blaring his ghetto blaster to make sure everyone else gets to hear another Steve Miller song. (Middle aged white guys and classic rock stations. Nothing has changed.) The houses are all duplexes, and the people here don't seem to care who might be listening, because they're going to scream at the top of their lungs, EVEN WHEN THEY'RE HAPPY.

It's the arguing that drags you down though. Good grief, sometimes you just feel like screaming back at them. YOU KNOW THAT YOUR YELLING DOESN'T WORK, RIGHT? IF IT DID, YOU WOULDN'T BE YELLING ALL THE TIME! You begin to feel like you're under siege, and your home doesn't feel like a home so much as a few thin walls and that crappy fence separating you from total chaos.

More than once recently, it's crossed my mind that a Kind Life isn't worth it. That Shane Claibourne is full of it. That a one acre lot in the country would look damn fine right now, if only for a few moments of freaking peace. And quiet. Oh blessed Saviour, how we LOVE it when things are quiet. (And by quiet, I don't mean silence, though that would be amazing. I mean the absence of yelling, fighting, and blaring music.)


But then, there are these moments. The other side of our duplex is occupied by two single moms. As a rule, I cut their lawn as well as ours. I'm not sure how it started, but this spring I noticed their lawn was pretty long, so why not. It's not a big deal, and it only takes an extra thirty minutes. But when I'm done, the world looks a little different. I don't mean that in a overly dramatic sense, I just mean that for a while, the earth feels a lot more firm beneath my feet. And then there are other moments. Like figuring out where a stray cat can spend the night with the person across the street, or Bethany driving around the neighbourhood for thirty minutes after a finding a lost puppy and experiencing the gratitude of an owner who clearly loved the little guy. (He'd slipped out the door and taken off.) Or having your neighbour's little girl run up to you and give you a hug. ("Hi Steve!") Or spending time in conversation with younger friends on the street, listening to their struggles and offering some advice and encouragement. We never had those moments in the high rise.

Nothing about the Kind Life is easy. It's not. (And it isn't condescending either. Just because Bethany and I try to "be present" doesn't make us one whit better or different than the people around us. They've helped us, too.) And it can't be done in the abstract. Life is a grubby and often nasty mess, and humans are prone to stupidity and cruelty as often as they're prone to kindness and laughter. But is it worth it? You bet it is.

Despite my frustrations, despite our frustrations, my hope is that you stick it out. (Please. I need someone to vent to.) There'll be days when you're fairly certain that if you hear Stairway to Heaven one more time you're going to tear your eyeballs out, but hang in there. Think about the moments that matter, the ones that light you up in a way nothing else does and give purpose to our rambling and often incoherent existence. There's nothing wrong with building a fence or two, so long as we don't start putting up walls. Trust me, you'll miss all the good stuff.