I’m not used to living so close to people.
Our first evening in our house in Coronado, we stopped still and listened in amazement. We were eating dinner on the deck, and we could hear the children on the other side of the fence, just 10 feet away from our dinner table, chattering with each other as they jumped on their trampoline. We could see them through the gaps in the bamboo fence. Just 10 feet away! We could watch their parents come out to break up an argument between them. We could hear the words exchanged, hear the inflections of frustration and exhaustion in their voices, see glimpses of their clothes and their gestures and their moving lips.
We turned back to our meal, trying to ignore the lives being lived just a few feet away, as we fed our children blueberries and turkey.
That night, Elliott and I put our kids to sleep and then leaned back on our own pillows to read before bed. It was 8 o’clock, quiet. And then — again! — we heard voices, different neighbors this time: a husband and wife, preparing to eat dinner in their garden.
“Wait! I told you to leave the salmon on the grill for a few more minutes!”
“But it’s done.”
“No, it’s not, look at this. Not flaking! It needs more time.”
I felt my own stomach muscles clench reflexively as the argument escalated. But then…
“Oh, you’re right, honey, I see you’re right. I’ll put it back on.”
I relaxed, impressed with this woman, this new neighbor of mine who knows out to pick her battles. Shyly, I peeked out the window. I could see a middle-aged couple in their quiet garden, he in a woven robe, living out their lives, completely unaware that I could hear every word and observe every action. I closed the shutters. There is a fine line between hearing words unintentionally and watching actions intentionally, and I wanted to respect their privacy.
We did not live close to our neighbors in Sicily. Our house was located on the end of a dead-end street, and the buildings around us were all garages. We lived right below a castle with a large courtyard, so we heard plenty of activity, but we had no windows facing the town or other people. All our windows faced outward towards the countryside: deep valleys, sprawling vistas, and people living hundreds of feet below us, half a mile away.
We liked it. As a mom, I became used it without even trying. The baby is screaming? No one will hear him but my own family. I’m disciplining Lena? No one will hear our interaction, meted out as I see fit. It’s a hot day? No one will see our entire family clad only in underwear.
But immediately our life in California is different. If we can hear them, they can hear us. This is partly because it is HOT here, and none of us have air conditioning, and so we’re all living with every single window open as wide as it can go. And all of us eating outside. And playing outside. And living outside, a few feet from individual decks and backyards, escaping the heat together and practically landing in each other’s laps.
This happened a couple of weeks ago:
“Is it someone’s birthday today?” my neighbor asked when we ran into her on the sidewalk.
“No, not today,” I said, somewhat confused.
“Oh, I thought I heard you singing ‘Happy Birthday’ earlier.”
“We did! I forgot. It’s my sister’s birthday today, and so the kids and I recorded a video of us singing for her.”
And all the while I’m thinking, OMG she heard that?! She can heard everything! She can hear every time I put the kids in time out! She can hear every time Gil has a temper tantrum! She can heard the kids arguing, me intervening, and every conversation we have about poop and pee. All. Day. Long.
Yes, she can hear everything. They can all hear the scattered, louder parts of our everyday lives.
Is there a way to turn this around, to make it something good?
Is there a way to redeem the crowding, to share something other than “Happy Birthday”?
Yes. I’ve been thinking about it for a month now, and I think yes.
What about hearing Lena’s little voice singing, “Jesus Loves Me”?
What about hearing Elliott and I disagree graciously over the grill, like our neighbors did?
What about hearing us talk to our children about obeying God and His Word, instead of disciplining them just because we’re embarrassed or annoyed?
What about hearing us get mad, get frustrated, raise our voices at our kids (we all do, it’s inevitable)… and then ask them for forgiveness?
“I was wrong, Lena, and I’m sorry. I should not have been so angry. Will you forgive me?”
Over the past month, this has slowly become my goal. To let my neighbors hear a life lived out with grace. With frustration, yes. With toddler tears, yes. With lots of “Happy Birthday,” yes. With plenty of failings, plenty of mess, plenty of reality. But also with grace shown to each other, pulled from a source greater than ourselves, filling us up, spilling over, flowing out, shared with others.
Through the windows, across the deck, over the fence, into their homes.
Or over a glass of wine in our backyard. Because I’d like to share that with our neighbors, too.