Last week our truck was broken into. That may be a bit misleading since the truck was unlocked. Prez’s fault. He’d come home from work, exhausted, and had forgotten to lock up. The thieves only took a bag of quarters we keep in there for the parking meters and a phone charger but, even so, no one enjoys being robbed.
Surprisingly, the thieves were caught. Young boys, roaming and probably just having some kicks. It was our neighbour who spotted them at 3am and called the police. We talked about it a few days after the fact and she jokingly referred to herself as the Neighbourhood Watch.
It’s my neighbour I want to tell you about, not the thieves.
We’ve been in this basement suite for over three years now. Like most houses in Nelson, ours is older but fixed up. We live in a middle class neighbourhood that’s quiet, clean, and close to the lake and downtown. We have a wonderful, generous landlord who lives upstairs and our street has loads of beautiful trees and gardens.
“But it’s a shame about the neighbour,” I said to Prez, shortly after moving in.
The neighbours on our right have a front yard with a distinct redneck flavour, complete with the old car on blocks. They occasionally park a grocery cart in front of the house before returning it to the Safeway. Most days she—I’ll call her Sam—can be found on the front porch smoking.
Sam looks as if she’s lived hard. Her voice has the gravelly quality of a lifelong chain smoker. Overweight, with a deep scar on one shoulder, everything about her appearance fits with the front yard: redneck. I couldn’t accuse her of unfriendliness though. Every time I walk by or pass her in the street she has a smile and something to say. Once she warned me to be careful at the crosswalk. “I got hit by a car here,” she said. “Twice.”
How does someone get hit by a car twice at the same crosswalk?
I made a few jokes about Sam to Prez and we both quietly laughed at the kooky lady next door. Underneath the jokes, however, was an unstated belief that Sam was lower than us. That she was, for all her good natured greetings, one of “those” people.
I’m a very judgmental person. I don’t like to think I am but I know it’s true. Knowing that, I try to catch myself. I try not to let my instinct trump my intention. Most of the time I catch it and force myself to remain open minded. Sometimes I fail and I shove a person into stereotype because it’s easier than empathy.
It’s easy to judge people. It’s easy to divide things into neat little boxes of Us and Them. You could argue that it’s tribal bonding behaviour and I wouldn’t disagree but it’s also behaviour based in fear and ignorance. If you want to be smart, successful, and respected, someone like Sam represents everything you don’t want to be. Ridiculing her is a form of self-defense.
Today the Vanity Fair cover featuring Bruce Jenner’s transition to his female self, Caitlyn, popped up on my Facebook feed. I haven’t been following this story closely but I’m well-versed enough to know what would follow. Among my conservative Facebook friends, there were posts decrying Jenner’s change. Among my liberal Facebook friends there were posts celebrating Jenner’s change. Usually I would just skim over this sort of divisive story but I think this is too important to ignore and it hits close to home.
A few months after Prez and I first met, his older brother came out to his family as gay. Prez was devastated. Beyond feeling bad for the effect of this news on his brother’s wife and kids, I wasn’t shocked or offended. I’m eight years younger than Prez and my generation was already starting to realize that gay was not a choice and not a “sin” when I was in high school.
It has taken a long time for Prez to come to terms with this new reality and we’ve had a lot of uncomfortable talks on the subject. Most of all, though, I think he’s seen over the years that his brother is still his brother, nothing has changed there, and that what matters is that his brother is happy and no longer living a lie.
I’m proud of my husband for making the effort to empathize and to change his views. I know it has not been easy for him. But I also wonder if it were not for his brother would he still be stuck in that old, ignorant way of thinking? He’s done the work because he loves his brother. It’s hard to hate something blindly when you see it on the face of someone you care about.
When I read the comments about Jenner today, so filled with disgust and self-righteousness, I couldn’t help but wonder if these people would be so quick to share their venom if the person in question was their brother, their sister, their best friend, their father or mother, their son or daughter? They are so quick to judge because they understand so little. Because they are afraid. They often use their holy book of choice as an excuse but it comes down to fear, ignorance and a lack of empathy.
How does Bruce Jenner becoming Caitlyn Jenner affect me? Not at all. My life goes on as normal. The world, as far as I can tell, is still spinning.
Before you judge someone as wrong or lower or sinful, really ask how that person’s existence affects your day-to-day life. Chances are it does not. Not at all.
I know a gay couple in this city who adopted two young children, a brother and sister, twins. These women have given two at-risk kids, who do not share their adopted parents’ skin colour, a loving and safe home. They also maintain contact with the children’s biological mother. I’ve met the kids; they’re so lovely and so comfortable with their moms. They are going to have an amazing life.
If this were a news story posted across the internet far and wide, I know what kind of vitriol many of the comments would contain. But how many of those commenters would do the same? How many would take in those two kids and love and raise them as their own? I think 10% would be a generous guess.
I’m adopted. It was easier for my parents because I was a baby when I came to their home and I mostly looked like them. But I know what it means to be taken in and loved by parents who have the desire and means to properly care for a child. I thank my lucky stars every single day for my parents and the sea change of difference they made in my life. Those two women raising those twins have nothing but my complete and utter respect and admiration.
Those two women being gay, living together and raising their adopted children does not affect my life. But they sure have affected the lives of those kids, for the better.
See, here’s what I’ve learned about judgment: It’s not always a bad thing. Judging people out of fear and ignorance and lack of empathy is terrible. Judging people on their behaviour and on their treatment of their fellow humans is a great way to choose only the best people to share in your life. It’s how you learn and grow and strive to be better.
My neighbour, Sam, caught the kids stealing from our truck because she is a smoker and was awake and on her porch at 3am to light up. That’s not the only kind thing she has done for us. When she found out Fred and I were divers, she dug up a bunch of old National Geographic magazines from her collection with diving articles she thought we would enjoy. She came over and closed the garage door when our landlord had accidentally left it open. She talked the police out of giving me a $200 ticket for making an illegal left turn and then promptly let me know that said left turn was illegal (I didn’t know!). She’s brought us squash from her garden. She bought my book for her father.
And, as always, she still makes time to say hello whenever I walk by.
Sam is a good person, a good neighbour, and I’m an asshole for ever thinking otherwise. I think I need to bring her a thank you present. I think the card will say, “Thanks for being the Neighbourhood Watch. The world is a better place because of people like you. Love, Your Grateful Neighbour.”