Knowing the People Next Door

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When I lived in an apartment in another town in another state, I knew none of my neighbors. I can actually think of three places I lived in which I knew no one next door or even in the building. I saw people come and go. One neighbor had a car filled with papers and junk—he was a hoarder, but I didn’t know him or even his name or what apartment he lived in. In one place, I often heard the couple next door argue—the walls thin between us, their voices loud and charged—but I never met them. I’m not even sure I ever saw them. I already felt lonely in these places, and not knowing the people around me made me feel more isolated. 

Finally, in my thirties, I moved into a condominium complex with my then-husband, and we met the neighbors: the couple next door moved in the same day we did. All four of us adapted to the place—the bus system, the school calendar, the best grocery store in the vicinity. They taught me how to arrange plants in a container garden. They gave me a book for my birthday. When my then-husband and I split up, they were surprised. After all, there’s what you know about your neighbors, and there’s what you don’t know. After the divorce, and after I decided to keep the condo, one of them would always come over and help when I found a roach and was too freaked out to get near it. When I was scared at night, alone, I took comfort in the fact that they were right on the other side of the wall if I needed them.

Later, they got divorced, and I was surprised. I knew they were going through some tough times, but there’s what I knew about their issues, and there’s what I didn’t know.

Now I live in a house with my second (and wonderful) husband. He bought our home from his grandfather, and when I first moved in a decade ago, just after we married, I loved that most of the people around us had lived here when his grandparents had, too. These neighbors welcomed me, made me feel like I belonged. Today, I know the names of all the people in the houses right next door, and I know many people on our street. My neighbors bring me bread, and they give me flowers cut from their yard. They tell me when we have left a light on in the car in the driveway, they offer tomatoes from their garden, they pick up our mail when we go out of town. I do things for them, too—I get their mail when they leave town, I let out their dog at lunch when they are gone all day, I offer vegetables from our garden. We wave hello, we ask how each other is doing, we hug when one of us has experienced a hard day, or, worse, a loss. 

I feel safer knowing the people around me. I am comforted by their kindness. When I am lonely, I take a walk, and more often than not, I run into someone I know. The talking, the how-are-you-doing, cheers me. In recent weeks, I have met four more neighbors—people I had passed by but never stopped and talked to. One family a few doors down has a dog, and that day the pup had been fixed. As the dog ambled around the front yard, my neighbor and I talked about that, we talked about the dog I grew up with, we talked about the dog she got when she was single, we talked about having to let each of them go when they got old. Another evening, a young couple was out taking a walk, pushing a stroller with their new(ish) baby while my dog and I were out in our front yard. I walked to the street and introduced myself. I walked with them for a block or two. I wanted to know them, but I also wanted them to know me, to know that if they needed someone, I was here.

Sometimes when I think about our moving to a different house, I think, “But what about our neighbors?” I hope I have made a positive impact on them, too, just as they have for me.

There are a lot of lonely people in the world. Are you one? Do you know someone who is? Meet your neighbors. Say hello. Wave at them and smile when they pass by.


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A Path that Goes for Miles

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Recently, my husband, Preston, and I took a trip back to my hometown in Ohio. He wanted to pack our bicycles, which we rarely use when we are here in Tennessee, so he got out the bike rack and hoisted it and our bikes up onto our car, and we drove the seven hours with them atop. 

The week we were in Ohio, a heat wave came through, and it was sweltering—so much so that I didn’t take evening walks, as I normally do when I am in my hometown. We ended up getting out in the morning only; during the afternoons and evenings, we stayed inside where it was cool. I was thinking we might not get on our bikes at all.

But one morning my husband said he wanted to go for a ride, and I was up for embracing the heat and sweat, so we got on our bikes and pedaled to the Little Miami Bike Trail, which is blocks from my parents’ house. This SW Ohio trail is 78 miles long—not that we were planning to do more than a few miles of it—and is part of the nation’s largest network of paved, off-street trails through woodlands, farms and towns. The bike trail has run through my hometown for decades, and I’ve walked on it a mile or so, but I hadn’t gone too far on it in many years. 

In fact, the last time I could remember going more than five miles one-way on the trail, I was in my twenties, and I was dating a man who loved to ride a bike. He loved biking so much that I bought a black bicycle just so I could ride with him. One day we biked the trail all the way to Xenia and back—sixteen miles round-trip—and another day, when we had been dating about six months, we biked to the beautiful bridge partway to Xenia and got off our bikes and looked over the edge into the Little Miami River. It was September, and I can’t remember now if it was hot or chilly. In my memory, it was just right. He was quiet at first, as was I, staring down into the water, and then he asked me to marry him. I can’t remember now if he had the ring with him or not. I only remember that he asked, and I said yes, and it was the last time we biked to that bridge and it was the beginning of our engagement that led to a marriage that eventually led to a divorce a few years later and to the end of a thing I had believed in so steadily that it stunned me that it was over.

I was not eager to return to that bridge, especially in those first few post-divorce years when memories were still sore and tender, but that was so long ago. 

When Preston and I recently rode down the Little Miami Bike Trail, I was unaware of how far we had gone until suddenly there was the bridge and there was the river. Sometimes it’s good to not know where you will end up before you get there. The bridge was bigger than I remembered, more metal, more height, but memory does that—changes things as we change. The bridge was still beautiful, serene, a place to think about important things, a place to look over the edge and contemplate questions and answers. Preston and I stood side by side and peered into the water from up high. 

I’ve thought about how this place was once a point of happiness for me, and later one of melancholy, and now just another place on the trail, a stopping point before we turned around. 

Preston and I got on our bikes and pedaled the miles back to the place I grew up. We got ice cream. We slept late. We got coffee together in the morning, as we always do, with his carrying my computer for me into the Emporium so I could write while he ate breakfast across from me, waiting for me to be ready to go on with our day.

I’m glad the bridge is still there, that it waits without judgment, the water reflecting what it sees and nothing more. I picture the two of us in its reflection. 

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A Small Thing to Want (in 23 Steps)

This is how it happens:

  1. July 2011: At the Antioch Writer’s Workshop in Ohio, the publisher and editor-in-chief of Press 53 gives a publishing talk to participants—yes, that includes me. I am just a face in the audience of over a hundred people in stadium seats in a building that sits next to a cornfield on the edge of the town I grew up in. The boonies, but a good kind of boonies. Later I will remember the publisher and editor-in-chief—Kevin Morgan Watson—as knowledgeable, easygoing, and willing to answer any questions. But I’m not ready for questions, as I don’t yet have a book. I hope one day I will.

  2. January 2014: I start my MFA graduate program in creative writing, focusing on memoir.

  3. June 2014: I get stuck—big-time writer’s block—while sitting at my desk that faces a window that frames trees and a birdhouse. I am trying to work on my memoir and getting nowhere while the birds flit around and peck and eat. I start writing short stories (fiction!) to get unstuck. Because these short stories are fiction, I don’t have to stick to the truth. I am free! This works. I am unstuck. I write whatever the hell I want, just for me. Eventually I get back to my memoir writing, fully unstuck.

  4. August 2014 (or so): I apply to study fiction in my MFA program. I am accepted.

  5. January 2015: I start studying fiction and realize how similar fiction writing is to memoir writing, but also how vastly different. I learn an incredible amount from a professor who is a badass. I want to be her, but since I have already reached mid-life and I am who I am, I give thanks that I know her and hope some of her badass-ness rubs off on me.

  6. September 2015: I get diagnosed with a disease. I have to rise to the occasion and be strong. I realize I do have some badass-ness in me after all. I do my best to complete my graduate school work and meet my deadlines. The days get shorter. The grey of winter nears.

  7. January 2016: I graduate from my MFA program with a completed memoir manuscript. I take the next few months to revise it and then start submitting it to publishers.

  8. April 2016: I am out weeding my garden when I get an email saying that I have been offered a book contract for the memoir (yay!). Twenty minutes later I realize I need some guidance on vetting this publisher. Who might be able to help me? I remember Kevin Morgan Watson from Press 53 and email him. He is kind enough to advise me, even though he doesn’t know me (I was just one face out of a hundred, after all), and I gobble up this advice.

  9. May 2016: I turn down the book contract. I decide to revise my memoir again (even though it has already been through the gristmill during my MFA program. I know, I know! But I can’t help it, and yes, the manuscript does improve).

  10. August 2016: I send my memoir out to one more publisher, Platypus Press. I am still waiting to hear from the others, but this publisher is the only that has my newly revised memoir manuscript.

  11. October 2016: Platypus Press offers me a contract for my memoir. I get the email while in the Charlotte airport, heading back to Ohio for a visit. Ohio is my lucky charm. I say yes, yes, yeeeeesssss! This will prove to be a wonderful decision. I write Kevin Morgan Watson of Press 53 and thank him for his help on vetting publishers.

  12. June 2017: My memoir, The Going and Goodbye, is published.

  13. 2017 & 2018: I go on my book tour. I talk at bookstores, book clubs, whoever will have me. When I am not doing book events (and when I am not working at the funeral home) I am writing fiction. People ask me, “Are you going to write another memoir?” I tell them I have nothing more to say about my life at this moment—I put everything into the memoir. But that’s not exactly true. There are stories from my life I couldn’t remember in detail enough to render them adequately (and truthfully) in my memoir, so I left them out. I take the heart of these left-out stories and make them into fiction, where I am free to make up details and dialogue since fiction means describing imaginary events and people.

  14. September 2017: I attend a weekend writing workshop for fiction. My teacher kicks me in the butt. Figuratively. It hurts so much that I stop writing fiction for months. I just can’t look at it. The bruise will last longer than I think it will. But even as I am rubbing the sore spot, I know she has given me a gift, and that my writing will get better because of her. By spring, I will be writing again. By summer, I will see my writing is, indeed, better. That summer, I will write the best short story I have ever written.

  15. March 2018: I attend AWP (Association of Writing & Writing Programs) for the first time. It’s the biggest writing conference in the U.S., and I am overwhelmed. I walk the AWP Bookfair in search of potential publishers for my short story collection, which isn’t yet complete but on its way. I go to the booth of Press 53 and talk to Kevin Morgan Watson, remind him I’m that person he advised, and thank him again. We talk books. We talk writing. We talk literary stuff. He asks me what I am working on. I tell him a short story collection. He says to let him know when I finish it. I am happy about this and keep what he says tucked in the back of my mind.

  16. September 2018: I drive to Burnsville, North Carolina to give a couple of talks at a literary festival. Sweet mountain town, great weather, shops and restaurants. I know no one. I wander around solo, and then I run into Kevin Morgan Watson at the pop-up bookstore. He remembers who I am. We talk books. We talk writing. We talk literary stuff.

  17. January 2019: I send Kevin Morgan Watson my short story collection—well, I send him a query and the first story of the collection. He writes me back after a few days and says send the whole thing.

  18. February 2019: Crickets.

  19. March 2019: Crickets.

  20. Most of April 2019: Crickets.

  21. End of April 2019: Kevin Morgan Watson messages me and asks if he can call me. I say sure. This is going to be the pity call, the thanks-for-your-cute-little-book-but-I’m-going-to-have-to-pass phone call. He knows me, so I figure he is being polite enough to call and let me down rather than email me. Which is nice, don’t get me wrong. He calls. I am standing in an aisle at Lowe’s, my dog on a leash in one hand, my cell phone in the other, my husband near me searching for the right light switch to match our others. Kevin Morgan Watson tells me he wants to publish my book. He wants to publish my book. Because I do not know him well enough to whoop out loud, I do not, but I do say thank you and that I am excited about the prospect. Which I am.

  22. May 2019: Kevin Morgan Watson and I talk contract. We talk story choices. We talk title of the collection. He introduces me to Claire, assistant short fiction editor at Press 53, and she uses the term “maximum pronoun clarity,” and this tells me she and I are going to get along just fine.

  23. June 2019: Claire and Kevin and I talk story choices. We talk title. We agree on A Small Thing to Want. I sign the contract. This is how it happens.

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Photo of road by Michael Coury from Unsplash.com