Tuesday, July 12, 2011

How two chicken-loving enemies became neighbours once again

Not so long ago, I had a bit of a rant about our unfriendly neighbours. We have one spectacular neighbour, but most of the others are cool veering on cold. And for years, our most immediate neighbour has appeared to hate us. When I greet her, she ignores me; when I see her in the street and smile, she turns her back. It has made me scared and fearful and anxious and angry and defensive. I have always tried to acknowledge her even when I feel bad; and I have always spoken well of her in front of our kids, but it's really ground me down. I have thought, from time to time, of dropping in and asking what the problem is, but I have been too cowardly. It's hard to know how to ask someone why she hisses through her teeth at you; and it feels slightly pathetic, like a jilted teenager begging 'But why don't you like me anymore?'. So the frostiness has continued.

Then something happened that made me furious: we had a visit from the council about our lovely chickens. Apparently, there's been a complaint. Now, we have met the council guidelines listed on their website and when I spoke with the officer she said they were satisfied – for now – but I was really angry. It's not the first time that we've had a complaint against us, and always from the same person, our neighbour.

But I don't want to be like her; I want to be an exemplary neighbour. So while I simmered, I asked people I trust for the support I need and thought about what to do. As much as I wanted to throw eggs and shout and yell, I'm tired of living with a sense of deep hostility bristling from next door, a house which is so close we can see in each other's side windows. I couldn't bear to make it worse.

The next morning I had a few hours without the kids, so I took myself out for a fast wintry walk. I marched around and found myself heading to our local hill, built over the old rubbish dump; it felt like a fitting place to yell. I did a few muttering laps of the oval first, then up the hill I went to say my piece to the wind. When I was done I ran down the hill like a little kid, loose and gangly and arms windmilling through the grass. The rage was abating, so I strode homewards, still wondering.

I passed a centre for spirituality, and in the window were the usual accoutrements: gentle words in flowing calligraphy, soft scarves, and candles. All these things may be helpful to a regular spiritual practice, but it suddenly occurred to me that any spirituality that runs deep will be nothing like a beautifully draped silk scarf. Instead, it will be hard and messy; and it will be about the most mundane areas of life: how we act when we're afraid; how we respond to people when they are cruel or rude or thoughtless; how we meet a thousand different challenges in the small exchanges of the household, the playground, or the local shops. And I realised that, no matter how afraid I was, I had to go talk with my neighbour.

So I went home and collected the day's eggs, still warm. Then, feeling sick to the stomach, I boxed them up and headed next door.

When my neighbour answered, the first thing she said was 'We are enemies.'. I wanted to cry. Instead, heart thumping, I asked why. It turns out that she perceived a serious slight five or six years ago, and the council and her son did their best to maintain that slight - the story is long and complicated, and the details are irrelevant. Enough to say that, at the end of it, we had unravelled a serious misunderstanding, and I apologised profusely for my part in the episode; then we talked for a good ten minutes about this and that, like normal neighbours do. She started to smile and then laugh, and finally, finally she agreed to accept the eggs to feed her grandkids who, she reckons, have never tasted really fresh ones.

Ironically, when I asked her if she had any concerns about the chickens she said 'I like the chickens!', and that's when her face really softened. Apparently they remind her of her childhood; she enjoys hearing them move around our garden. So for all my fear that it was one more thing she didn't like, I was wrong about that; and for some reason, I am not worried about who else objects to the chooks – as long as it is not her.

Before I left, she said that there is nothing to be enemies about; and I begged her to drop in if anything ever bothered her - or even if she just wanted to join me in a cuppa.

I'm sure this is not the ending. Something else will come up – we are all so far from perfect – and I will need to work to maintain this new civility. I still don't know if the council has anything further to say about our hens. But I feel like a scouring wind has swept through the street and made it clean. A once frosty neighbour smiled at me and told me a few stories, and I felt my fear slowly trickle away; for now, that's ending enough.


  1. Thank Alison for, yet again, taking me somewhere. I don't come here often or in any sort of schedule. I must think, somewhere just beneath my skin, that if I come too often the magic won't be there... So I sip, just a little, from your life, and (I know I said it before) thank you for letting me.

  2. What a great compliment - that's exactly what I do with my favourite writers, leaving their latest books unread just in case... Drop in when you need; and in the meanwhile, travel well. alison.

  3. Oh my heart was in my mouth as you knocked on your neighbour's door. This sort of thing I find terrifying and I am full of admiration for you. Your words about what a real, deep, spirituality means, dealing as it does with the most mundane areas of life, really resonated. It is something to constantly reflect upon and work on.


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