The bassoon next door

The indebtedness of being a neighbour.

On a summer afternoon I walk into our cul-de-sac and hear the familiar, rich tones of a bassoon. The music is drifting from the open window of our neighbour’s house. Marty plays in the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, and is practicing on the second floor of his home. The bassoon doesn’t always have the most melodic lines on the score, but what I’m hearing is both lyrical and lovely. Turns out it is from Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony. “Tchaikovsky always writes great bassoon parts!” says Marty when I ask him about it later.

The sounds of a bassoon practice session are one of my favourite things about summer. There is something so comfortable and familiar about the combination of warm days, open windows and the melancholic, woody tones of the bassoon.

There is more to this moment, however, than my being beautifully serenaded. This experience also reminds me that our lives as neighbours always overlap more than we realize. The music that drifts into our lives, the language into which we’re apprenticed, the care we receive and give, and almost every other dimension of our lives, point to our need of one another and our indebtedness to one another. While our culture is preoccupied with individualism and self-sufficiency, it is worth remembering we don’t have our lives alone as individuals or even merely as families.

Overlapping lives

In his Works of Love, Søren Kierkegaard speaks of our infinite indebtedness to God. When we take a step, God has placed the solid ground where our foot will land. When we breathe, God has provided lungs and air. When we love, as Kierkegaard says, God is the deep well of love from which all love has its source. Our infinite indebtedness to God, we can add, is expressed precisely in our indebtedness to one another – God’s provision for us is almost always through others.

It is no stretch to say that life in a neighbourhood, or a cul-de-sac, is partly about learning to live in this indebtedness; to acknowledge and live these overlapping lives. It can happen in the simplest ways.

When there isn’t quite enough rhubarb in my garden to make that strawberry-rhubarb crisp, there is usually enough in Monique’s garden to complete it. When I neglect my sourdough starter to the point that it dies, I can usually get a fresh batch from Julie or Elaine. When I badly overestimate how much soil I need to top-dress my lawn, Vincent (whose wheelbarrow I borrowed) will take some off my hands. When one of the kids on the street is getting yelled at by a cantankerous neighbour (from another street!), I can be a presence to reassure and bring peace.


Of course if we humans are resistant to anything, it is the idea of being indebted to others. When we first moved into this cul-de-sac, a neighbour lent me his lawn mower to cut the grass. He offered: “You don’t need to buy one. Feel free to use this one any time.” And what did I do the next week but go out and buy a lawn mower! As much as anyone, I resist the idea of being indebted or feeling like I owe someone something. How easy it is to forget that I already owe others everything!

All of this cannot be reduced to mere moralism, as in: “You should be a good neighbour!” Rather, it is about recognizing the nature of human existence within God’s good creation. In every moment we belong to and with one another; we cannot live or find fulfillment without others. Strange as it may be, the sounds of a bassoon practice session are helping me embrace my indebtedness.


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One Comment

  1. I agree completely about the sounds of the bassoon, having played one in high school years decades ago. If it had been a heavy metal rock band one might have been tempted to call the Sound Police. Actually, we DID have a rock band playing on a deck next to the Christian school. One of the school authorities was disgusted and disturbed. I did not like the music either, but had played in a jazz band once with the bass player and talked to him between numbers. Also, the owner of the house would often chat with me briefly at 7:30 in the morning when I arrived for teaching duties. Putting a face on the originator of the “noise” can change what we hear.

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