I love my neighborhood: a diverse place, where people recognize each other and say hi on the street. Over time, people recognize one another. There is a distinct cast of characters.
The woman who runs the dry-cleaner and laundry works harder than anyone I know. The guy who owns a boutique down the street has an adorable dog. At the coffee shop, everyone knows my drink order and name. My partner and I make friends with other patrons, learn their stories, form relationships. The man who sells Street Sheet always has a smile and friendly wave.
There is a woman who lives in my neighborhood and has a small golden dog. She sleeps on the street and is having a hard time. She has clear blue eyes and often sits near the falafel restaurant asking for change.
One Sunday, after getting my coffee, I walked by the place where she was sleeping. She was bundled up, and had her belongings around her, carefully arranged.
From a distance, I could see a man standing over her. His body language made it clear that this was not sinister. It was obvious that he didn’t know her, but equally obvious that there was no malice. There was nothing furtive about him, though people on the street are often quite vulnerable.
As I walked closer, I saw that he was cleaning her space: removing milk cartons, used containers, and spent tissues. He was taking out her trash and neatening her area, as though she were a guest in his home. And I saw him leaving things he thought she might want (some food, a book), placing them carefully into her bag.
This man, by his dress, does not share her housing status. He was middle-aged, middle class, middle of the road. He is simply a good neighbor.
There was not a trace of pity or of self-righteousness. His generosity was completely matter-of-fact. It was intimate, though he did not know her. He did not see himself as different from her, separate, or better than. He simply treated her as a dear and precious friend.
This experience blew my heart completely open.
Even in a big city, we can find connection and commonalities with people. It doesn’t take living in a small town to foster a sense of intimacy.
In my social justice work, I work to make connections between people and groups. I educate and organize and strive to help people see that we are all the same, all connected to one another. In yogic philosophy, there is the understanding that we cannot be separate from each other. There is only one of us.
And there, in that instant, was someone who understood that in every cell.
How then do we care for our neighbors who are less fortunate? Do we turn away and dismiss them? Do we give money as a platitude?
Or do we befriend them? Find out what is most needed and then act to fill that need?
It is time for us to engage with our neighbors, particularly those less privileged, in ways that acknowledge our shared humanity. Determining ways that we can be truly of service, rather than assuming we know best. Allowing people their dignity and self-determination would uplift us all.
We are each others’ neighbors. Having a different housing or economic status does not make that less so. How can we shift our attitude to make sure that everyone is included under the umbrella of “neighbor”? What would happen if we treated everyone as a dear and precious friend? What would be the effect of that on a neighborhood?
As I watched this interaction, of one neighbor helping another, I was struck by the rarity of this kind of compassion. When he was finished, the man wrapped her blanket more neatly around her, tucking it near her chin. It was the most tender thing I have seen in some time.
It is my hope that we all find ways to better neighbors, in both the big and little senses. Let this not be so rare. And as my partner said to me later, “We should be that guy next time.”
Christy Tennery is a yoga teacher, social justice activist, writer and healer. She weaves together a love of nature, poetry, community and yoga philosophy to create a rich tapestry of practice.
She aims all of her passions in the direction of healing, liberation and compassion.
She initially came to yoga to heal her physical body, and now works to empower her students in their own healing journeys. She teaches in a variety of settings, including via Skype.
Christy loves green juice, riding bicycles, taking pictures and consensus decision-making. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her sweetie.