When Your Neighbors Can Hear Every Word

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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.ย 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.

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18 Responses to When Your Neighbors Can Hear Every Word

  1. Lucy September 30, 2014 at 5:19 pm #

    That is funny and so sweet. ‘Making lemonade’ with life’s lemons. May God use your desire in untold amazing ways.

    • Becca October 11, 2014 at 11:17 pm #

      Thank you for that! I hope so. We’re getting to know our neighbors better every day after years of not really having neighbors, and I am loving that.

  2. esther. September 30, 2014 at 6:35 pm #

    What a challenge! At this stage of my life, I think I would be more prone to retreat. To put my walls up high and live with an air of avoidance. To let people in to your life in the way you are doing requires a great deal of vulnerability and humility: two life attitudes I seem to be continually presented with over the past several months.

    I pray that your close proximity allows for the bonds of close friendships to be built and that you will be blessed as much as you are a blessing.

    • Becca September 30, 2014 at 9:38 pm #

      Thank you, Esther! I’m hoping they will still want to be friends even after hearing everything that comes from our house. ;)

  3. Poppy September 30, 2014 at 11:10 pm #

    I like the sound of this. Hear, hear…

    • Anonymous October 1, 2014 at 1:16 pm #

      Warm and perceptive as usual–insightful and meaningful !!! You’re a gift of love, wisdom, thoughtfulness everyone , everywhere!

      • Becca October 11, 2014 at 11:17 pm #

        Thank you, Anonymous! Such a kind comment!

  4. Alica October 1, 2014 at 12:09 am #

    I’ve never experienced that closeness…but I am amazed at how sound carries across the fields around here! We might not hear the words, but we can hear if it’s laughter or yelling…and I’m sure “they” can hear us too! It’s a great reminder that we always need to be aware of our attitudes, and of what we say, because you never know who will be just around the corner (or on the other side of the fence!) You are being so intentional about your living, and I admire that!

    • Becca October 11, 2014 at 11:13 pm #

      Wow, it carries across the fields! It’s always a good reminder to think of who might be listening… whether next to you in the public restroom or across the cow pasture.

  5. Joy October 1, 2014 at 12:13 am #

    Really great post! Sounds a lot like our first year here in Hawaii, before we moved into base housing. Fortunately, the neighbor on one side was an elderly widow who couldn’t hear well anyway. Probably saved us a lot of grief because she was a bit of a grump (the reason our house didn’t have a plumeria tree — they’d had to cut it down because the foliage was falling in her pool). ;-). But I often had similar thoughts when I sat at my piano singing praise songs. I was also painfully conscious of the “ugly fights” which, unfortunately, happened a lot last year (unhappy teenage daughter), and having the stomach flu was even less fun knowing the neighbors could hear it all. After our move to base housing, I’ve been thinking a lot about neighbors. There are big houses and air conditioning, but some people still have their fights out in the open as if to make people choose sides. I’ve been thinking a lot about the neighbor I want to be, and these words are an excellent reminder!

    • Becca October 11, 2014 at 11:14 pm #

      Base housing is so tricky, and I am definitely understanding more what my friends in Sigonella talked about all the time. I felt so isolated and cozy, but they were constantly dealing with their neighbors, even if it was through walls and over fences instead of face to face. It’s a tricky thing to live well in such close, temporary quarters.

  6. Alise G October 2, 2014 at 5:33 am #

    Good on you for realizing what a great opportunity to share life and Jesus with the people around you this is! We live in a suburban neighborhood and the homes are far enough apart that we don’t hear our neighbors. But we do have an elderly couple who lives across the street and spends a lot of their time outside on their porch, watching the comings and goings of the people on our street. I’ve often wondered what our lives look like to them. I hope we speak grace and love to them, despite our sometimes messy yard!!

    • Becca October 11, 2014 at 11:15 pm #

      I would love to be an elderly couple porch sittin’ and swingin’ someday! Or not when I’m elderly, even. I hope one day I have the opportunity to have a welcoming front porch!

  7. Meredith October 2, 2014 at 5:54 pm #

    Certainly brings a whole new meaning to making room, right? Love this post and your perspective on the changes in your life. It would be easy to add this to the list of frustrations but reflecting and looking at it as an opportunity is inspiring!

    • Becca October 11, 2014 at 11:16 pm #

      Thank you, Meredith! It does certainly bring a whole new meaning to “making room.” We’ve also been having a lot of visitors lately (the Arthur family, now my sister-in-law, and my parents will be here for the next two weeks, too) and I know we’re noisier than ever! I hope we continue to demonstrate GOOD making room habits throughout all these visitors, too.

  8. Christie October 7, 2014 at 1:56 am #

    Such a sweet post – I loved reading it.

    • Becca October 11, 2014 at 11:16 pm #

      Thank you, Christie. :)

  9. Jill November 26, 2018 at 12:43 am #

    What a blessing to have your right to privacy taken away!

    Nothing like constant surveillance to make sure we all behave ourselves!

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