Since 2016, I’ve lived in a large Craftsman bungalow in Pasadena that’s been divided into eight apartments. All we residents of course have our own space, but we also constantly see and run into each other. Our property manager lives next door, the landlord also owns three more houses around the corner, and we all share a giant back yard.
This makes for an extended community of adults and children.
Recently I conducted a mental inventory and realized that together we have roots in Puerto Rico and Santa Barbara, Venezuela and New Hampshire, Indonesia and Orange County, Africa and West Virginia, Mexico and the Bay Area, El Salvador and Florida.
We’ve spent the last three months together in what basically amounts to lockdown. Harmony has reigned. The time has been marked by innumerable acts of kindness, generosity, good cheer and forbearance.
“Hey I just made a bunch of masks—do you want one?” “Hey I picked up this sunhat the other day—I thought of you in the garden.” “Hey, I made a huge batch of cauliflower-cheese soup—can I give you some?” “Hey, I just got back from Costco and bought this six-pack of antihistamine spray—I’ll never use it all, ya wanna couple bottles?”
Stan brings my packages upstairs when the FedEx guy leaves them by the wrong door. Jenny stops to report that the day before she saw a mother and six baby skunks in the side yard. Roberto offers me a couple of big garden pots he scored at a construction site. Ruby, 2, shows off her new canary yellow Reeboks.
Hortensia, my next-door neighbor, is some kind of saint who works as a special ed teacher, lives in a small studio, and is helping put her daughter through college. She texts me on liturgical holidays with Virgin of Guadalupe emojis, gave me a lovely Christmas cactus last December, more recently, returned home from Target with her mask and shield and presented me with a bag of fancy, individually-wrapped chocolates. “For you, mija! You let me know if you need anything, okay?”
Attending daily livestream Mass in my bedroom, at the Sign of Peace I’d silently greet these neighbors by name, bless them, wish them well. At dusk, I often sit in the garden and pray a Rosary, again silently including the people with whom I’m surrounded.
Introvert though I am, I love our little ecosystem. My role at the compound is unofficial groundskeeper. A crew comes in once a week and does the heavy lifting, but I’m constantly puttering around weeding, picking up litter, clipping, re-potting. I’ve also taken it upon myself to plant and care for a large backyard California native plant garden. The upshot: If I croak alone in my apartment, I’m not going to lie there till mummification sets in. If I didn’t show up for a day or two, someone would definitely notice.
The quarters are somewhat close and that leaves room for trespasses, too. “Whoops, I forgot my clothes in the washer and you were waiting to use it, so sorry.” “Yikes, I watered the plants on my balcony and some dripped down to your patio below: That was clumsy of me, so sorry.”
That’s how real life is lived: not in op-eds and twitter feeds, but rather in a thousand tiny exchanges, acts of forbearance, and forgiveness. Real life is the new tenant asking “What day do they come for the recycling?” It’s shared wonder: “Look, there are already tiny green fruits on the persimmon tree!” It’s the small sacrifice: “I’m going to Trader Joe’s, can I get you anything?
Real life is a hurried hello in the morning, a shared moment out in the driveway at dusk. A “What’s up?” and “Good Lord, it’s hot today!” and “Did the mailman come yet, do you know?”
That’s how real life is lived. And I wonder as well if this isn’t the way real change takes place, because what do we really have to offer one another except a welcome, a lovely garden, a place at the table?
As Binx Bolling says in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, “There is only one thing I can do: listen to people, see how they stick themselves into the world, hand them along a ways in their dark journey and be handed along, and for good and selfish reasons.”
Ideology—the imposed groupthink that increasingly marks our culture—is one-dimensional, has no sense of humor and is boring. Reality is tragicomic and human.
The other day I ran into Brandon and little curly-headed 3-year-old Leo in the back yard. The kid gazed lovingly up at me, pointed a chubby finger and burbled a word that sounded like “Huchhhga” and that I took to be “Heather.”
“Oh cute!” I exclaimed. “He knows my name!”
“Unhh…” Brandon replied. “I think he’s saying ‘Granny’.”