The Lives of Others

When creeping on your neighbors becomes an existential moment.

In his short life, my kitten, Hei Bai, never showed any interest in looking out the window. Some terrible infection in his infancy had left his retinas scarred and cloudy, and I could never quite tell how much this affected his vision. In retrospect, I think the windows must have been uninteresting to him because he couldn’t see the birds and squirrels in the nearby trees.

My kitten now, Oslo, certainly can see out the windows. It’s one of his favorite things to do. And when a bird or squirrel gets close enough he drops into a crouch and makes a little chirping sound at it, the same one he makes when a bug is in the house and he wants to kill it.

I, like my son, also like to look out the window at birds and squirrels and dogs, but I also like to look at the people. This hardly makes me unique among humans. Last summer a variety of emergency personnel showed up at my parents’ neighbor’s house and my mom and sister spent the entire morning trying to figure out what was going on (someone had died). Jimmy Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock made an entire movie about a guy who is a big ole creep with binoculars.

My last two residences were hardly panopticons. My apartment in graduate school was on the first floor of a complex populated mostly by undergrads. The front window looked out on the parking lot, where I would make awkward eye contact with the people walking past as I sat at my desk. The back window looked out onto the pool. I’d be lying if I said I never stole a glance at a woman in a swimsuit, but I almost always avoided it. So, front and back, I didn’t have much to look at. I did, however, get a small glimpse into the life of the young people who lived beside me. The young man and woman were both shockingly good-looking and hella fit (for my numerous UK readers, those are not one and the same). They had a cat who would sit in the window and stare at me with wide eyes. The young man and his perfect jawline and bulging arms disappeared for many weeks. I wondered if he was studying abroad or maybe he was a Guardsman and had been called up. Shortly after he reappeared, I saw them standing beside his car talking one afternoon. When he got into the car and drove away, the young woman walked back to the apartment, tears streaming down her face. I never saw him again.

After graduate school I lived in a townhouse with my brother. Most of our windows looked out on the townhouses across from us belonging to retirees. They weren’t outside often. The window looking across the street gave little vantage onto anything save the fronts of other associated homes. Not much to look at. We had to get out of the house to see anything really interesting, like one night when our neighbor was up on the roof shoveling snow. (Hands down the best neighbor I’ve had. Mr. Rodgers and Totoro territory).

Not so in my current residence, an apartment in a part of town that sheltered Wisconsin kids think is the ghetto because there are *gasp* Black people. I’m on the second floor of a dumpy little building converted into a few different units, and since I’m as close to the alley as I am to the street, I have a view into the backyards of a dozen different homes.

This has opened up new possibilities for my voyeurism. I smell a grill and scan the neighborhood to see where it’s coming from. I see with my own eyes the incredibly loud dog that I have considered murdering more than once. I spot an old man retrieving the Sunday paper in his pajamas. I watch the cat go down the alleyway back to the house I know is his. I see the loud neighbor kids playing in the yard and getting older and older. I see the other loud neighbor kids playing with what looks like a very real knife and a very real gun and saying “fuck” a lot for being that age. I see two burly men burning a bunch of stuff in a firepit that is definitely not supposed to be burned in a firepit. I see a fat shirtless man and a skinny clothed man revving up a minibike again and again, for whatever reason not satisfied with the result. I see with my own eyes the other incredibly loud dog that I have also considered murdering more than once (sorry for all the casual murder talk I just watched Thoroughbreds last night).

These are fun little things, obviously. The small talk of being a neighbor, the most harmless form of gossip. But it has also brought something a little more serious.

There’s an aspirational aspect to my voyeurism. I had some twinges of this in my first apartment, living alone with no cat, seeing these two smoking hot people living together with their furry friend. I was jealous, but not in the green eyed monster sort of way. I was jealous in the wistful, wouldn’t that be nice sort of way. What they had seemed great, and I wanted it to work out for them. Maybe it would work out for me. My heart broke just a little bit as that car pulled away and the neighbor woman wept.

There’s one couple in particular in my neighborhood. They’re older than me, but still young. I’ve only ever been so close to them, but they’re attractive and seem pleasant. Their house is well-maintained, their yard is perfectly manicured, they’re growing a variety of things in the garden, and they have a giant schnauzer that is not so loud as to make we want to send it the way of Wellington. On pleasant evenings, they’ll sometimes sit on their porch next to a little fireplace, grilling meats and drinking beer.

On paper, that sounds pretty nice to me. I don’t know them, but what I know of them seems desirable. So I’m a little jealous of them, but I also aspire to be at least a little like them. I wouldn’t mind living in a pleasant house in a decent neighborhood with a dog and a yard and the capacity to sip beer and grill burgers in the yard with the person I love.

My life is fine. I’m not going to complain about drinking tea and cooking Sichuanese food and watching arty films with my cat. I’m a tried and true introvert who likes having his space. I don’t want anyone’s pity. But these people definitely have some things I wish I had. I don’t know what they do for work, but they leave in the morning dressed well and come home at reasonable hours and make enough to own a nice enough house. And they have each other. It seems like they’ve figured out some things that I haven’t quite gotten to yet. Without knowing the details of their life, it’s easy for me to look on with longing.

That was until I saw the young woman in the yard sitting and reading and her head was shaved.

Maybe she likes the Furiosa look. Maybe she shaved it in solidarity with someone else going through it. But in American culture, the safest guess when a woman shaves her head is, of course, cancer.

Now I feel when I see the man in the yard or walking the dog that there’s something he’s carrying, some awful burden. There’s something there in his face, or maybe not there, something I never would have picked up on had I still thought he was living my dream.

I’ve been working on trying not to compare myself to other people so much. That’s no way to judge what I’ve done, what I’m doing, or what I hope to do. By extension, I’m learning not to compare other people to each other so much: old friends and new friends, old love and new love, old kittens and new kittens. They can’t be compared. They’re their own thing. My neighbors may be feeling an agony that I have ever known. It’s also possible that, through this, perhaps their life is on the up and up. Maybe they’re headed for their very best times because of this. I can’t know. We’re on our own paths. I don’t believe God has pre-determined every single thing I will ever do, but I do think God has a plan for me and a plan for them. And I pray their plan has a healthy and happy future.

My seemingly harmless voyeurism was also giving space for another habit I’m trying to quit, which is the feeling that my life would be better if I could just have this one thing (or maybe two things). If this one thing about my health was fixed, or I got this one job, or saved this one relationship, then everything would be great.

“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.'”

I can’t, of course, know that things would be better, let alone perfect, if I got what I want. It was wrong to look at my neighbors and think, now, if things could just be a little more like what they have, then I’d be happier.

What I’ve learned – or think I’ve learned – about my neighbors is a bit of a burden. I want to meet them and try to encourage them. I’d like to help them. But what am I supposed to do? Ring the doorbell and say “yes I noticed your head is shaved do you have the cancer?” We don’t know each other. It’s given me a new motivation to actually get to know the people I live around. What good is it seeing the neighbor lady cry if you can’t take her some cookies and ask if she wants to talk about it? Why spy on your neighbor and learn a horrible truth if you can’t offer to drive them to chemo? If you have to introduce yourself right before you say “my condolences,” maybe you’ve already messed up.

Since this is already a light, cheery post, let me close by telling you about my grandpa who has been pretty sick.

A couple months ago, his health looked like it was taking a turn for the worst. I got a FaceTime call one evening from my dad, who was in the hospital with him. He said that grandpa wanted to say hi. But Grandpa didn’t really say hello; instead, he informed me rather plainly that he might be on the way out. He said it like he was telling me where he was going to eat lunch tomorrow. He was perfectly at ease.

The next day, my dad sent an email to the church prayer chain letting them know his dad’s situation. Part of the email read: “There is a strong possibility that he will enter ‘hospice care’ at a nursing facility. He is at peace with the prospect of being very close to the end of his race, by all appearances. He does not have pain, but he is very weak and frail. He does not fear death.”

As it turned out, the doctors were wrong. He recovered and is doing fine for now. But that doesn’t make the way he faced the end any less meaningful to me.

About a year earlier, I got a call from Grandpa out of the blue. I mentioned that I was unsure about why some of the things in my life were going the way they were.

“But God has his reasons, and I’m just waiting to learn what they are,” I said.

“Yes, well,” he said, in his slow way of beginning a sentence that builds momentum for his carefully crafted phrase, “Sometimes we never do.”

Sometimes we never do. Evidently that’s enough for him. I’m trying to make it enough for me.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria


One thought on “The Lives of Others

  1. I have spent my life making up names and stories of people I don’t know but catch my attention. My father kind of got me started doing that by asking “what is that guys story?” Once in a while, upon gaining further info, I find my instincts were close to the truth, other times, not so much.

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