Thursday, September 2, 2010

Friends and Neighbors

If you live in a large metropolitan area, you can choose your friends on the basis of shared tastes and interests. If you usually vote Republican, most of your friends will be Republicans. If you are a sports fan, your friends will likely be fans as well. Your friends are likely to have incomes similar to your own, read the same books you read, share the same values.

But if you live in a small community or rural area, your friends will be the people who are simply there. As folksinger Greg Brown once noted; “Nobody in the U. P. talks about ‘forming an intentional community;’ up there you damned well better know your neighbors!” Folks who do not have a lot in common learn how to get along and how to care for one another because they really have no other choice. In this sense, there is more diversity to rural friendships than to urban ones.

We were reminded of this while at our cabin last weekend. Many neighbors stopped by in the course of our time there to chat about the things people at cabins talk about – whether a certain tree needs to come down and who could do it cheaply, etc. We learned that Mel, the gruff and opinionated former Marine on the far side of the lake, had died unexpectedly a few weeks ago, and took our kayaks over to offer our condolences to Julie, whose home we had never been in before.

But above all we spent time with Mark and June, the next-door neighbors who had not made it to their cabin for at least three years. Mark is 93, June 89, and they both have significant health challenges. In all honesty, Mark has been something of a challenge for me through the years. He has a dusk-to-dawn light that shines into our bedroom all night because he is concerned about escaped prisoners (there is a state prison 12 miles away from which no-one has ever escaped, but if one did he would doubtless make a beeline for Sixteen Mile Lake), keeps several guns at his cabin and fires them at random intervals, and is equally dedicated to Jesus and Rush Limbaugh.
Would I have chosen Mark as a friend? No. Am I glad to know him as friend? Yes.

When we arrived I found that Mark had mowed most of our lot. He can no longer drive, nor can he walk far without assistance, he has little sight left, and he certainly cannot get on or off his ancient John Deere lawn tractor himself. But once he is on it he is in his personal version of heaven (he farmed downstate for seventy years), and he was not about to let a property line spoil his fun.

But our most wonderful moment came the evening before we left. We were sitting on our deck, thinking about fixing dinner, when June made her unsteady way over, soon followed by Mark. The beach at Au Train is a glorious one, and they had been there earlier in the day. With her daughter on one side and her granddaughter on the other, June had waded out into Lake Superior until the water was neck deep, then plunged her head under. She was flat-out giddy with excitement as she described the experience. Dinner was delayed by over an hour as I brought out my ukulele and we sang old Baptist hymns together.

We are guessing it will be the last time they make it to their cabin, but who knows? But if I never see them again, I will have wonderful memories of that evening together. Someday, God willing, the aged couple on the lake will be us, and I hope there will be younger neighbors to offer us their hospitality and friendship. Friends and neighbors do not have to have a great deal in common, they just need to be there for one another.


Anonymous said...

John, if you do evolve into Mark as you age, I've several guns to loan you for protection from whatever.

Michael Renner said...

Bill Bishop, the author of "The Big Sort," is coming to Drake later this month, and I plan to listen carefully. I doubt that I'll have time to read the book any time soon, but I find the idea compelling and its implications very, very scary. Getting people with differences into the same space is a first step toward getting them to talk and thus know one another. Maybe everybody should have a randomly-selected cabin?

Ed Pitts said...

Hi John. If you have not yet read Driftless by David Rhodes, I suggest you do so. The book is dedicated to showing how rural people can and do learn to live together.

Jim said...

Beautiful essay, John. Thanks for your insights :)

rick in cos said...

given that i live in the midst of a town where the dominant voice is a tad off the ones I usually listen to by choice, your essay gave me perspective, AND made me miss our cabin and the "nort' woods relationships" we enjoyed so much...