Tuesday, May 25, 2004

I'm really not that great a neighbor. I seem to like my privacy more and more each year, and I have added a little barbed wire to the perimeter to be sure the riff-raff stays on the other side of the boundary. I wasn't always this way. Time and experience have definitely added a few locks and bolts to the doors.

It's very easy to be kind to children (especially little children) -- they're persistent for one thing. They don't take up a lot of space, and they have no problem seeing you as the authority. They let you be the one in control. They don't criticize you. They don't eat much. Overall, they offer a good return on your investment. Teenagers are a little harder, but are still preferred over the bonafide adult population.

Grown ups are simply not so easy to like. I find this to be true in many settings, but especially in my home. The worst kind are grown ups who do not respect my boundaries. I find that once you let them in, they're very difficult to get rid of, so I have been forced to reinforce my boundaries over the years. There are some, once inside, that feel compelled to criticize my life choices (including, but not limited to, my decor, my movie collection, my parenting skills, my book collection, my housekeeping skills (or lack thereof)...etc. etc. ad nauseum.

My trouble with grown ups has a certain pattern about it. There are certain personality types I have severe difficulty with. I really dislike one neighbor in particular. I will call him Association Man. He embodies many of the traits I dislike, so my next neighborhood story will be about him. This is not my first experience with such a person, by the way. In the last place we lived, the Association Man was a woman who we fondly referred to as "the Sea Witch" (our development was called "Sea Watch").

Association Man has memorized the "CC&R" s. He seems friendly at first, but looks over your shoulder as he shakes your hand to get a good look inside your place, hoping to find an infraction of the rules. He calls the Association with his complaints (or writes complaint letters that are delivered by the Association.) His lawn is meticulous, and he stands guard over it everyday. No lawn lives up to his expectation. He sweeps the street regularly. He has no children at home (in his case one step child who is grown and moved on). His corner is not enough. He comes to your corner, too. Association Man has actually cut the buds off of a tree in my yard (It would have attracted bees, he explained later), and cut branches off of other trees (the kids hang out under the tree and pull the leaves off of the branches they could reach. These leaves eventually come over to his yard. He did everyone a favor by cutting the branches to a height that the children couldn't reach. Ascetics were not motivating him at the time....) He does these things without asking -- fully believing he is acting in your best interest. He knows everything that is happening in the neighborhood, and is not happy about any of it. I have never one time heard him compliment anyone. Never a positive word.

Association Man is sick, and has been since we moved in. He was diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy and is slowly degenerating. He is always home, on disability. Occasionally he has needed the help of a cane to walk. Lately more than ever. Sometimes I am able to peek through all the barbed wire and really see him. When I do, it breaks my heart. But I have learned not to get close to him, his thorns are poisonous.

In the beginning, he would entertain the neighborhood kids when he did the lawn (twice a day, every day). K was over there frequently. He'd "help". Association Man would teach the kids typical Cub Scout tricks, and remember back when his Step son was in Soccer. We were on the fence about him. He seemed to act kindly toward the kids. He was always there. He saw everything. He watched out for your property while you were at work. He cared about his investment. He was irritating sometimes, but who isn't? "Harmless" we said. "Good Neighbor" we'd add. Eventually we'd really hear him, see him. After the kids would go, (or even before they'd leave) he would criticize their parents who let the kids run amok on the streets and whine about how if he wasn't watching them who would be? and every new neighbor adds more unparented kids and too many cars and there goes the neighborhood..blah, blah, blah. It became exhausting to listen to him. Embarrassing. He was "good works" gone awry...

His step son got married and moved away. Far away. The courtship was riddled with criticisms -- she's lazy, you're lazy, they're too lazy, how do they think they'll keep a house? how do they think they'll ever pay for it? Who are they kidding? They married on the east coast. They are expecting their second child. They are very happy. Now Association Man is more bitter than ever. Nothing is in his control. He calls the police often -- the cute little neighborhood kids have become unruly teens. They evolved from kids who loved him, to kids who ignored him, to kids who confront him. The police are even tired of hearing from him.

If I see him outside when I pull into my drive, I try to run into my house. I don't want to deal with him. Yet I can't imagine my neighborhood without him. The kids complain about him, yet I think they are less out of control than they could be if he wasn't out there hovering all the time. I wonder what the street would look like without him sweeping it all the time? I wonder how much trash would be accumulating in the gutter? He is extremely unloveable. Extremely unlikeable. Yet even he is loved by God. Do we sound like him? Do we complain constantly to God? God doesn't get tired of the 911 calls -- or does He?

There is a part of me that defends Association Man. After all, he addresses issues that might eventually become a problem for me. I have a much higher threshold for chaos (I'm a mother, after all...), but I like a certain amount of order in the place I live. I like peace and quiet as much as the next guy. I want my street to be safe and clean. Underneath it all, I'm secretly glad he's there, being the bad guy. Being the Association Man. I'm off the hook -- as long as he plays the bad guy, the asshole, I don't have to. So far, nothing has ever irritated me on my corner that hasn't irritated him worse. So we let him handle it -- Then criticize the manner by which he accomplishes this. How much different are we than him? I wonder if he sees it in himself?

And the worst part of all is that I know that I know that I know that Association Man needs God. Badly. All he really wants is control. Control is the one thing he cannot have. Even his own body has become his enemy. I think about how to minister to him now and then, but I quickly shove that thought under the carpet. I'll pray for him in my head -- but I can't get any closer than that. So many more are so much easier to love. Maybe you can pray for him? For me?

One time (I'm so embarassed to admit) I saw him walking from the bus stop. I see him often when I'm rushing to some other place. This time I was on my way home. I had time. I saw him and I could have driven him -- but I refused. I first considered the mess in my car and couldn't bare his scrutiny, but mostly I just didn't want to do it. I didn't want to give him a minute of my time.

How ugly I've become.

++Pray for me. A sinner. A bad neighbor. Pray for Association Man. He really needs You, Jesus, now more than ever. Bless him, Lord. Heal him from the inside out. Then heal me.

Monday, May 17, 2004

As I promised, I want to tell the story of my little neighborhood. Time is a big issue for me lately, so I can only commit to little snippets of the story at a time. The first snippet is dedicated to K.

K is a young boy who lives across the street from us. He is the same age as my son: 14. The day we moved in, he excitedly scurried around us, pointing to my husband's truck, squealing with delight: "toys! toys!". He was of course referencing my son's vast collection of too much stuff (already too much at the age of 3...). You may wonder why an unsupervised little 3 year old boy was running around our moving truck. We wondered too. He was dirty from head to toe, face covered in that yucky mucus/mud combo that only a busy little boy can perfect. We would come to know him very well over the years.

He was the 3rd of 4 children trapped at the time in an extremely bad marriage. The marriage is no more. It was one of the most necessary divorces I have ever witnessed. The negative synergy of the two people was incredible. They were so much less together than the sum of their two parts. The marriage needed to end, but the beast didn't die easily. It left an awful lot of carnage in it's wake.

At 3, K would be at our house from the first moment he could escape his home. Our doorbell would ring at 5am, 6am. I would open the door a crack and look down into his eager face. Always dirty. Always the same mixture of mucus and mud. This was a challenge for me. I was juggling a new home, 3 year old boy of my own, brand new baby girl, and a full time job managing a restaurant. I worked 2-12, my husband worked 4am - 2. We were literally 2 ships passing. The doorbell would awaken my baby and my boy hours before I was ready to face the day. Some days I would be patient, others not so much. I set boundaries: "you can't come in until we clean your face and hands and blow your nose" (he eagerly agreed to this, although I would be the "Cleaner") "you can't come over until 8 am" (not so easy to explain -- doorbell would ring incessantly, "is it 8 yet?" -- eventually just easier to clean him off and let him in. Not awful. My son was delighted to have a friend over.)

When K wasn't in my house, he was at another neighbor's or he was roaming the neighborhood. By 4 he had mastered his big brothers' bicycles and was riding all around the neighborhood. Cul-de-sacs, busy streets -- we'd see him everywhere. His mother, partially overwhelmed by the bad marriage, largely overwhelmed by 4 kids aged 1-7, was often "resting". She would comfort herself with prescribed medication and be unavailable. Social Services had been to their home on several occasions. She had been corrected for her disciplinary methods (beating which occurred before our time). She just gave up.

K was a fixture in our home. He appears often in the many snapshots I took of my kids in the early days. He ate breakfast and lunch with us, watched Barney and Winnie the Pooh, then eventually Batman, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers. He lived by the same rules as my kids, was respectful and good when in my house. He had a difficult speech impediment that he carries to this day, and let my son do all the talking. He didn't know his birthday or middle name. He didn't really know how old he was. On many occasions, his brothers would come over to retrieve him at about 9pm. Time to go to bed. Sometimes he wasn't here. They simply didn't know where he was. This is amazing even at 14. But at 3, 4 or 9 -- it's unthinkable. "he said he was going to your house..." I wondered on those days -- "was it because I turned him away at 6 am?" I worried that something awful would happen to him. Yet against all odds, K has survived.

Although K is still a friend to my son, he is not my son's favorite person. He has no self-discipline, no boundaries. He is always in trouble at school. He is a poor student. His family life is much better now that the parents have resolved their differences. His new step father is agreeable (and only seen every other weekend). His biological father won custody of the boys, mom got the young daughter. Dad took an active role in the parenting after the divorce, (better late than never), but K wears the scars of a tough beginning. Bad habits die hard, speech impediment remains -- K is a bit of a wild hare.

Despite the different paths they are on, K still begs to come over, even when my son isn't here. He calls me Mommy, even after my own son has graduated to "mom" (he giggles when he says it, but still always says it). He wants to eat dinner here, sleep over, come along to sporting events. My daughter groans. "NOT HIM AGAIN!" She feels that one brother is quite enough. He persists. He even helps with chores when my own kids grumble. So we let him come. Sometimes when we have committed to having him over he will go off and not tell us where he is. The consequence is simple, he can't come the next time. "If we are responsible for you, you need to follow our simple rules," we say. He eventually comes back, although sometimes not for a while...

You may think we are K's only hope. This is simply not true. He always manages to find the safe havens. A Christian family who has since moved away had K and his family in prayer for years before we arrived. They even came for those kids every Sunday for years after they moved away. They brought them to church with them. Recently, a youth pastor started a community program in a surf shop near the local High School -- K found his way there. The pastor gives K work to do, and K hangs out there. Somehow, against all odds, K finds the safe havens. God is at work in his life.

The last time he slept over, we took him to church with us. I asked the boys how Youth Group was, K piped in "lots of hot girls there!" My son rolls his eyes, my daughter gives her best huffy breath. "I hate you K, you're such a DORK!" she says, utterly disgusted. He smiles. He fits right in.

++Lord, watch over all the children, but especially this one. You have clearly covered him with your Grace. Protect and Defend him. You are his only hope. In a way, we are all a bit like him. We find refuge in your family. The world is a dangerous place. Thank you for being our home.

Sunday, May 09, 2004

I live in what was supposed to be our "starter house" -- you know, the house you don't intend to stay in forever-- the investment property. We had a 5 year plan which is now apparently our 10 year plan, and the way the market looks these days, it might in the end become our 15 year plan. There are a thousand analogies that keep popping up for me, proving daily that I am obsessing over this issue in my life. (Yes, I refer to the housing situation as an "issue"). The average house in my neck of the woods is running about $650,000 - $800,000. This is great news if you are a Realtor. Unfortunately, I am not.

Our home isn't all that bad. It's a suitable size and functions well for us. I am actually embarrassed to admit to my bad attitude. The issue at hand is that I do not love my home. I've never really loved it. It was meant to be temporary. I figured it would do for a while, and we would move on. I never put down roots. The neighborhood is full of people like me -- temporary. We are at the low end of the housing market in here, and everyone seems to buy with the intention of using this piece of real estate to get a step up. The trouble is that step keeps getting steeper and steeper. The only way to cash in on our nest egg would be to leave the area -- or to commit to a half a million dollar mortgage.

To top it all off, our neighborhood is a little dicey. We are a mixed lot. The higher the housing market soars, the more families we see crowding into one home. After all, we are the cheapest homes for miles, and at $550,000 per unit, we're running about $180,000 per bedroom. The cute little kids riding bikes on the cul-de-sac are now teens hanging out on the street corner under the street light. Paint ball guns have given way to Air soft and BB guns, street games have started to turn to battles. My attitude has been, "just put the house on the market. We'll cash in the equity and buy new." Sounds easy enough. I've given in. I'm willing to pay $3000/month to get the hell out of here.

You may think that no one in their right mind would pay over a half a million dollars for an attached home in a dicey neighborhood with gang problems. Guess again. At that price we are the cheapest square footage in town. Houses last a day on the market. And people are fighting to get one. Sound crazy? You betcha. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. You can put whatever price tag you want on this place, I still don't like it very much, but I'm beginning to see a higher meaning in it all.

In an obscure passage in "the Lake of Dead Languages", Carol Goodman refers to a home she used to visit as a child as "looking unloved". This phrase in that context leapt out at me. I've been living in an "unloved" home for quite some time -- and I suddenly wondered if it showed. This has been a common theme for me since arriving in California. I am only visiting this planet. I hate this attitude in me. I ask for forgiveness regularly. I ask for a grateful heart. Contentment. But still I'm whining....

Since reading Carol's great book, I've seen "My Life as a House" and "Under the Tuscan Sun". I have to say that given the ongoing theme in my life, both these films moved me. I loved the reconstruction analogies, the restoration. Again, I was inspired to ask for divine intervention -- I want to love where I live. My primary instinct is to go find that place, but I know that it is my heart that requires the reconstruction. Like Rep Tevya in Fiddler on the Roof, I am tempted to ask for more -- wouldn't my task be a bit more palatable if I was in a Tuscan Villa? Wouldn't it be an easier house to love? No, the answer comes clearly, my unkempt heart would follow, and even the Tuscan Villa would pale.

After reading Will Sansbury's recent blog on Christians in Public School, I realized that this attitude is all too common in the Christian community. Somehow we've grown to see Life as a sort of Ellis Island. We are held up on this smelly rock, awaiting the processing of our papers so we can get on with it. This place is damned, the people smell bad and speak strange languages and have all sorts of heathen habits -- it is a purgatory of sorts. We are heaven bound. Just hang in there and this unpleasantness will be over soon. Don't let your children touch the foreigners -- you don't know what they might catch! (So ugly -- so sorry).... Life as a starter home -- temporary -- in a dicey neighborhood.

Yet life is a gift. A very expensive one. And even the "least of these" lives is likened unto Jesus Himself. Maybe it doesn't always make sense -- but it rings true deep down in me in a place that seems ancient. Maybe my tiny half a million dollar attached home in a neighborhood on the edge is an example of something much bigger. I'm beginning to see the big picture.

I won't be able to finish this story today. But I will tell you enough to start you praying. And I really hope you will be praying. Fighting has escalated. There are weapons (no real guns yet, but knives, I am told.) The final straw for me was the sound of glass breaking. I chased them away and was left cleaning up broken wine cooler bottles. The kids I was chasing are all of 12 and 13 years old. Police have been called on multiple occasions by multiple families. Hateful things have been said. There has been yelling, name calling -- patrolling. Two Sundays ago, we decided to take the corner for Jesus. (yes, I know I sound like a freak). Don't ask me how I came to this conclusion. It seemed right. My kids and a neighbor boy prayed for the corner. We prayed for the "bad kids" and we prayed for the "good kids" on the edge of being bad. We prayed for our corner. My daughter wrote in sidewalk chalk "Jesus loves you". We decided we needed to keep that message on the sidewalk for a while. My son said, "they'll probably think we're nut jobs and will stay the heck away from our corner." Maybe he's right. Whatever works.

All I know is this: I've been noticing how pretty the hills look around my house lately. The sky is so very blue here. And at night you can smell the jasmine and the citrus blossoms....