I got my first real sense of Knoxville nearly 10 1/2 years ago. I had been here before, I came to get my step daughter settled when she moved here for grad school, we had visited, there had been a wedding, but it was then, in September of 2006 that I really began to get a feel for the place and its citizens. My grandson had just been born and I was here to help out. Mostly I was in the house, cooking, cleaning, being helpful however I could. But each day I would go out: out for groceries, out to pick up something or another, to buy yarn, to explore, whatever. Each day I went out, and each day I met someone new.
That wasn't really my plan, I wasn't planning on meeting people. I wasn't planning on moving here, but apparently it came naturally, I suppose in the same way breathing comes naturally. I remember the day I stopped at a packing/shipping store way out west, somewhere past Cedar Bluff, which at that time was terra incognita to me. I don't remember why I was there, what I was looking for, but I remember talking to the young proprietor, his baby playing on the floor behind him at the counter, his wife helping someone else. I remember chatting with him about his baby, about his store, about how excited and tired and proud he was. This store was his dream. He had worked at a shipping store in high school, and how, out of college and newly married, he and his wife had looked for a place to make their life. They found a church, a house, a storefront nearby they could afford on a busy road. He spoke of how tired they were, what with a new house, a baby, now 16 months old, a new store. They couldn't afford employees yet, so this was their life: store, house, church. But they were making ends meet and doing a little better each month. I remember he told me how blessed he felt, and how he wanted his son to know that home, work, faith, these things defined who you were. Of course, watching his baby playing contentedly on the little matt behind the desk made me think of my grandson, of his future.
I haven't been back, I don't even remember where that store was, not exactly. But I do remember them. In those brief moments that family became a part of my life.
But why these memories? Why now?
This weekend I was a delegate to the Diocesan conference for the Episcopal Diocese of East Tennessee. There was a speaker, Alan Roxburgh, and we had been asked to read his book, Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World. This was all typical, and some years I wonder why we have to both read the book and listen to the speaker because often the message is the same. I'm not saying it was that different this time, but, on the morning of the second day Mr. Roxburgh said something that has resonated in my head ever since, something that has brought a few itinerant memories to the fore. The speaker was talking about a church he had been working with and he mentioned that one of the parishioners, when asked about his neighbors, replied that he knew the six families on his street that attended his church.
I was taken aback. I know all my neighbors. We may not be close friends, but I know their names, and their grandchildren's names, something about what they like and dislike, where they are from. I would recognize them on the street or in a different city, I would be able to ask them about their lives. As I thought about it I realized that I have always known all my neighbors, at least in my adult life. It never occurred to me that people did not know their neighbors, although truthfully I never thought about it. I just assumed that this was typical, and I was stunned by the realization that it is not.
I asked my friend, who was there as well, another delegate, and she said that perhaps more people didn't know their neighbors than did. Once again, I thought, evidence that I live in a bubble. And I was puzzled, although in retrospect I don't know why. I don't think my parents knew our neighbors when I was growing up. My mother doesn't know most of her neighbors now; she probably wouldn't know any if my brother didn't live next door.
When I was young I envied my mother her ability to just start up a conversation with anyone she met, another person in line, for example. I am often in my head, and not really interested in starting conversations. I am slow to get to know people. I don't really feel the need to go out and "meet people". But I don't ignore people either. I suppose I have more of a talent for connection than I had realized, or accepted in myself, but it is not because I am either outgoing or willing to strike up conversations with strangers. More likely I just have a talent for listening and paying attention; the conversations flow naturally out of that natural instinct. As I grew older, I realized I may be reserved, that it may take me a while to form deep bonds, but I do connect with the people around me on multiple levels.
Somewhere along the line I began to recognize that although my mom can talk to almost anyone, she is not good at long term friendships, that these conversations are mostly ephemeral, and that she has trouble maintaining relationships. I feared that I both lacked the ability to connect and that I would end up being as isolated as she is now. I see that I was looking at the picture through the wrong lens.
I suppose I am not as shy and asocial as I thought, although I still wouldn't say I was outgoing. Sometimes I am supposed to be talking to people in some official capacity and I don't, and I occasionally berate myself for this, for occasionally being too detached. But perhaps I shouldn't. I need the space at times. I was supposed to go to a group get-together last night, I had told someone at the convention that I would go, but in the end I didn't. I was still recovering my inner equilibrium after all the input, all the voices, from the convention. Mostly I see that, as usual I concentrate more on what I am not, and give short shrift to who I am. It seems it is possible that my detachment is not necessarily destructive, but protective, and that I am still listening, still caring, and that this balance between detachment and caring is also a part of the breath of life.
It is true that I do stand back and observe a lot. Sometimes I am just wandering somewhere in my own inner zone and I don't want to be disturbed. This is often true when I am out running errands, but occasionally at events as well. More often I am just enjoying the flow, the eddy of conversations and connections, like hearing a symphony and watching the music dance before you across the room. And yet connections seem to find me and I routinely talk to people in stores or at cash registers. I routinely talk to my neighbors when I see them, and probably more than talking, I just listen. I didn't meet everyone right away, it took me a couple of years to get a sense of all 38 households in my neighborhood.
I think that sense of connection is important. Isn't that what we all want, to feel connected? We yearn for it, and yet we have built a society that seems more intent on isolation, on separate spheres for work, play, belief. And yet who better to be connected to than the people who surround us every day? It isn't really about whether we go to the same church or believe the same things, but just that we are there, occupying the same territory, in contact with each other, together. Aren't we all yearning for community? Community is all around us and we just aren't paying attention.
I remember meeting a young couple once, at Ashe's Liquor Store. This was during that same 2006 visit, when I was a new grandma. They were students, recently married, on a very tight budget. They had decided they wanted to learn about wine and had figured out they could squeeze out $15 a week and they were being thoughtful and methodical about their process. As we chatted, their enthusiasm was infectious. They weren't my neighbors and yet they were, just as much my neighbor as the lady who rings up my order at Lowes; the 91 year old down the street who walks 5 miles every day; the young man who lived above me in my first neighborhood, who would beat his wife when he had one too many beers; the Bosnian refugees who struggled to get by and watched in amazement as their small girls became American before their very eyes; the man who loves to write letters to the paper; the woman who discovered a love of acting late in life; the couple stretched to their limits trying to give their children a life they never had; the Sunday school teacher, the civil war scholar; the elderly widow who struggles with how she will manage when her HOA dues go up more than her Social Security; the people who have too much; the people who wonder how they will keep up; the woman who is terrified of dogs but will spend hours nursing the smallest, sickliest plant back to life.
I'm going to miss my neighbors when I move, but I will have new neighbors, a new community. I realize even as I think about my neighbors, that all my communities are blurring together in my head, as they did in the paragraph above, over three decades of neighbors, all of whom have given me an incredible gift of their presence, all of whom have enriched my life.