Long Way From Home

True North. Call myself a *Canadian*? Never been there, but my three sons have. Plus, I know J. (Quiz: could you find Ottawa on this map?)

[6-minute read]

This wasn’t the plan, not at all, but I want to write about J. today. We hadn’t seen him in a while, and I’ve been wondering how he is. Worrying, too, and running little high-stress scenarios through my mind, where we hear gut-punching news or I find him in fearsome or depressing circumstances. Such polite words: I keep waiting to hear he’s dead, incarcerated, strung out, beaten, vacant in the eyes. J. doesn’t have it easy, and he’s an awful long way from home.

We first met when I was doing some fiddly chore in my front yard, the chaos of my garage open to public view. I can’t remember whether his first request was to do some work for a little money; it might’ve been, he’s done that, but that day it was likely a request for a bit of cash to get himself fed. He looked to be in his early 20s, with a mess of long black hair and well-worn sweats. It was unusual to be approached from the street like that, but his manner was gentle, his voice soft and dignified, and his eyes were steady and calm. I gave him some money to go a few blocks over to Lorenzo’s, a pizza place he favoured.

I guessed, correctly, that he was from Nunavut, one of Canada’s northern territories that, as of 1999, has been self-governed according mainly to traditional Inuit ideas of community. (There are no political parties, for example, and therefore no official “opposition” to an elected government.) There’s a direct flight to my city, Ottawa, from the capital of Nunavut, so there’s a small but significant Inuit presence here. We talked. His deliberate but obviously educated speech belied his scruffy appearance, and I was intrigued. Over the succeeding weeks and months, we talked several times. J. was both open about his situation – no family here, mental health struggles, admitted though relatively benign addictions, dependence on panhandling – and mysterious. He’s a complicated fella.

I was never sure whether to buy certain elements of his story. He spoke of having been a scholarship student in engineering at an Ottawa university, but details were either fuzzy or set off my nonsense detectors. Part of that wasn’t J.’s fault, really, because though I was curious and interested about his life, I didn’t want to pry too much. I also didn’t want to be in his face about facts; the kid probably wasn’t in need of an Inquisitor. So, he’d bag a few leaves for food money, while I wondered how he could afford to live in my middle-class neighbourhood and yet often be short of food. (He wasn’t a superb yard-worker.) After a time, I started to talk to him more frankly.

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I Hear Voices

I sit down to think, but instead I listen to the loud male voice next door. I lean toward the wall, waiting for the climax, the blow, the upended table and chair. Sometimes I can hear a softer voice, the mortar between the sharp red bricks, and sometimes nothing seems to interrupt the harangue. Is he talking on the phone? Does he ever run out of breath? Why is he so angry? What is his point?

Of course, it’s all Chinese to me, and this wouldn’t be the first time that this canadien errant has proven himself deaf to the culture, as every billboard and storefront proclaims my blindness, or at least my ignorance. Each time we drag a local friend into my son’s school to mediate between us and the unilingual administrator, I ask, Is she angry? She sounds bitter, and spits out those alien syllables in a way that would spell barely controlled rage on my street. I’m told, no, she may be a little tense, but not angry. Cellphone shouting, a bus driver’s emergence from silence, bartering in the market, so often I hear resentment and irritation that seems out of place. (Maybe it’s me.) It’s disorienting – so many ways to be muddled in Dalian! – to not be surely able to recognize anger in the voices of others.

The shoe of violence didn’t drop next door. I had finally slapped the wall a few times, just to sound a kind of warning if it was male rage I was hearing. Or to suggest they turn down the TV, who knows? Which makes me wonder what our neighbours make of our ex-pat noise-making?

Living Back to Front

My brood – one bride plus one remaining brute equals a brood, for those of you who hate being told to “do the math!” – and I live in a three-bedroom attached house. Eco-bride emailed me the other day with the sales details for our (possibly fictitious) neighbours’ place a half-dozen houses down the row. (We’re not sure we’ve ever seen them.) What stood out to me was that the place apparently has four bathrooms, when it’s hard to imagine that as many as four people live there. My wife, meanwhile, was mock-offended that the ad “didn’t mention the friendly neighbours!” Ha. A sour little inside joke.

The whole point of places like this is to be free to ignore the neighbours. That’s why they’re all built backwards, as most suburban homes are. (Ours is more of a middle-class in-fill to what our real-estate agent thought of as a sketchy part of town – Vanier, for those who know Ottawa – but the same inversion principle applies.) The most prominent feature of our house is our garage, while the front door with its tiny front step is obviously something to pass through like a stealthy wind. That’s why our basketball goal off the drive is such an affront to our nearest neighbours.

We’re supposed to be invisible to each other. That’s why there are such tall and bland and ubiquitous fences. That’s why, ideally, one clicks the garage door opener and drives directly into the garage. That way, once you leave the hermetically sealed, climate-and-aural-environment-controlled ambience of your SUV, you can walk directly into the private foyer without having to risk the possibility of running into a human being not-of-your-same-address. That’s why most of us entertain only in the high-fenced micro-yards out the back patio doors.

And that’s why my wife is such an oddball when she throws a lawn chair out in our tiny front yard to read the newspaper on a warm spring morning. I like our little house, but I’m nostalgic for the old houses where I grew up, the ones with a rambling front porch where folks would drink their coffee, watch their kids, wave at passersby, jibe with the neighbours. And didn’t mind waiting for the bathroom to come free.

More on Community-Building

(This piece is a sequel, not that anybody asked for one, to my September 4 musings about community. The above title should not be confused with moron community-building, which has more to do with what results when, smart though we be, we design our individual and collective lives without the time or the space for things that have sustained and enriched us since we lived in caves, igloos and mud huts. Breathe, brother. Breathe. Some of these simple things appear as suggestions below.)

After last week’s mutterings about air conditioners and the sharing of neighbourhoods with strangers, I promised to get positive. So what follows is a list of suggestions I’ve borrowed from a group called Imagine Ottawa, whose prescriptions target this particular city but are easily applicable to any collection of homes and businesses and play places. I’ve had their list on my bulletin board since Earth Day last April, and offer it in CAPITAL LETTERS. I’m not shouting at you; I’m just highlighting some fine ideas, and distinguishing them from my own rambling commentary, which follows in brackets. There are countless sources of sustainable-community thinking (like this one), but here’s an interesting start to thinking about how to make our neighbourhoods feel more like home:

TURN OFF YOUR TV. (Yup, first on the list. Interesting. We all know it’s a great time-sucker, and the idea is to create more time for all the other fine and interactive things that people do together. For all the hype, computers and other media that trumpet their interactivity are a pale substitute for good old-fashioned exchanges with people we know. Too many people are lonely and isolated, and most of our video/audio consumption these days is done by ourselves.  Reminds me of booze. I don’t do alcohol myself, but I’ve always thought that those who insist on never drinking alone are wise. Maybe we could start with the same rule: Don’t video solo.)

LEAVE YOUR HOUSE. (They can be fortresses of loneliness. And here’s a poet who knew: “Whoever you are: some evening take a step outside of your house which you know so well; enormous space is near…” That’s Rainer Maria Rilke. I use this slice of wisdom over and over.)

LOOK UP WHEN YOU’RE WALKING. (Much easier in the small town I grew up in, but it’s one of the mini-windmills I like to tilt at on city streets, too. People are surprised when I catch their eye and nod or pitch a hello, but they seem to like it. Anywhere, it’s good to acknowledge that other people exist. Smiles go miles. And so on.)

PLANT FLOWERS. GARDEN TOGETHER. (Community gardens are about the most radical, exciting urban development going. I want to be my neighbourhood’s Composter in Chief.)

SIT ON YOUR FRONT STEP. (Most of our houses are built backwards. Our front approaches are dominated by cars and garages. Our enjoy-the-outside zones tend to be out back, behind fences, where our neighbours get the message that they are excluded unless we make conscious efforts to invite them.)

TAKE CHILDREN TO THE PARK. PLAY TOGETHER. (It’s one of the perils of affluence: when everybody has everything – tools, sports equipment, entertainment units – nobody needs to share. One author termed it “the poverty of abundance”. I think sharing is a human need, a psychologically enriching thing. Ever noticed how many basketball hoops there are in private suburban driveways, and how seldom they are used? As great as basketball is, it’s more fun to play with others. Kids are more likely to play together when neighbours join together to make/improve/use a play zone in their court or park.)

USE YOUR LIBRARY. (Libraries are public monuments not only to learning but to a shared responsibility for education and the life of the mind. They are temples of equality and a hushed kind of social justice. And they make me crazy with literary lust.)

BUY FROM LOCAL MERCHANTS. (The car-magnet area super-mall is also a kind of temple. But it has more about it of profanity than sacredness, and the people there neither know nor care who you are. Sometimes older folks go there for walks in the winter. I call this making a communal silk purse out of a commercial sow’s ear.)

SUPPORT NEIGHBOURHOOD SCHOOLS. (In Ottawa, our cute little neighbourhood school, two blocks from our house, had been lost before we ever got to know and love it. So our Sam has been a primary school bus rider for three years. The good news? We’ve gotten to know the families who put their kids on the same bus. A bit of silver in that lining.)

FIX IT EVEN IF YOU DIDN’T BREAK IT. (Take that shopping cart back to the grocery store. Pick up a little litter.)

HAVE POTLUCK SUPPERS. ORGANIZE A STREET PARTY ON YOUR BLOCK. (Take a pizza – even better, a casserole – to the new neighbours on their moving day. My girl warmed me with a first-date home-made borscht soup when it was freezing outside. She warms our neighbours with muffins and peach crumble.)

ASK FOR HELP. OFFER YOUR SKILLS. (So often, we look to the Yellow Pages to find a skilled person who might live next door. My neighbour Kuljit put in our new windows. Bernie fixed my light. I did some nerdy editing for Andrea’s résumé and Duncan’s proposal.)

OPEN YOUR WINDOWSHADES. (Open everything.)

The worldwide Bahá’í community has been preaching planetary unity and the inevitability of global peace since the 19th century. The Bahá’ís have always been advocates of world vision, and a grounded, localized expression of that vision. Here in the first decade of a new millennium, I’m fascinated, as a participant/observer of this community’s work, that its core activities are rooted in neighbourhoods. Bring a little spirit. Learn together. Enrich the conversation where we live. Train and encourage the young to be superb neighbours AND world citizens. This is where we live.

I Think My Neighbours Have All Moved Away

Or maybe the sub-prime mortgage crisis has struck my street. (I’ve heard that the ridiculous mortgage terms many Americans accepted, but have had to walk away from by the thousands, were called by bankers “neutron mortgages”: when they blew up, the houses were still standing but the people were all gone.) Or maybe they’re dead. I never hear my neighbours, the ones on either side and in the three houses behind ours in this little pod of nearly-identical town homes.

Yes, I don’t know many of my neighbours, though I could navigate in the dark through every second floor plan of these cloned domiciles. (Reminds me: paint the garage door! Distinction!) On one side of us, I know Marie-Hélène is away – doing some mighty service work in Africa this summer – and Jean and Linda to the west spend most of July and August at the cottage. But if it weren’t for the Sodhi family, two doors over, right now we wouldn’t really know any of the folks in our in-fill housing development. Having grown up on a leafy small-town square, this is something I never quite get used to. It may be time for us to try a neighbourhood drop-in again. I do have loner tendencies, but I like to know my neighbours.

It’s a quiet contemporary disease. We build neighbourhoods with no front porches, houses that often look like gigantic additions to the primary home — the one for the CAR. Ever noticed? In most new houses, the garage is the most obvious feature and one of the main selling points. We love our cars, and most of us drive them absolutely everywhere. (Even in the “good old days”, my Dad drove his Mercury every day to his office a block away. Mind you, he did have an artificial leg.) And the other night, another factor in our progressive isolation from each other, even in cities and ‘burbs, became apparent to me.

I was reading. More specifically, I was reading aloud. Really loud. It was Chapter Five of The Hobbit. I’d been promising this classic tale to my son Sam for awhile – his brothers had all had the treatment when they were younger – and we began in August. (Bonus points, an elvish blade and a cosy nap by a peat fire if you knew that Chapter Five is the wonderful “Riddles in the Dark” section, in which Bilbo meets his — and eventually Frodo’s — nemesis, Gollum.

“Curse it! Curse it! Curse it! Curse the Baggins! It’s gone! What has it got in its pocketses?…My birthday present! How did we lose it, my precious?…But we dursn’t go in, precious, no we dursn’t. Goblinses down there. We smells them. Ssss!…Thief, thief, thief! Baggins! We hates it, we hates it, we hates it forever!”

Yup, that was me, in my pantingly frantic, psychopathologically obsessed, creature-of-blackness-and-dread voice as Gollum, screeching out his loss and his terror and his rage. With my Sam. In our street-facing parental bedroom. With the window wide open. Oops. What did that sound like on the sidewalk? Some people down the street don’t own three cars; they actually walk a fair bit, and Presland Road is a bike route, too. And our neighbours? Gosh, what must they hear, with a seven-year-old who argues madly and tantrums daily, a music-blasting Dad and a Mum who starts conversations from the opposite end of the house? Sheesh. Our windows are mainly open for about six months a year…

And then it occurred to me that, while I sometimes hear the noise of the late-night pedestrians shouting and skateboarding and laughing down the street, I never hear my neighbours from inside their houses. Ah. It’s the air conditioning. Maybe we don’t get a chance to drive them nuts with our banging and hollering because they’re so tightly sealed inside their artificial climate pods. That’s a small relief, I guess. We have AC, too, by the way, though we use it little and only to keep the temperature below 27 degrees (Celsius, needless to say) or so. It’s about energy costs, you know, and about the impossibly large resource footprint our energy-dependent and pampered society leaves behind it from all our comforts. We’re globe-huggers at my house, I admit.

Still, big questions of climate change and economic disparity weren’t really on my mind that day as I thought about my invisible neighbours and their blissful unawareness of the howlings of Gollum. I’m sure they can do without my manic impersonations of wizards, dwarves and the Great Goblin, but I’m here to suggest that maybe all of us don’t do so well when our neighbours are strangers. Many people are finding that the price of their pleasures, their plasma TVs and their secure and spacious homes, is loneliness.  While our houses and cars got bigger, our social network of acquaintances, friends and readily available family got smaller. We’ve forgotten how to do community. Some of us are even mildly phobic about those casual interactions — in markets, public squares and street corners — that sweetened life for our grandparents. In my little hometown, they still happen, but less and less.

Curse us. How did we lose it, my precious? In a subsequent post, I’ll throw out a few ideas about how we can rediscover our precious sense of neighbourhood. It won’t be terribly original. It doesn’t have to be. Let’s start here: do you have someone close by to borrow a cup of sugar from? Does your snow shovel work on any sidewalk but your own? Rilke comes to mind. The German poet once wrote this:

Whoever you are: some evening take a step outside of your house which you know so well; enormous space is near…

Perhaps instead of the desperate shrieks of my good friend Gollum, I could soothingly chant this mantra from the sidewalks of my street. Well, I could if anybody had their windows open, or a lawn chair out front.