I have always believed in the power of stories.
The handing down of traditions and the shaping of identities through the stories we tell is as universal a practise as there is on our planet. It helps others to know us better and it is a starting point for us to know ourselves.
For the sake of this post, I am not interested so much in the cultural stories of nations, clans or tribes. I am more interested in talking today about the autobiographies that we add to each day as we rise from our beds in the morning and begin interacting with our world. We are the authors of our own life stories. Stories that are shaped by factors unique to each of us; such as finances, careers, romance, health, family and much more. We are the central characters in the drama that is our life and, as characters, we all have a name. My name is Tom. Pleased to meet you.
Just as there is power in stories, there is also power in knowing someone’s name. It is not without reason that one of the challenges that classroom teachers set for themselves on the first day of school is to learn to properly put names to the faces of all their students. “Sit down, Billy!” carries a lot more authoritative weight in those initial moments of a school year than does, “Sit down….you there!” But, much more than that, for me, knowing someone’s name is the gateway to knowing their story. Knowing someone’s story is the gateway to understanding who a person is and how best to interact with them. When we understand the people around us, it is often easier to avoid unintentional insults such as the other day when two Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked at our door and my wife cheerfully wished them a Merry Christmas.
When I was still working as a classroom teacher, the names I knew and the stories I came to understand belonged to those I worked along side and to those students I taught and, by extension, their families. Now that I am retired, the people I am physically closest to are my neighbours. There are 32 houses on my street. I know the names of the folks in five of those houses. That’s it. Five out of thirty-two is a woefully inadequate number for someone, like me, who lives for stories.
For those of you who are regular readers of this blog, you will note that knowing the names of my neighbours does not, automatically, allow me to know their stories, as was described in greater detail in the post about my next door neighbour, Chris, being a famous musician and me not having a clue. *(You can read that post here.) It has been a month since I have learned about Chris’ true identity. My shock at not knowing he was famous has given way to greater state of embarrassment that I wasn’t a better neighbour. If I had taken a bit more time away from the isolating presence of my computer screen and invested a bit more time in having a conversation that extended beyond the superficial pleasantries of a wave and a smile as we mowed our lawns then, perhaps, I would have known how heavily the responsibilities of performing on a national stage weighed upon him. Perhaps, I could have found a kindred creative spirit. But, all of the maybes in the world can’t change the fact that I was probably playing Candy Crush or scrolling through my Twitter feed when Chris drove away from my neighbourhood for the final time. I know that we did not smile and wave, as he left, taking his stories with him.
One of the reasons this incident bothers me so much is that being an inattentive neighbour is not how I was raised. I grew up on Cape Breton Island. As a child, our door was always open and neighbours would regularly “pay a call” and drop by unannounced. You never knew, from one day to the next, when someone would show up at your door and would end up sitting around our kitchen table. A hot cup of tea and a tray of sweets were always at the ready. People came to our house all the time and we went to theirs as well. That’s just how the times were then. Life seemed less structured and scheduled in many ways. But, it seems different now.
Nowadays, instead of inviting others in, we often view our homes as being safe havens from the noisy world around us. We value our refuge. We retreat, willingly, into the welcoming worlds of our on-line relationships, basking in the warm glow of the red hearts and thumbs-up that grace our every utterance.
I am as guilty of this as the next person. So, as a result, I have begun what I can only term as a “social experiment” in my neighbourhood. As you may have read earlier this week, my daughter, Sophie and I, made Christmas cards for everyone in our neighbourhood. I delivered them, half on Monday and the rest on Wednesday. I walked up 31 different driveways, most of which I was doing so for the first time, and placed the cards into each mailbox.
I opted to deliver Christmas cards as my choice of interaction with my neighbours because it was Christmas, obviously but, as well, because the exchanging of cards at Christmas is something that I remember well from my youth. When I was growing up, it was not uncommon to receive over one hundred cards during the holidays. I can remember my mother hanging up string across our living room and using clothes pins to hold the cards on the line. Since many of my neighbours are older, my thinking was that they might be more receptive to a Christmas card than they would a knock on their door. So, I delivered our cards and now I am waiting. I have had one response.
Not long after I delivered my final card on Wednesday, I found myself sitting in my living room, not surprisingly, scrolling through my social media feed. Suddenly, I heard footsteps crunching slowly up my driveway. I cannot see the driveway from where I was sitting so, I stopped and listened instead. The footsteps came up my walkway and then, slowly, up each step, one step at a time. This is great, I thought. I listened for the tell-tale groaning of the metal lid on our mailbox, expecting this visitor to be responding to our card with a card in reply. This is one of the hoped for outcomes of my experiment but, instead, there came a knock on my door. This is good, too, I thought. Maybe this person wants to say Thanks and to introduce themselves. This would be a welcomed outcome, too. As I approached the door, I could see his silhouette and I could tell he was holding a card in his hands. Oh, good! He is hand-delivering his card to us. This is awesome! So, I opened the door.
An elderly gentleman was standing there…….with our card to him in his hand!!!! He looked down at the card and then up at me and said, “I think there has been some sort of mistake.” And he waved the card toward me. “I think this is yours,” he said.
I replied that it was no mistake and that this was a Christmas card for him and his family from me and my family.
He seemed confused by it all. After a moment, he quietly said, “But, we don’t know you.”
I smiled and stepped forward, offering my hand for him to shake. I told him that getting to know each other was the whole point and told him that my name was Tom. Somewhat uncertainly, he shook my hand and told me his name was Dick. I told Dick that it was nice to meet him and I wished him and his family a Merry Christmas. Hesitantly, he replied in kind and then said good-bye and turned and walked away, taking our card back with him.
I have not seen Dick since that day but, I am on the look-out for him each time I go outside now. Hopefully, the next time we do cross paths, he will recognize my face and I will his and we can exchange a greeting and we can say each other’s name. There is power in that. It is a first, small step toward creating a neighbourhood culture that is built upon an understanding of the autobiographies we are each writing.
It remains to be seen how this will all play out. I am still hopeful of receiving a few cards. but, if nothing else, I have made an opening gesture. From now on, I have a social card to play. I can always say, “Hey, neighbour! I’m Tom. We are the ones who gave you the homemade Christmas card this year.” Hopefully, that will spark some recognition and open the door to an exchange of pleasantries. Pleasantries, being the building blocks of a foundation of friendship and all. It is a good thing. I will keep you all informed as to how it plays out. But, whatever happens, I want to move forward with my goal of being a better neighbour. I never want to return to a time when I didn’t know Dick. 😉