And so this was our new year's eve--part of it, at least. At 6 o'clock sharp, a neighbor calls. She calls first on our land line, but because we don't recognize the number, we don't answer, assuming that if it's a bona fide call, the person calling will leave a message. But when my cell phone begins ringing right after that with the same number, I realize this is someone we know, and I answer.
My neighbor says, "Bill, honey, I have a bottle of champagne I need to have you help me open. If I bring it over for you to open, would you and Steve please share a glass of it with me?" Being a social dimwit, I tell her that of course we'll help her open the champagne, but don't want her to feel she must share it with us. And when Steve hears the story after I hang up, he says, "She's alone on new year's eve and wants to spend time with us!" And so I feel horrible that I hadn't realized that and had taken the ruse about opening the bottle with such literal-minded stupidity.
Our neighbor arrives, glowingly beautiful as always, in an elegant black pantsuit with her keys on a chain around her neck, since it's full dark outside. Though she's a lady and would perhaps not blare her age to all the world, she reminds us after we've sat down in the sunroom, with glazed pecans, chips, and cheese dip at her side to accompany the champagne, that she turned 82 in the past year. And I wouldn't believe that for a moment, unless she had told me this, because she looks years younger.
She has cheekbones. She looks, in fact, like a twin of Katherine Hepburn, and has Katherine Hepburn's lithe grace and elegant manner. Since we've been neighbors--these things have happened in the past several years, in fact--she has lost both her husband and a son, and yet she remains vibrant, undaunted by the grief she obviously feels from these losses.
We have champagne. We toast. We hug. We hug again. We sit and gossip about our neighbors. (The Austrian artist Hundertwasser is said to have observed, Ohne Kitsch ist das Leben ärmer ["Without kitsch, life is impoverished"]. If I had the making of that saying, I suspect I'd have made it say that it's the lack of gossip that impoverishes life.)
And we learn from this champagne-fueled gossip-fest that neighbors of ours, a gay couple with whom we should keep in much better contact, have had serious health problems for months now. We had wondered about this possibility, since we've seen medical vehicles several times at their apartment building, and on walks with the dogs when we've seen a closer neighbor to them who does much to help them, we've asked how these folks are doing and have heard that their health is iffy.
And for whatever reason--a reluctance to intrude, I think, more than anything--we haven't done more than chat with one or other of these neighbors when we're outside and see them walking their adorable (and spirited and totally crazy, like our Valentine) little Jack Russell terrier. And so I now feel terrible all over again, that people who live right in my own block, who deserve my care, could have been struggling with health issues for much of the past year, and I've done next to nothing to assist them. To be in touch with them.
To ask how I could help.
And that I live catty-cornered across the street from a widow up in years, and do little more to show concern for her than bring her a jar of soup occasionally, when I cook soup for ourselves and my aunt, who is the same age as our beautiful neighbor.
I wonder how it happens that we--that I--can live in such a disconnected way. Every single human being living in this small microcosm of the world that I call "my block" has a story. A human heart. Every house on this block contains many stories.
How is it that I walk by these houses day after day and manage not to hear more of these stories--not because I intend to be nosy, but because the people telling them should matter intently to me, as my neighbors? What in our culture conduces to making us so callous and insensitive--to making me so callous and insensitive? So disconnected.
Steve and I spent the last week in San Francisco meeting some of the most wonderful human beings we've ever met--in several cases, people who read this blog and with whom I've made contact due to the blog. All week long and ever since our return, my heart has been full from these meetings. Full of amazement that people can be so kind, so generous, so welcoming to complete strangers.
Full of tears that sometimes move from the heart to the eyes, because the world is aflame with human beings whose holiness and lovingkindness puts some of us--puts me--to shame.
And my heart was full all over again as we sat drinking champagne with our neighbor who was alone on new year's eve, listening to her reports of what's happening with this or that neighbor whom we haven't seen in a while, listening to her stories about what it can be like for a lovely young wife to marry a man she loves intently, only to discover that he intends to dominate, belittle, and control her until, when she finally decides to leave the abuse behind, she feels she is worthless. Two inches high.
My heart is full this new year's day.
And I need to do a better job of taking that fullness and externalizing it in the coming year in acts of kindness to and concern for those around me, right in my own block. As Steve does always and everywhere he goes, putting me to shame and teaching me lessons I sorely need to learn about what it means to love in the practical way the gospels intend when they tell us to make love our aim in everything we do.
And thus endeth the first lesson of new year's day. A lesson for me. Who need to learn to love better and more. Each day of the year now underway.