The Neighborhood Dinner

Our neighborhood has always been fairly close knit. It’s one of the many reasons we’ve stayed here since we moved in thirty years ago. It was a brand new development back then during that first year after we were married. After moving into our new and basic little home, we spent the first couple of years curiously watching other new homes go up around us and wondering who would soon move in. On many evenings when the weather was agreeable, we’d put the kids in a stroller or wagon and stroll the streets to gauge the progress of  new construction. Would we like our soon-to-be neighbors? Would they like us? Would they have kids the same ages as ours? As the years went on, we made new friends and our kids made new friends. I eventually recognized the unique bond that forms among those who live in close proximity to one another.  Community.

By now, some of the original residents have since moved away, and a fresh crop of young families have arrived to take their places. But like us, some are here for the long haul. Over the years, as we’ve matured and our financial situation has improved and stabilized, we’ve remodeled and improved that basic little house into something closer to the home we’d always envisioned for ourselves. We’re well on our way to becoming the old-timers of the neighborhood!

Our home sits on the outside edge of this four-block square development. Our yard is on the western end of our block, sandwiched between two other houses. As the back yard is against a busy thoroughfare, it was probably one of the less-desirable properties when this place was just an old farm field with a plan mapping out a number of lots. We were young, newly married, and it was what we could afford at the time. Early on we erected a privacy fence along the back to make it a bit quieter and we’ve done a lot of other work to make the yard cozy and uniquely ours. A swing set and play fort has come and gone. It now resides in one of the yards next to us where it continues to be frequently used. A chain link fence on either side of the backyard kept our kids safe when they were young and it continues to keep Lucy contained, but allows an open view and access to the neighbors on either side. Many days over the years have found us leaning against that fence as we chatted with those on the other side.

The front of our house looks into the rest of the neighborhood. Our east-west street eases into a north-south avenue, not a true intersection but merely a curving of one road into another. And it’s this specific location where a little community within a community has evolved. We’ve developed a tighter bond with the neighbors directly to our west, the two just across the street, and one right around the curve. We’re an eclectic bunch of personalities who likely would not have become friends were it not for the fact that our homes sit so near each other. But that’s the true beauty of friendship, I think; how we can appreciate others for our differences, how we can learn from one another and grow as a result.

During the summer months on an almost daily basis, as I’m pulling into the garage after work I can already see in one of the driveways a gathering of lawn chairs occupied by the residents of our corner of the neighborhood. One of the families is younger than most, and their seven year-old son might be tossing a football with friends in the front yard, or circling on their bikes out in the street. The adults sit and discuss what’s going on in life, neighborhood happenings, sports, and sometimes politics. There might be some gossip, and there is often a lot of joking (both of the appropriate type and the not-so-much.)  There is always much laughter, and there has been the occasional spat between certain members, but everyone always comes together again eventually.

Known simply as “happy hour,” this little party is almost always in progress before I get home and for some time afterwards. It’s a true happy hour in the sense that some members always have an adult beverage in hand. But others may not. It’s definitely not a requirement. Among the participants, one works part-time, two are done working by mid-afternoon, one works retail with days off during the week, two are out of work, and one is retired. I’m the only one who doesn’t get home until later in the afternoon … after 5:30. I stop by the gathering once in a while, but usually just wave and head straight into the house to make dinner. 

On one particular occasion, happy hour was happening in our driveway and so of course, I was in attendance. As it often occurs, someone asked, “Tee, why don’t you come to happy hour more often?”

I gave my usual explanation about wanting to make and eat dinner at a reasonable time. Since Jack is a regular attendee, and if I were to join him, it would be seven o’clock or later before we ever eat dinner. And that just doesn’t fit my life and other responsibilities very well.

LykkeIt was at that moment I had an idea. I had been reading a book at the time called The Little Book of Lykke: Secrets of the World’s Happiest PeopleThe book described what makes the Danish some of the happiest people in the world, and one of the reasons is their habit of creating a strong sense of community, not just at work, church, or school, but in a much larger sense. In some Danish neighborhoods residents not only share a cup of sugar or the occasional power tool with one another, but they go far beyond. They offer regular help to each others’ children with homework, provide childcare so young parents can have a night out, and most surprisingly, eat dinner together on a regular basis. The cooking and cleanup duties are scheduled so that once every so many weeks each resident takes a turn as part of a crew that does all of the meal planning, grocery shopping, cooking and clean-up. Everyone else gets to sit back, relax, and enjoy a meal among friends. As I sat at happy hour that evening, I proposed my idea.

I said that I didn’t see myself ever becoming a daily attendee at happy hour, but would continue to show up as often as time allowed. However, I reminded the others how summer has a habit of fading away and everyone inevitably retreats into their own homes for the winter. I suggested that it would be nice if we continued to connect all year long, and that we consider incorporating a once-monthly neighborhood dinner. (I admit, this was a bit selfish on my part. Since dinner is important to me, I wanted to incorporate the neighborhood gathering into my own schedule.) I briefly described what I’d been reading in the book, and the others were quickly enthusiastic about what I’d proposed. There was much discussion about whether each dinner should have a theme. Should it be pot-luck? What night of the month should it be held? Should we dress up? Come as you are? Paper plates or real dinnerware?

We ultimately decided that there didn’t have to be a definition to these dinners. We would simply take turns hosting. The host family gets to decide what and how it will be served. If they want to invite others to contribute, that’s fine. The most important thing is to make time for each other on a regular basis.

As I had proposed this idea, Jack and I were nominated to host the first neighborhood dinner. Scheduling the exact date proved challenging as we tried to work around work schedules, other social commitments, kids’ sports schedules and what-not. September was supposed to have the first gathering, but it got away from us. Still, we finally found a night that works for everyone and this Tuesday evening I’ll be welcoming the neighbors into our house for a lasagna dinner. I’m trying not to worry about the fact that our most recent home projects aren’t quite finished and the house isn’t perfect. But will it ever be? Probably not. Besides, I still have so much vacation time in my account at work that I decided to take some time off to prepare for our guests. The house will be clean and I’ll have plenty of time to cook. No sense stressing out any more than I have to over this thing, right? So what the heck. I made it a four-day weekend. Besides, when my life comes to a close am I going to wish that I’d spent more time working on the house than spending quality time with others? I certainly hope not.

“I’m here to be babysat.”

These are the words that have greeted me several times lately upon answering the front door. One of the neighbor kids, Little J has clearly decided he likes spending time at our house.

A little background… A few years ago, Little J’s family moved in next door. Theirs was a yours, mine and ours kind of family. But in the short time since they settled in the house, life changed and their family situation became challenging. To make a long story short, Dad has primary custody of eight year-old Little J and his two older brothers, E and Big J. The boys are often home alone. Dad works the afternoon shift and often doesn’t get home until late. The boys often have to take their meds on their own and tuck themselves into bed for the night.

In recent years, this neighborhood has seen a boom in young families again. Much like when my kids were growing up, the yards are often filled with bunches of kids playing whiffle ball or tag. Gangs of children are often racing their bikes around the neighborhood streets. Little J is usually in the mix. And he’s often in the middle of a stir. Either the other kids (or parents) eventually ask him to leave, or he removes himself from the situation. All too often we’ve seen him trudge home slowly across our front yard, his head hanging dejectedly.

Jack, who is usually out in the garage or yard working on one project or another during the warmer months, is often witness to the fracas. On such occasions, he started calling Little J over to ask him what went wrong. Inevitably, there’d be some talk about how Little J might handle himself differently in the future in order to get along with the other kids. But nothing much changes. Little J has more than your typical share of emotional and behavioral issues to work through. With the boys’ dad being gone at work so often during these times, Little J began relying on Jack to be his friend when the other kids no longer wanted him around.

One evening not long ago when I wasn’t home, Little J and E were on their own while Dad worked. They had been outside playing with the neighborhood kids when it began to rain. All of the other kids ran to their own homes, but as there was thunder and lightning in the dark sky, the two boys were afraid to go home to an empty house. Jack invited them in, and unbeknownst to me, later spoke to the boys’ dad to let him know we’d be happy to help out with the kids whenever help was needed. Dad seemed embarrassed and said the kids didn’t need a babysitter, but he was grateful to know they had someone with whom they could check in during times of need.

Little J had other ideas. The following day, I had no sooner arrived home from an exhausting day at work when my doorbell rang. I pulled the front door open and there stood Little J.

“Is Jack home?” he asked.

“Nope,” I replied. “He’s supposed to be, but I’m not sure where he is. Sometimes he works later than usual. He’ll probably be home soon.”

“Well,” Little J responded looking away, “I’m supposed to be babysat.”

I was tired and had planned on plopping down on the couch to read for a while before making dinner. I made a mental note to remind Jack that if he was going to offer to babysit the neighborhood kids, then it was his responsibility to be at home to do the job. But Little J is so stinkin’ cute, and in my heart I knew that the kid just needed some positive attention, so I said, “Come on in.”

He barreled through the front door, and kicked his shoes off while Lucy barked and circled him excitedly. He squeezed her face and rubbed the fur on her sides making her all the happier to see this new face in our house.

Little J followed me to the kitchen and he climbed up on a stool at the island, looking to me expectantly.

“Do you have some homework to do?” I asked.

“Nope.”

“You sure?”

“Yep.”

“Okay,” I said. “What should we do? Do you want to play a game?”

“Yeah, let’s play tag!” he shouted.

Feeling kind of old and wondering how that worked with just two people, I suggested, “I think we might need more people for that.”

“Okay, how about hide and seek? We can play it in your house!”

Considering that I might not want this kid roaming through our rooms, squeezing under beds or in closets, I laughed and suggested we go out to the back yard. I was sure we must have something in the shed that might be interesting to an eight year-old. We eventually settled on bean bags and spent some time tossing them back and forth, each trying our best to land the bags on the boards or better yet, drop them in the hole. Little J experimented with underarm tosses and pitcher-style throws. When it was my turn, he’d quietly chant, “Miss! Miss! Miss!” When I’d hit the board, he’d groan at his disadvantage, but when he gained ground, he’d brag and shout obnoxiously. I let him. I knew he needed to enjoy having the upper hand sometimes. When it grew too hot to keep playing, he asked if we could go inside and play video games.

“I don’t have any.” (It was a white lie. We do have a Wii and several games to use with it, but it’s not hooked up.) “But we can go see what other kinds of games I have.”

Back inside, I managed to locate the old dominoes game and we spread them all out on the kitchen island as I explained to Little J how to play. Surprisingly, this rough-and-tumble, unfocused little guy was extremely intrigued. I showed him how to count the dots on each domino in order to match it up to one that had already been laid. As we laid out chains of dominoes, he incorporated the idea that he was building a path towards me in order to blow up my “fort.” I figured I’d allow it since he was managing to keep his focus on the actual game at the same time. Not long afterwards, he looked out the front window, saw his brother, and decided it was time to leave.

A few days later upon arriving home from work, the doorbell rang again. There was Little J announcing once again that he was “here to be babysat.” When I again welcomed him inside, he asked me to hold on. He sprinted back to the end of the front walk and called out to his brother.

“E! Come on! We’re gonna get babysat!”

And so ten year-old E joined us. Big J was at his mom’s house for a few days and so at least I only had charge of the two boys. E, who hasn’t spent as much time around us as his younger brother was a bit reserved initially, but he soon grew comfortable. This time I told them that I had to make dinner and couldn’t play right away, so they’d have to entertain themselves for a while. But I was ready for them this time. I had picked up some crafts and coloring supplies at the dollar store. They were excited to color Halloween decorations while I cooked and they chatted with me about school, their favorite subjects, and a million other things. E told me he loves to cook and bake and he offered to help me. I told him we’d plan a day to bake cookies soon.

Daughter Chesney arrived home from work and began to help me in the kitchen. I invited the boys to stay for dinner. I was sure that they wouldn’t like the food I had made as it was geared more towards an adult palate. I suggested they run home and grab whatever dinner Dad had left in the refrigerator, but they insisted they wanted to eat what I was making, salmon and some wild rice soup. And they did. And they asked for seconds. I made sure they ate some fruit along with their meal and gave them each a glass of milk. I wondered how often they ate balanced meals at home if no one was there to supervise them. And so the small sense of resentment I may have felt about my unexpected babysitting duties was alleviated when I thought how much these little guys probably just needed someone to help steer them in the right direction.

After dinner, the boys ran home to feed their dog and grab a couple of board games. When they returned, we sat down on the living room floor to play Fortnite Monopoly (which, for the record is not like real Monopoly in the least!) The boys wanted Jack to play, but Jack, while happy to have the boys hang around and help him with his stuff, is not much for board games or playing in general. He suggested to E that they play vegetate instead. E looked at me and said, “I know how to play Monopoly but I don’t know how to play vegetate.”

I rolled my eyes at Jack and explained to E, “He’s teasing. Vegetate means to sit on the couch like a vegetable and do nothing. It means to be lazy.

My criticism didn’t deter Jack so Chesney, the boys and I played the game while Jack watched t.v. I told Jack he had to watch something that wasn’t inappropriate for young minds. So no Live P.D. or anything too dark or violent. The game was fun, even if Little J’s focus kept drifting to the television and I had to keep tapping him on the knee to remind him of his turn. The boys were enthusiastic, shouting “Oh yeah” each time a move worked out in their own favor. They seemed to like having Chesney around and grew comfortable teasing her and generally treating her like a big sister. Before long, it was getting close to their bedtime and Jack broke the news that it was time to go back home.

“Who’s going to walk us home?” Little J asked, not really looking worried, but merely expectant that one of us would chauffeur them back to their house. Jack said he would accompany them and make sure they got settled okay. They went out the front door into the darkness while shouting out their thanks to Chesney and me. As they made the short trek across our driveway and over to their yard, my heart broke a little bit thinking of all the nights they have to settle in all alone. I decided there would be no more resentment, not even a little. These boys need someone. When Jack came back, he described how they got their pajamas on in quick order, put in a movie, and settled into their beds without much direction from him. Clearly they’ve got this down.

There have been a few more visits from the two younger boys since that night. Dominoes has become the favorite game, and we’ve been known to play two or three games in a row without a trace of boredom in the little guys. We recently added Uno to the options and I’ve realized that the boys are surprisingly good at board and card games, especially considering the digital age we now live in, and how often Little J continues to ask if we can’t play video games. I told them I thought our house should just be the video-free zone, and they didn’t actually seem too upset by that. I’ve noticed that although Little J often has trouble getting along with other kids, he’s charming, polite, and perfectly well behaved when he’s with us. (Which is exactly what my mom used to tell me about my Ryker when he was young. Sometimes he just needed time alone with Nanna to prove what a great kid he was.)

LJandE

I find myself thinking about the little guys when they’re not here. When I’m planning my grocery list, I’m thinking about what I might pick up for the nights they might be with us. I’m enjoying the chance to sit in the evenings and play simple, old-fashioned games again. I love to listen to them talk and laugh. E was so excited to show me his folder from school this week. It contained a page showing all of the points he’d earned for good behavior in school that day. He was especially proud to point out all of the zeros in the points-lost column. I told him I was very impressed. He suggested we start tracking points for the times when they’re with us. Maybe we will.

The boys’ dad is a good man, and he’s doing everything he can to take care of his family. But he’s stretched thin on many counts. I like the idea that we can help out in some small way, and that we’re able to fulfill some of the boys’ needs when Dad can’t be around. And whether they know it or not, they’re filling in a hole in my life that I didn’t even know was there.

Boosted

I talked to my friend, Kim yesterday. She is an amazing friend and always such a source of encouragement!

I first (virtually) met Kim years ago when I began blogging. I’m not exactly sure how many years it’s been since we began to form the bonds of friendship, but I think it’s safe to say we’ve stayed connected for more than ten. We’ve met in person only once, and it continues to amaze me that our friendship has not only endured, but has grown as deep as it has . After all, when I first started doing this, I didn’t really consider that any connections I made online might actually turn out to be real. And while Kim and I have both continued to write throughout the years, she’s undoubtedly done it much better than I. While I’ve written hundreds upon hundreds of blog posts, I’ve shut down a few websites and started fresh on new pages several times over. There have been long gaps between my writings. It used to be I couldn’t imagine a day without writing. For the past few years, I’ve been lucky to write something once every few months. In stark contrast to my scattered patterns of writing, Kim has maintained the same blog where I first found her, and more importantly, if she wasn’t blogging, it’s because she was busy writing and publishing several books. (And she’s good!)

At some point in recent years, Kim texted me and asked me to download an app to my phone, one called Marco Polo. The app allows us to record and send video messages to one another. I felt awkward about it at first, but really grew to look forward to Kim’s messages and to sending my own in return. With such busy lives, Marco Polo allows us to actually talk to each other without both having to be present in the very same moment. But like my pattern of blogging, sometimes Kim and I will stay in touch regularly, and other times there will be long periods of silence. For most of this summer, we had been out of touch.

After my couple of days of deep thinking last week, I was alerted to a Marco Polo message from Kim. As soon as I had a chance, I watched and listened as she shared some good news about a new opportunity she’d just accepted, something she’ll be doing in addition to her full-time job, in addition to taking care of her family and parenting, and in addition to her writing. On Saturday morning, I had a chance to respond and tell her how impressed I was with her seemingly endless energy. I also wanted her to know that her timing couldn’t have been better, and told her how much she encourages me. I gave her the cliff notes on what I’d written about just that morning, about the funk I’d been feeling for much too long, and explained that I was finally feeling as if the clouds were beginning to part. I told her she was such a great example of embracing all the life that is right in front of her, and she just made me feel as if anything can be possible if you can keep steering your mind in the right direction, which admittedly, I haven’t done so well lately.

IMG_8580[975]What followed was a quick succession of messages back and forth, with a few tears on each side, and much laughter as well. In true Kim fashion, she was not about to let me slide backwards now that I’d expressed a desire to make some positive changes. She gave me some clear directions on what she thought I should do to keep moving forward, including the purchase of a BIG dry erase marker, specifically purple or pink, with which I would write daily or weekly goals on my bathroom mirror. And she instructed me to identify in those goals how many chapters of a book I would commit to writing and finishing during specific time periods, and the goal for completion of said book.

Kim has a lot of faith in me! And I am so very grateful for her!

But … I was soon recording my laughing response. I promised to make a list (although it will more likely reside in a notebook rather than on my bathroom mirror. However, I do think I can agree to making it purple or pink!) I also told her that I was thinking I should start with baby steps, rather than ginormous, Big Foot steps. I don’t – and may never – have any great ideas for a book. But writing does make me happy. It’s cathartic, and this blog is a good place to begin (or more accurately, resume.)

Ready to turn a page?

I was doing some deep thinking this week, stepping off the hamster wheel for a rare few moments. And I arrived at a conclusion. Not that this actually comes as a surprise to me, but this stage of mid-life? It ain’t easy.

Within the last several years, I’ve felt a dramatic downward shift inside, probably for reasons that I’ve written about in nearly every post on this site during this time. But it wasn’t until this past summer that I really realized I wasn’t just passing through some typical stage of life, but that I have probably been at least a bit depressed. And I realized this because summer came along and instead of invigorating me as it usually does, I still often felt as if I was trudging through the winter doldrums.

My job, after some honest conversations with my boss, has improved somewhat. But it is still a huge source of stress and something for which I am always fighting to get in control. Outside of work, my days are filled not only with actual to-do lists composed of various chores and unfinished projects, but also with mental lists of areas where I’m lacking, like connecting with extended family or friends that I haven’t seen in too long. Typical of what others tend to feel as the years march on, time seems to pass more quickly with each passing day. And I seem to have developed a habit of always telling myself that whatever I’ve accomplished, whatever I’ve experienced, it’s not enough.

I was wondering why I’ve continued to feel a mild sense of depression for such a long time. This summer, we finally had time to make a few weekend trips to the family cabin. I love it there, surrounded by nature and simplicity, but always felt like I had to catch up in some way upon our return home. Why this constant sense of never being on top of anything and never just being content? Have I allowed myself to get stuck in some stage of grief?  Do I just miss my life with young kids when the future seemed to stretch on endlessly? Am I now so focused on the idea that everything in this world is on a timeline to the degree that I can’t just enjoy any particular moment? Or is it just that I’m getting older and realizing that we don’t have infinite opportunities? That particular idea really hit home when my boss encouraged me to go back to school because the company would subsidize my tuition. I though about it for a split second before I wondered how I would fit this in when I already feel I never accomplish enough in a day and almost always feel mentally exhausted by the end of the workday. How would I even manage homework? Ultimately, I decided that I’m closer to retirement than I am to an entirely new career path. I want to have a life that I can live separately from my job. Besides, I’m satisfied enough doing what I’m doing, and don’t feel a strong desire to climb the ladder any higher than where I am now. But if I were a bit younger, maybe I’d feel differently.

All of these kinds of thoughts have been swirling around in my head for some time to varying degrees of consciousness, and without leading to anything definitive. I’ve just been making my way through each day as best as I can. But in the past few weeks, there have come a few specific ideas about what needs to change. I don’t want to keep riding along in this same rut. Maybe there’s finally a light at the end of the tunnel.