The Advantage of a Mean Neighbour

Today, anticipating the beginning of my winter semester and wondering if I have anything to say about it, I opened my “Drafts” folder and found this post, written in August but never published. At the time, the experience was too raw, and I didn’t want to dwell on it. Now, looking back, I see that my thinking around this unhappy incident really did shape my fall semester for the better, and I want to remind myself of some of those insights. So I thought I would share it with you now.

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o2wRZTOI had a very unpleasant experience the other day, and its effect on me was surprising: I want the school year to begin.

Believe me, I have NOT been looking forward to going back to work. My summer vacation was fine, but it never quite got off the ground. Once all my grading was done, I had a handful of teaching and research-related responsibilities to take care of that were neither urgent nor interesting, so they were easy to procrastinate: I dawdled about doing them, but I was never able to fully put them out of my mind. I’d also set myself the task of working steadily on my online novel, a task I more or less accomplished, but which meant I woke up every morning feeling I had something to DO. There were also household repairs to schedule, and trees to get inoculated against ash borers, and a million ordinary grown-up obligations that made me want to throw myself on the floor and kick and whine. I just couldn’t relax. Life felt onerous, like a never-ending to-do list.

When August rolled around, I was full of resentment. Course outlines already? Looming department conferences – could I bail? What do you mean, I have to think seriously about the research project I was determined to put out of my mind for the summer but instead brooded over? Again, normal back-to-work pouting for anyone coming off a vacation, but it all seemed like a huge weight.

Then I had a day that was actually bad.

When we first moved into our current home, the first house we’ve ever owned, we were warned by the previous owners that one of our neighbours was a little…unbalanced. We stepped very lightly with her, and did our best to be super nice. She was clearly an anxious and volatile person, someone who would steamroll you in conversation with a volley of aggressive declarations about how her coworkers are “all fucking idiots,” or how we should tell visitors that she “shoots first and asks questions later,” but we made as many gestures as we could to show her that we planned to live here a while, that we were good people and considerate neighbours, and that we just wanted everyone to get along. She seemed to feel okay about us. For the first year or so, everything went fine.

Then one spring day out in the garden, I saw her at our shared fence, hand-feeding a peanut to a squirrel. I made an offhand, smiling comment about how “that’s why I can’t get rid of them.” The squirrels dig up all my vegetable plants and eat all my tulip bulbs. Other neighbours have complained to me about the same problem. Besides, they chew wiring and move into attics. I said none of this to her, however; I just said, “That’s why I can’t get rid of them,” with a smile.

After that, she was done with me.

She would no longer wave to me or look me in the eye, she met my greetings with a terse “hello” or silence, and on the couple of occasions when I attempted to make conversation, she made it clear through her tone that she had no intention of sharing small talk with me. Being a person who has a horror of conflict, I decided that the best tactic was to leave it alone, so we co-existed in uneasy silence, mostly ignoring one another if we were both outside at the same time.

That was two years ago.

One afternoon this past weekend, I heard her in her back yard pulling weeds off our communal fence, muttering angrily to herself, and occasionally groaning loudly as she pulled something resistant out of the ground, so I went over to ask if she needed help. And she lit into me. She called me names, told me that my “grand lady” act might work with others but not with her, made reference to the fact that I “hate squirrels” while our cats are killing everything in sight. (It’s true: our cats are murderers. However, she had had a perfectly civil conversation with my husband in the yard the day before, so this was clearly not about our cats.) When I calmly asked if there was something she wanted to talk about, she went at me again. It was pretty nasty. She said some truly terrible things, including, “You call yourself a teacher, but I’d never let you near my children,” and then some more extremely offensive epithets.

I finally said, “Ok, well, if at any point you feel like you’d like to discuss this, let me know,” and I walked away.

As you can imagine, I was shaken. First of all, I have never had such an exchange with another human being, except maybe with bullies in primary school. And this is someone who lives next door to me, someone whom I pass in the street on almost a daily basis, someone I have to see when I’m working in my garden, someone with whom I have had to negotiate homeowner compromises in the past and with whom I will likely have to do so in the future.

The first thing I did was post the story to my personal Facebook page, asking for advice. The advice was reassuring and almost unanimous: “Do not take this on, do not make it your problem, do not feed her anger. This person is who she is and it has nothing to do with you. Any resolution you come to with such a person will not last. Keep your distance, be civil, and as much as possible, pretend she isn’t there.”

I agree with this advice, and I’ve followed it. Since this incident, I’ve been able to keep a comfortable distance from her. She seems to be avoiding me too, so maybe she’s feeling a little bit ashamed.

But I’ve been most comforted by my interactions with everyone else in the world. For example, yesterday, the inoculation of the ash tree took place, and my conversations with both the supervisor and the technician were so courteous and so friendly that that alone would have made for a good day. On my way to dinner with friends last night, I had a lovely chat with another neighbour about her magnolia tree and whether I should also plant one. The dinner itself was an absolute delight, our server (we are regulars at this restaurant) has become one of my favourite neighbourhood people, and our dinner companions, a couple of our best friends, reminded me that honestly, one of the basic ingredients of happiness is knowing one or two or three or four people with whom you always want to spend time, no matter what, because they are great.

And then today, as I had to start to get ready for school in earnest, I found myself feeling excited. I mean, vacations are all very well. It’s nice to relax around the house and do things on your own time and see only people you want to see (except for the mean neighbour who you can maybe see from the window.) But what does it add up to? What does one learn?

If we don’t engage with the world, if we see the people around us (as I sometimes do) as inconvenient obstacles to the safety of being locked inside our quiet homes with novels and cats, then we could end up bitter, mean old ladies feeding the squirrels and screaming at our neighbours. My life’s project has changed: I will not turn into that woman.

I will start by having a good semester.

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10 responses

  1. This is a pretty inspiring story. Thanks for sharing. It really helps me to put things into perspective a few times during the school year.

    As for your situation with the neighbor, I don’t know why it works, but it really helps me to hear that someone else has noticed it. It’s almost like it bugs me more if someone is possibly “getting away” with being a shithead. As soon as I’ve processed with someone else who understands my issues, it’s easy for me to be more empathetic toward that person.

    Again, thank you for sharing. I hope you’re having a great semester.

    • Dr. Humpp: I totally agree; we’ve been tempted to speak to other neighbours about this lady, but this is a very old-school neighbourhood with people who have lived here for generations; it would probably be ill-advised to bring her up with the people who have known her for years and years unless they bring it up first. That said, we are doing our best to foster good relationships with everyone, so that when she gossips about us, they will be less inclined to take her seriously!

      • I agree and think that the fact that the previous homeowners warned you about this individual is a bit of validation. It might not change any facts, awkwardness, or tension but that kind of thing makes me feel better.

        I had an issue with a colleague a few years ago and I felt so isolated that I considered quitting. Just by chance I overheard others venting about this person and it didn’t bother me nearly as much.

        Like I said, I think you’re handling this admirably. In the end, you can’t control what other people do, only how you react. I tell myself that at least once a week in the classroom.

  2. It intrigues me how much we let other people’s issues affect our own sense of self. They come unglued on us and we wonder “how could I have handled this differently?” We willingly take the blame for the negative interaction.
    I think you handled this perfectly, and I don’t think you should let this woman’s poor attitude rub off on you. Don’t honor her by bringing her up to the neighbor’s. Remember what our mothers told us “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”
    This “mean neighbor” of yours has obviously forgotten Mother’s sage wisdom.

    • Sharon: it’s a tricky balance. I think it’s essential to take responsibility for our own contribution to any conflict – should I have made such a flippant and seemingly critical remark about her squirrel-feeding? – but some of us (me) are also prone to internalize ALL responsibility for others’ responses, especially others’ anger, and there are situations, like this one, where that is misguided. This lady’s anger was clearly irrational and her behaviour unacceptable, but there are also things I can learn from the whole situation. For me, it’s important to see the interaction in all its complexity, even if the upshot is that she is much more in the wrong than I was!

  3. I also think you handled this perfectly. I know that no matter how calm you might have come across, encounters like this leave you shaken. It reminds me of when I was teaching and a parent would go off on me. Even though I knew they were bat shit crazy, I still felt so wounded and wondered if anyone else could possibly believe them? So much of this is about power/control and tit for tat. Engaging with a person like this is a fool’s errand and I love that you turned this around by realizing how most people are indeed good. My husband and I’ve been Airbnb hosts for 18 months now and this has provided a great opportunity to host different kinds of people and see how much we really have in common. Have a wonderful semester!

    • “Even though I knew they were bat shit crazy, I still felt so wounded…” This is so often the case, isn’t it? I think feeling wounded, as long as we are able to eventually step away from it and get perspective, is healthy. It would be much less adaptive (or useful) if we immediately assumed that the other person was entirely at fault. I have known people who laugh at others’ anger or who lash back at them thoughtlessly, without self-reflection, and that has never struck me as a good or productive way to behave.

  4. She sounds nuts and mean, and this was a great post to show the evolution of being able to move beyond her and the poisoned situation. At least you’re not her kids. How old are they? Imagine having to live *with* her, instead of just beside her.

    • Her kids are grown, and I have never seen them (to my knowledge), so my impression is that they don’t spend a lot of time with her! When I told this story to a colleague, her response was, “Count your lucky stars; this woman sounds just like my mother-in-law.” So yes, I am DEEPLY grateful that she is nothing more than a neighbour whom I can (uncomfortably) ignore.

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