Six and some odd years ago, I downsized. I’d grown up in one of the biggest Atlanta suburbs, and gone to school in the small city of Athens, Georgia. It was time to move on. I began my slow progress north. Somewhere past Old Peachtree Road, Atlanta’s wide interstate madness narrows to a manageable four lanes. Heading toward a life in the mountains, I pulled off at South Carolina Exit 42, and it was small highways winding up from Greenville after that: US-25, I-26, I-240.
Afterward, when I’d head back down I-85 for holiday visits to Atlanta, I’d pass the Greenville exit going south this time. Increasingly in those years, as the road widened and the semis raced by, anxiety set in. I began to see that this was all too flat; too open; too exposed. Too big.
Give me the small roads. Atlanta born-and-raised, it’s blue highways for me now. High hills and small spaces. But it isn’t just the roads I love or the landscape. It’s the sort of life that goes on in the places you find along skinnier streets. The pace of life that slows in accord with a ten minute drive into downtown — or, better, a thirty minute walk.
This is the speed that suits me: days in with my daughter; walks to the library in fall weather; grocery trips passing nary a stoplight. Strolls down the street to check our tomatoes’ progress in the community garden, and any trip over fifteen minutes taking me into the countryside. Here in the medium-sized college town I now call home, the introvert in me finds root-room. My mind relaxes. I can breathe. I can think. I can be me.
There are people who point out that cities are where movements start, where important change happens, where culture begins. I understand. I’ve lived in the cities. I’ve seen the vibrant humanity, the opportunity for involvement there, the concentrated brokenness and need. But at my best, I move at a slower, quieter pace. I want to put down roots in a place like this. I imagine, then, there must be some purpose I can find in digging in and living slowly in a less populated spot. Things of import must happen here, too.
Wendell Berry agrees. He sees important movement starting in the known-ness of close communities, in an awareness of the people he lives with and around. “Farms, families, and communities are forms of art just as are poems, paintings, and symphonies. None of these things would exist if we did not make them. We can make them well or poorly; this choice is another thing that we make.”
I visit the farmers’ market to pick up my weekly CSA share, and I get to know some of the people who grow my food. How well do I know the daily, difficult things that comprise their lives? The full-time librarian knows me by name. How long has it taken me to learn hers? Some neighbors on our street have a harder time than most, and their pain spills out into public arguments on the road. My impulse is to feel annoyed and stay inside. Do I? Or do I knock on their door later, offering friendship and a listening ear?
When we first moved to our neighborhood here, I discovered raspberries, fresh-ripe. But there was a problem: the neighborhood kids. They had grown accustomed to this house standing vacant and had appropriated the yard as their own, including the laden vines. Each morning as I made my coffee, I heard the ominous screech of bicycle brakes and an excited shout: “Raspberries!!” Then footsteps running up my drive, and silence punctuated by, “Ooh, a good one” and “I found some more!” Trespassers. I stood in the kitchen, fuming like the evil witch in Rapunzel, wondering how to keep the little thieves out of my — my! — garden.
My husband came home and I explained how I had protected our land and sent the children away. He paused and furrowed his brow. “That wasn’t very neighborly.” He was right. Being neighborly does not often come easily to me. Nor does being sociable.
I’ve never much liked the book Little Women. (Strangely, my husband brought the one copy we own to our marriage. He denies ownership, but there it lies, amongst his books.) I love the 1994 movie, though, and there’s a particular scene: the sisters are all aspiring toward greater lives — in marriage, in Europe, in the big city. Beth, meanwhile, mournfully asks Jo, “Why does everyone want to go away?” I concur, though not necessarily in big moments. It is more often in the day-to-day I wonder, “Why attend a potluck, that church’s women’s event, this weekend’s baby shower?”
I am at home in this town because I am a homebody. That can be both good and bad. If I don’t attend next weekend’s baby shower, I might cozy up more comfortably with my small family and a good book, but then acquaintances won’t be made and friendships will remain static. If I drive quickly rather than walk slowly to the grocery store, I won’t engage in conversation with the woman next door. If I scold and send the children away empty handed, my heart stays small and the neighboring families isolated.
If I am going to begin the work of knowing my neighbor, I will have to overcome my inclination to sometimes live a little too quietly. I will have to overcome the very impulse that makes me feel at home in this kind of place. This town, if I will make of it what I might, lays before me the possibility — dare I say, the responsibility — to be somewhat less comfortable than I’d prefer in order to reap bigger benefits than merely having a calm home-life or driving in low traffic.
There are people here to be known and loved, if I will do the work. And really, isn’t that the best, if the most difficult, work we can do? Isn’t this at the root of any movement, at the start of any program that changes culture for the better?
I don’t fool myself: no one can do neighborly things perfectly, or even well, very often. There are too many of us living different lives, each with our own struggles and worse. There have been troubling reports this past year, really horrific occurrences coming through the news about children in America who have been hated and hurt, who have suffered harm in the silence of secrecy; their neighbors knew nothing about it. A friend posted one of these reports on Facebook and commented: “Know your neighbor.” Who wouldn’t want to protect these children? It is crushing that no one did. Perhaps knowing my neighbor goes beyond willingness to share raspberries with the kids down the street. Or perhaps sharing our raspberries, our yard, our home, might cultivate the very sense of community that holds such hateful behavior at bay. It is at least a start.
My husband and I joke about a big traffic day in Blacksburg, when you crest the hill at South Main Street heading into town and see — gasp! — six cars coming your way. There is, of course, traffic in this town. But the road size and the time to get from any here to any there (twenty minutes, tops) reflects the pace in which daily life and relationship might be played out. It’s not better or worse than the different pace and the different opportunities for daily deeds and relationships in the city, save in my opinion.
This, then, I choose as my kind of home. The things of import start small here. They start in my house, in my raspberry patch, across the street. Maybe they start this way everywhere.
Can a quiet, neighborly life intersect with a desire to help the oppressed, the afflicted, the hungry? Is brotherly love sufficient if it starts small, inside the walls of my house, on our short street? I look at my daughter, my husband, my neighbor, and I think, “Yes.” Yes, if I will do the work of loving my family. Yes, if I will step outside myself and really, truly, know my neighbor.
And so it is in the very act of overcoming the quietness in me — that introverted quality that makes me feel so at home in a small mountain spot — that I live well, that I love, that I do what is most important. But don’t get me wrong: should you look for me on a Sunday evening, you’ll find our family outward bound, pulling onto some sleepy road where the cars are few and the speed limit slow. Our windows will be down and our talk will deepen. There will be movement in our souls.