Do Neighbors Really Want to be Loved?

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Neighbors don't want to be loved. That's how Alden Nowlan experienced it. In his disquieting poem, He Attempts To Love His Neighbours, this renowned 20th century Canadian poet describes the dilemma faced by would-be caring neighbors who discover that the appetite for neighborliness has vanished from the community. His forthrightness disturbed me. So much so that it provoked a response. Listen in, if you like, to our conversation. He Attempts to Love His Neighbours by Alden Nowlan from Selected Poems (House of Anansi Press)

My neighbours do not wish to be loved. They have made it clear that they prefer to go peacefully about their business and want me to do the same. This ought not to surprise me as it does; I ought to know by now that most people have a hundred things they would rather do than have me love them.

There is a television, for instance; the truth is that almost everybody, given the choice between being loved and watching TV, would choose the latter. Love interrupts dinner, interferes with mowing the lawn, washing the car, or walking the dog. Love is a telephone ringing or a doorbell waking you moments after you've finally succeeded in getting to sleep.

So we must be careful, those of us who were born with the wrong number of fingers or the gift of loving; we must do our best to behave like normal members of society and not make nuisances of ourselves; otherwise it could go hard with us. It is better to bite back your tears, swallow your laughter, and learn to fake the mildly self-deprecating titter favored by the bourgeoisie than to be left entirely alone, as you will be, if your disconformity embarrasses your neighbours; I wish I didn't keep forgetting that.

But wait a minute, Alden. Take a closer look at these self-protective neighbors of ours. Behind their busyness. Beneath the surface chatter. Beyond the social barriers erected to keep intrusions out of lives pulled in too many directions. Look closer, Alden. See the emptiness that success has yielded. See the sadness of dreams never realized. See the loneliness of relationships controlled by schedules and appointments, appraised by their utilitarian value. TV remotes, answer machines, closed gates and blinds – these are not necessarily signals that say "stay away." They may be camouflage to protect our would-be friends from being found out. Their self-sufficient public persona may be a facade, a protection to keep them from being exposed as frauds – not the ideal parent, not the thriving businessman, not the emotionally secure self they have taken great pains to portray. They are afraid, Alden. Not opposed to love, afraid of it. Afraid to lose control of their fragile security. Afraid that if they are discovered they will be revealed as uninteresting or unappealing.

Our neighbors hide from us, Alden, not because they want to avoid our love but because they have grown sick for lack of it. They want to be known, to be valued for who they really are, to be embraced by community. But they hide, will continue to hide, until a neighbor, someone like you, searches out the key that will draw them from their seclusion. A common interest in classic cars, a concern over neighborhood safety, the birth of a child (or grandchild), a parent with Alzheimers... any fitting excuse to connect on common ground may hold that key. Someone has to take the risk of disconformity, Alden. For all our sakes.

About Alden Nowlan

Alden Nowlan was one of the most significant Canadian writers of the latter 20th century and the most genuinely popular poets of his generation. He was born in poverty near Windsor, Nova Scotia, in January 1933, to a girl not yet 15 years old and her hard-drinking husband, twice her age. Abandoned, Nowlan spent his childhood under the care of his paternal grandmother. Her death, when he was a teen, so affected him that he was hospitalized. His education had ended after a few days in grade five, so, upon his release, at the age of 14, he went to work in the village sawmill. Largely self-educated, Nolan became a journalist, writer-in-residence at the University of New Brunswick and a respected fiction writer. His novel, The Wanton Troopers, published after his death in 1983, remains a popular textbook as well as a seminal story of Maritime rural poverty.

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