This story is for all of my highly sensitive readers who were teased or bullied growing up, which is possibly all of you. It’s a story of neighbors, of friendship, and how just one small daily act of kindness can heal old wounds.
Years ago, on a warm summer evening, I looked out my office window at the end of my work day and saw my neighbor looking intently at something across the creek. Although we had lived next door to each other for years, we were only cordial acquaintances – both of us caught up in the daily tasks of working, marriage-ing, and raising our two boys. But on this particular evening, all of that changed.
I was curious about what she was watching, so I stepped outside to join her. She smiled when I approached, put her finger to her lips and pointed to a mama bear and her two cubs. They were twenty feet away from us, just across the water, and we both stared for a long time, transfixed in the kind of awe that only happens in the presence of wild animals. After some time she said in a quiet voice (so as not to disturb the bears), “A couple of neighbors and I have been meeting on Friday mornings for coffee and conversation. Would you like to join us?”
My heart leapt. For years I had been telling my husband how lonely I felt in our neighborhood. As an introvert and busy householder, I had had a hard time forging inroads with neighbors. I had watched other neighbors connecting and had felt left out, triggered into that painful middle school place of feeling like an outsider. As I shared in this post, my middle school years were fraught with the heartache of feeling like I didn’t belong – a pain that nearly every client I’ve ever worked with has shared. So when my neighbor extended the invitation, it felt like she had just asked me on a date, which in a way she had: a date between neighbors. We said goodbye, I shared the encounter with my husband, and then I counted down the days until Friday.
On Friday morning, I walked next door feeling both nervous and excited. I always feel nervous in groups, which I’ve come to accept as another hallmark of being a highly sensitive introvert. But within a few minutes of sitting with these three lovely women, none of whom I had spoken more than a handful of words to in the ten years I had lived in our house, I felt at ease. Four women – two of us in our late forties, one in her sixties, one in her eighties – sitting together to share tea and stories. My soul beamed.
And share we did. We talked about children and grandchildren. We talked about gardens and husbands. We talked about things that mattered and things that didn’t matter. But in the space of open hearts and curious minds, it all mattered.
Shortly after I joined the group, I also joined another place that had intimidated me for years: Instagram. With my book slated for publication the following year, my marketing director advised me to choose one social media platform and pour myself into it. Never a fan of Facebook and reluctant to join YouTube because I save my video energy for courses, I chose Instagram. On this particular morning when we were supposed to have our Friday neighbor meeting, I had received a nasty comment on one of my posts. It rattled me, and I joined the meeting feeling off-kilter. I shared what was happening, and it led to a discussion about times in our lives when we had been teased or ostracized.
One neighbor shared:
I grew up in a rural town in the midwest. I never knew how to dress and we didn’t have much money so I would hobble together an outfit every day. I never fit in. I never had a sense of belonging. One day a group of boys drove past me when I was walking to school. I had a crush on one of them, and when he drove past he put his hand out. I thought he was waving at me, so I waved back, but he wasn’t waving at me. He was laughing at me. I was mortified.
She cried as she shared the story, then apologized for crying. With tears in my eyes I said what I always say to people who apologize for crying: “Please don’t apologize for your tears. They’re a gift. They’re medicine.” Decades after the incident, it still ripped a hole in her heart, and we the four of us held that place with her.
Over time, our neighborly relationships ripened into friendship. When covid shutdown occurred almost exactly a year ago, it was my next door neighbor I called in a slight panic after returning from the grocery store where I had seen rows of empty shelves. Would there be enough food? She assured me there would and then said, with her Southern warmth and grit, “If we have to catch crawdads from the creek, we will. We’re not going to let anyone starve around here.” I burst into tears, of relief and also of solidarity. Whatever was going to happen, we would endure it together.
The meetings have fallen away this past year because of covid. We met once over the summer when we could gather outdoors six feet apart, and we’ve taken walks together several times. But, although contact isn’t as regular, the bond remains.
And something else remains. Every day when I drive my boys to school, I see the neighbor who shared the story about the boys making fun of her walking her dog. We leave at the same time for school every day and she walks at the same time every day. And when I pass, I roll down the window and wave at her.
But I don’t just wave. I smile with all the warmth in my heart, a smile that says, “I see the young you who used to walk alone and was made fun of when the car drove past. This is a different car and a different era, but I’m waving to that young you. I see her and I love her. And maybe every morning when I wave at you, a piece of your heart is refilled.” When she waves back, it’s with a smile that could outshine the sun. It’s the smile of a fourteen year old who only wants to be seen and loved. Who longs to belong.
I’m not sure if it’s her wound that is being healed or mine. When I wave at her and see her smile, I see both her as a young teen and me, and I wrap us both in the warmth of our older selves who can time travel back to those painful experiences and meet the pain with love.
It’s just one small moment – the exchange between us takes one second – but it contains the universe. It contains the universality of our pain as humans and the healing power of love. It contains a reminder that, in some sense, we all carry the same wounds and needs: the wound of being rejected and made fun of, sometimes even bullied; the wound of wondering if we’re good and worthy and loved; the wound of heartache and heartbreak; the wound of loss. And underneath it all, the need for, as Brené Brown says, love and belonging. We need to know that we’re seen and that our voices are heard. We need to know that we matter.
As I sit in an overstuffed chair watching a blizzard fall across our land here in Colorado on this Sunday morning, know this:
The wave and smile I extend to her each morning is the same one I extend to all of you through these weekly posts. It’s my way of saying…
I see you.
I hear you.
You’re not alone.
And always, always, you are loved.