I had some neighbors growing up. I remember meeting lots of them during the first days that we’d moved to my childhood home when I was eight years old — standing around with them at the edge of our yard while they explained how to pronounce their surname and passed my parents welcome bags of homemade trail mix.
After that, we saw pieces of each other nearly every single day. They knew me when I was walking to the bus stop in a plaid dress and knee high socks. And I knew them when they were making their daily stroll around the neighborhood, playing drums in their attic or addressing new landscaping issues in their front yards.
They knew me when I would skateboard around in high school, looping through the thirty second ringtone clips I’d bought for my flip phone, and I knew when they left for work and when they got home. I knew their lives from years watering their plants for a small fee and subsequently wandering through the empty rooms of their dark houses, smelling their house smell.
In London, I’ve never known my neighbors. Maybe knowing your neighbors is something that only happens if you’ve lived somewhere a while and are, therefore, more invested in who lives around you. Perhaps you’re even with kids or animals, and need to know that the people around you are kind and good.
It could also be that knowing your neighbors is harder in a big city, where the fences between properties are taller than me and where people are constantly out and about visiting friends, working, shopping and seeing things. The chances of two neighbors using their back garden at the same time is rare. Couple that with the fact that personal space is limited in a big city and it’s easy to see why no one bothers to introduce themselves to their invisible and only sometimes audible neighbors.
Since lockdown, the weather has been great, which means I can spend time in my back garden, working there and eating lunch there and stretching there when I’m done running. I do all my drawing out there and most of my sitting on chairs near the back where I can look up and see the beautiful flat that I live in. I’ve had about eight barbecues in the last two months and there’s another one tomorrow.
My partner, Dan, and I were recently spending some time outside on one of these beautiful summer days. We lit the barbecue, poured a beer and sat on a yoga mat. We were playing a boardgame and, without any music on, we became absorbed in a conversation that was happening around a table just a few feet away in the garden to our left. We started to eavesdrop.
It sounded like a group of people in their mid-forties. One person was grilling and the rest of them were sat around a table, talking about normal things — what they did for work, what quarantining was like. Over the course of the evening, I got more and more invested in my neighbors and what they were saying. And as I continued to eavesdrop, I began to feel like I was on Love is Blind — captivated by humans who, when everything else was stripped away and while we were living identical lives during lockdown, began to feel closer. I didn’t have to see them or even be involved in their conversation to feel warmth from being surrounded by humans. They lifted my spirits just by being themselves — explaining how to barbecue corn, adjusting their bum in their deck chair, remaining relatively quiet, asking a boring question.
It felt a little bit like walking around my childhood neighborhood and seeing some dad outside cleaning a lawn mower, or some mom cleaning a car. I felt, once again, integrated into a society that was bigger than my little flat.
In lockdown, there isn’t the opportunity to change scene very much. We’re surrounded by our own thoughts for all of every day. Since I’m not that good at changing mental scenes all by myself, and since my thoughts often veer toward being anxious and stressful, I’ve found this really hard.
Eavesdropping on my neighbors made me realise what it means to be a “social creature,” helped along by the mere existence of others. It’s made me realise that I need to hear the voices of others so that I can stop thinking for a second about the voices inside my head. The thoughts of strangers shape my perspective. Someone lost their job? I’m lucky to have mine. Someone is sick? I’m lucky to be well. If I only have my own perspective to go off of, this period in time is really hard. But when I realise the extent to which I am safe, happy and still in a world where ordinary conversations happen among neighbors across patio tables, I feel ready to carry on and not let the things in my head bog me down.