I am not a good neighbor.
I’m not a bad one, either, but when we moved last year I didn’t bake things and introduce myself to the people living on my block. I probably would have, in retrospect, if I had known that my daughter would make such a point of repeatedly running out the front door, stark naked, refusing to come inside until I caught her and dragged her back.
She’s only three, and I don’t want her to feel at all strange or worried about being naked at this age (it’s a short enough time that any of us gets to be that comfortable in our skin, after all), but I also worry about how others might be looking at her, from their own front windows. Also, you know, dangers lurk in the lawn – the occasional thistle or bramble, something that might cause slivers. Dog poop from the neighbors’ little black dog.
I somehow enter a conversation about tipping at restaurants and mention that I tip extra when I eat out with Dot and somehow people start talking about parents who can’t control their kids and I cringe because she has run around a restaurant before. She has climbed all over booths. Not without consequences, but she’s young and kinetic and sitting still while her parents eat a full meal is, clearly, one of the most boring things ever, even when we work really hard to include her in the conversation and entertain her. I think sometimes even when parents are working hard to help their children get used to societal norms and rules, their work is ignored if it doesn’t result in obvious obedience and silence. I don’t think we’ve ever spoiled anyone else’s dinner or grocery shopping trip, but there are times when I can’t “control” my kid and still have to pay the tab or buy milk.
I stepped out to extinguish the pumpkin lights last night, standing under the porch light that my father fixed while he was visiting. I was wearing some pajamas that have seen better days, and I suddenly remembered the woman who lived across the street from me when I was growing up. How Mom would talk about her, half pitying, half wondering, this person who did her gardening in her bathrobe and after dark. This neighbor we didn’t know that well even though we lived in one of those small towns where everyone talks about what everyone is doing. All the time. And now I wonder about that neighbor’s story, whether she minded that people talked about her, how she grew into someone who didn’t let that stop her.
Some days I feel like I’m not doing so well acclimatizing to societal norms myself. Like a messy-haired cave woman brought forward in time against her will. I can put on a bit of polish long enough to get by, and it’s not entirely fake, but it’s an effort most of the time. I’m not good at holding up conversations with strangers, and I watch my child anxiously, hoping the tigers don’t creep out of the forest to pounce, even while I try not to be anxious. I can talk about Shakespeare and multimedia learning theory but thrumming in the back of my brain I’m cawing out death, fear, love, protect in a sort of primal chant that seeps through, eventually. Even with friends, I can’t avoid being awkward, making missteps. And this autumn I’ve been missing Teddy with what seems like renewed fierceness that I think has something to do with wanting another baby and knowing it’s not a good idea to have one, at least not right now.
Last night N and I took Dot around the neighborhood for her first evening of real trick-or-treating. We peeked through several doorways at other human beings who were just as awkward as I am, all with their own signs of being messed up. There were sleep deprived new parents, older folks who smelled of years and years of cigarettes, college students who had forgotten to get candy for trick-or-treaters, people who looked at Dot with wistfulness I don’t presume to interpret. And all of them smiled at my daughter and listened to her enthusiastic “trick or treat!” and her more quiet “thank you.”
It made me feel less alone in my messy awkwardness and helped me remember that I’m not (for worse and for better) all that unique. I’m just a part of humanity – messy, interconnected, grieving, loving, growing and aging, getting-through-the-day and wondering-what-it-all-means humanity. Halloween, mythologically speaking, is supposed to be a time when the doors between worlds are thrown open. I am grateful to the people in our neighborhood for opening their doors to us and making me feel more a part of the world, for a reminder that I am surrounded by good neighbors and that becoming one is within my reach.