Love your suburban neighbor

Fighting about the messy lawn next door isn't worth it.

My neighbor, an elderly woman, hung up on me a few weeks ago. "Your leaves are blowing into my yard," she told me during our final conversation. "If you can afford to live in this area, surely you can afford a weekly landscaping service." Click.

She and I weren't the best of friends, but we were neighborly, cordial, and we had often talked over her backyard fence. My son walked her dogs, and I checked on her house when she traveled. Her spare key is in my kitchen drawer.

Neighbors bicker about small things: tall grass, dandelions, Christmas decorations. Suburban sprawl breeds suburban spats. Yet they're almost never worth starting – or, in my case, escalating.

Maybe owning a plot of land fosters competition that leads to neighborly disputes. A small patch of grass that once went unnoticed becomes precious if threatened by a neighbor's encroaching crabgrass. Or maybe our need for control extends to nature: Each stray weed disturbs our sense of order and causes friends to squabble.

"That family doesn't have young children anymore so why do they still have that plastic jungle gym in the yard? It's ruining the view out my front window," said one newcomer to the area. On hearing this, another neighbor commented, "Doesn't she have anything better to do with her time than complain?"

Do we bicker over minor mishaps because we have too much time on our hands? I don't think so: We're lawyers and teachers, busy with our daily workload. Or we're mothers, busy with our children's schoolwork. So a copious amount of free time can't be the reason why otherwise intelligent people run to the village hall for plot surveys to settle disputes over bushes.

Maybe Robert Frost was mistaken when he suggests in his poem, "Mending Wall," that fences aren't necessary. Are you a fence person or an antifence person? Is your fence digging into the roots of my trees? These are not the most important issues of the day, but where I live, they matter. It's not only the war in Iraq that haunts us; it's our invasive plants. We can't stop the war, but we can wrestle with the buckthorn.

"Her light bothers me and I can't sleep," said a friend after a neighbor installed a motion-sensitive light to ward off intruders. But she didn't lodge a complaint.

Neighbors must choose their battles: Do you really want to fight over a bright light or an unruly bush? There are myriad other subjects that neighbors might discuss. But as Christmas approaches, we might talk instead about how not to lose perspective on the way the rest of the world lives, how very small our problems are in comparison. We might trade ideas on how to prevent our children from becoming too insular, too suburban. The holiday season is a perfect opportunity, as the snow covers our unsightly imperfections.

My husband and I enjoy yard work. Our woods, which form a border around our yard, are left natural. The leaves fall, decay, and then fertilize the soil. My neighbor prefers a manicured lawn. For 10 years we have lived side by side, but now I'm worried. How many other neighbors do we offend? Are the friends in our book group sharing their thoughts on Seamus Heaney's poetry one evening and whispering about our messy yard on another? I hope not.

But just in case, I think I'll call my elderly neighbor, wish her a Merry Christmas, and tell her that I've hired a landscaper.

Janine Wood is a homemaker and writer.

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