"Neighbor is a Term of Endearment" (Essay)

Has interacting with our community of geography become quaint and old-fashioned?

I was biking up to town yesterday running errands. I often do - driving 30,000 miles or more each year means I leave my van in the driveway for days on end when I’m home. As I turned up the blacktop, I saw my elderly neighbor whose house burned down in January. He was just dropping by his property to check on things after a weeklong veterans trip to Korea.

He is always talkative anyway, but he was full of excitement about a very pleasant return to a place where he endured a lot of misery. He's wrapped a lot of living up in 87 years, including a lot of hard times in the segregated south, and yet he is always full of joy about something. I'm pretty sure he doesn't know my name, and I'm pretty sure it doesn't much matter. We are neighbors, you see.

I long ago slid into the easiness of saying "hello neighbor" around home.  I don't always know everyone's name, though I may know their face well. "Neighbor" is a comfortable acknowledgement, that you are a part of my community, and that I'm glad to see you out and about. From the littlest tykes to the village elders who rarely leave the house, the many colors, sizes, shapes and wrinkles in our faces are what make us this community. And yes, I suppose it will give me cover should the vagaries of aging someday rob me of my memory, such that I no longer recall the names that I used to know.

To me the word is not a quaint nicety left over from a bygone era, it is a term of endearment. I see you, and I care that you are ok. But it means something else, too. In this era of incredible societal upheaval made possible by technological advancement, it is a stand against the tide of sorts.

I've remarked many times how I feel my life as a touring songwriter is a precious gift, a window to the soul of a nation in a time of tumultuous change much like Woody and the Depression, or Dylan in the 60s. Technology makes it possible for us now to collect a community of choice, bound by shared values and binary matrices carried in a current of electrons, regardless of our physical location. And makes it possible for us to put selective emotional distances and barriers in our geographic community, especially around those neighbors whose Election Year yard decorations might trumpet a different candidate and philosophy. In so doing, it enables us to more easily strip away little bits of their human worth and dignity in our perception.

We've seen times of deep division in our past, and they don't always end easily - reference particularly the bitterness of the Revolution and the Civil War. Stings and stains that remain present in many ways, and reincarnated and reinvigorated in a modern context. That division is facilitated by being able to disengage from those who disagree, despite our human similarities and needs. It is ever easier to be thin-skinned and intolerant, to "suffer fools poorly", and to heap labels of scorn and derision upon "the others".

Yet I naively and quixotically soldier on, greeting my neighbors with a wave and familiar salutation, regardless of the slogans on their yard signs and bumpers. There is no "them", only us, and we are all here together no matter how we choose to perceive it. It is occasionally surprising just how much we neighbors have in common besides the weather.

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