A few days after 9/11, I was walking around the campus at UCI -- my residence at the time -- when a man approached me and invited me to his apartment. I don't have a clear recollection of what he looked like, but that really proves the point; during those days after the terror attack momentarily grouped us all together as "Americans," our standards for who belonged to our group become suddenly lax. The man wanted me to join the prayer circle that he was having at his apartment. I said yes, almost reflexively. Like the host himself, the evening that followed has grown vague in my memory; as I recall, we sat on the living room carpet, listened to a few verses from the Bible or I Ching or whatever, and then said goodnight. I doubt that many of the people there had met before or saw each other again. For that moment, before our cynical instincts kicked in again, we were united as part of an unassailable community. In short, we were neighbors.
We have an odd relationship with the word "neighborhood." Dictionary.com defines it as both a geographical place ("a district or locality, often with reference to its character or inhabitants") and a human demographic ("a number of persons living near one another or in a particular locality"). Certainly, Fred Rogers put a positive enough spin on it. I would guess, though, that if we catalogued every time we used the word in conversation, the majority of uses would have a tone of wariness. That school isn't in the best neighborhood. I'm not sure about that neighborhood. It's amazing that he made it out of that neighborhood. Even when we refer to something as a "nice neighborhood," there's often an undertone of relief; we're probably not commenting on the beauty of the architecture or the friendliness of the HOA so much as the statistical unlikeliness that we'll be burglarized or mugged. As I write this, I'm sitting in the study at my home in Calabasas, in a cluster of streets that are tree-lined, sunny, and often populated by dog-walkers and kids heading to the park. Nearly every house has a sign in front declaring a home security system. Those alarms aren't there to thwart Osama bin Laden.
Unless we live out in the wild, we live in neighborhoods. That means living with a lot of people around us. We know very few of those people. No doubt you can rattle off at least the first names of the people who live in the houses on either side of you. How about two doors down? You might be struggling. Who occupies the home with the backyard behind yours, the people (or person) with whom you literally share a fence? Give me a map of my neighborhood, and I can grab a highlighter and dot a handful of houses whose inhabitants I know. The other addresses may harbor Taylor Swift or Elon Musk; I have no idea. Of course, we see people out and about as well, and we often know them by a particular habit or appearance: the woman who walks the corgi, the man who works on his front porch, the girl with the yellow bicycle. They are our neighbors, and as nice as they may look, we wouldn't trust our children alone with many of them. We don't know who they are. With the right boundaries in place, we can smile and wave.
My featured poem this week in the Journal of Radical Wonder is "Neighborhood," another piece that appeared 10 years ago in the book The First Thing Mastered. That book moves chronologically through the first three decades or so of life, and "Neighborhood" crops up in the section about late childhood/early adolescence. It's a portrait of a moment when a neighborhood feels like a mystical place: summer day, cool drinks on the table, the gardener (maybe he's Juan or Diego or Ramon, with any kind of past or closeted secrets -- in any case, we know him as "the gardener") stopping by to ask for donations and everyone in the mood to indulge. The key line, stressed in the poem twice, is "before the locks go on." We wish the gardener well and hope that he raises enough money for his soccer field. When we turn the locks, he'll be among those we keep out.
This is the blog of Michael Miller, a longtime journalist, poet, publisher and teacher. Check here for musings, observations, commentary and assorted bits of gratitude.