Love Thy Neighbor


My neighbors do Hot Yoga.  This causes them to sweat, which apparently makes their clothing smell.  The smell is displeasing to them, so they do their laundry nightly, with the strongest, sweetest smelling scented detergent they can find.

There are so many things about this that befuddle me. First – we (as in my neighbors and me) live in Florida, a land of perpetual summer, where winter is just some kind of faraway long-forgotten dreamscape.  If you want to do hot yoga, all you have to do is step outside your front door and dive into a downward dog, and there you are. Perspiration is kind of like a way of life here.  It just comes with the territory.  Why anyone would feel the need to go into an enclosed room with pumped-in heat for the sake of spiritually sanctioned sweat is a bit of a mystery.

Furthermore, this compulsory clothing cleaning has unfortunate repercussions for me and those I live beside (my fellow chemically sensitive residents at the one and only place in the country designated for people like us to live safely and affordably), as the fragrant fumes cause tremendous daily distress and discomfort.

My yogi neighbors know this.  They are aware that they live beside people who are physically compromised and at risk.  When I offer to provide a lifetime supply of unscented detergent, they decline – insisting that only scented products will sufficiently remove (a.k.a.  cover up) the odor in their clothing.  In the transition from yoga practice (presumably promoting the flow of love, open-heartedness, and unity consciousness in addition to the flow of sweat gland excretions) to the mundane reality of life, they choose the fragrance with its known ramifications for their neighbors, rather than the pesky presence of their own perspiration.

And here is where the question arises, as it does over and over in so many ways:

Whose needs get accommodated?  Whose needs are “special” enough to take precedence over the needs of others?  And to what are we “entitled” as citizens and human beings on this Earth?

They have a need for sweet smelling clothes.  I have a need to breathe.  While I personally would see breathing as pulling rank in this particular equation, it just doesn’t work so simply. There is much to explore in our personal, social, and political worlds about whose needs get prioritized and attended to, and whose get neglected, overlooked, and denied.  But that’s a large bite to chew, and it’s been quite a while since I’ve last written, so first -let me back up a bit and to bring you up to date.

I have been living in Florida for the past 9 months.  I left behind my life of 22 years in Philadelphia, and came here on the promise of an environmentally safe living space (with the added bonus of living close to my Dad and sister). And as happens with promises, despite the best of intentions, sometimes reality falls short.  My entry into this new place has been quite a ride.

Let’s begin with what I will call “the clothing mishap”. (Could’ve called it the clothing calamity, crisis, or case of cosmic cruelty, which would have packed an alliterative punch, but I’m practicing perceiving things more positively.)  I had boxed and shipped most of the clothes I wanted to have with me in Florida, due to the very limited space in my car when I made the move.  The boxes arrived strangely saturated in something pervasively perfumed and toxic-smelling.  I was later informed that here in Florida, it is common for delivery trucks to be sprayed with things like Febreeze – I suppose nobody likes sweaty mail.  I tried hanging everything up on clothes lines for weeks, only to learn that when you hang clothing on clothes lines for weeks in Florida during the hottest summer they’ve ever had, your clothes will turn to mold.  So I ended up with moldy, chemically infused clothing that never quite recovered.  Thankfully, it was so hot that clothing was essentially non-essential, and for four months I basically wore a sports bra and shorts – which could have actually been a good thing.

Having spent the past 3 flea-infested, incessantly itchy years covered in long sleeves, socks, long pants, and rubber bands around my ankles – my arms and legs longed for the light of day.  Drooling with anticipation of having bare, exposed skin at last, I spent my first Floridian week clad in nothing but the aforementioned sports bra and shorts.  I was soon dismayed by the disheartening discovery that Florida mosquitoes apparently find me irresistible.  (I do find it strikingly noteworthy that I am so profoundly attractive and enticing to all forms of tiny biting creatures.  Humans, on the other hand, have been significantly harder to attract. The head-to-toe skin coverage along with the pants and rubber bands probably didn’t help that particular cause.)  Every time I stepped outside, I returned covered in fiercely itchy welts.  Since long pants and shirts were neither available nor practical (just to reiterate – South Florida summers are insanely, inhumanely hot), I decided to remain indoors indefinitely.  While this continues to be my primary strategy nine months later, and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future, I recently purchased  a set of bug-proof clothing – pants and a long-sleeve shirt made of mosquito netting,  which I think is a brilliant invention  (if not entirely fashionable).  The pants are, oddly enough, extremely itchy – but short-term itchy pants are definitely an improvement from long-term itchy welts that keep you awake all night.

And speaking of being awake all night – the mattress in my new apartment had been aired out on the owners’ porch for some time before my arrival, but was still apparently off-gassing – and seems to need about another half-century before those gasses have gone off to wherever gasses go.  I tried putting 5 layers between the mattress and myself, with a combination of barrier cloths, mattress pads, sheets, and blanket – and putting my body on the top, with nothing remaining to put on top of me (which was actually fine because it’s so hot – there is no need for things like top sheets or blankets).  I felt very princess-and-the-pea-like, as I could still not sleep because the smell of the mattress came right on through each and every layer.  While I do like how this part of my sensitivity has an air of royalty to it, I thankfully seem to have figured out a temporary solution, using mylar and foil as added protection, and for this I’m deeply grateful.  And I’m now quite adept at settling into slumber to a chorus of crinkly crunches.

And since I’m talking about the apartment itself now – let me say a few things about that. The efficiency unit I moved into, sight unseen and smell unsmelled, unfortunately had – and continues to have – some issues.  I was able to overlook the immediate take-over of the ants that seem to have gathered from all corners of the state to take up residence on my bathroom floor (compelling me to keep socks on at all times, and leading me to sing the refrain “tiptoe to the toilet”).  I was able to calmly cope with the plethora of what I learned to be “potato bugs” crawling around (leading me to sing “You say potato, I say po-tah-toe) on a regular basis.  And even the appearance of “palmetto bugs”, which seem like some kind of genetically engineered hybrid of a roach, cricket, grasshopper, and toad, did not faze me – aside from almost falling when one jumped out of my sink unexpectedly.  However, singing away my stress was simply not effective when it came to environmental challenges.  The air conditioner reeked of mold, and I felt sick every time I turned it on – which was always because, if I haven’t yet mentioned this, Florida is freakin’ hot.  The owners tried to help by replacing that unit with another air conditioner, which made my whole apartment smell like some combination of wetness, decay, and death. Ultimately, that air conditioner did actually die, in a sort of homage to the odor it had been creating.  But the last one they had available to offer, which is still in my apartment, sadly causes the same smell. (One happy outcome – The air conditioner smell is so strong, it covers the neighbors’ laundry smell.  A sort of lemonade from lemons kind of thing. Not that I would actually make lemonade  – I’m more of a lime in seltzer type, but the point remains the same.)

Then there was the matter of transferring my Medicaid to Florida, which did not turn out the way it had been explained by the kind Medicaid people in Philly, who actually give health coverage to people with no income.  Seems here in Florida, income is irrelevant.  The only way I can qualify for Medicaid here is to be on Social Security Disability.  And I am not yet on Disability because I was denied, and although I appealed that denial two years ago, at the time of my move I had not yet even been given a date for a hearing.  And the only way I can qualify for an Obamacare plan is to earn a minimum monthly amount, which I do not earn because my disregarded disability limits me.  So…no health insurance for me.

And as fate would have it, I promptly sustained an injury requiring medical attention after living here for one month.  Here is that brief story: Upon my arrival, I felt suddenly compelled to try running in an attempt to get some exercise.  Spurred on by the energy of the Olympics and feeling some strange solidarity with those athletes who push themselves beyond all reasonable limits, I awakened each day at 5 am and ran 3 miles before my conscious mind could remember that I, in fact, am not an athlete.  One morning I started to run, and soon felt a strange pull in my groin area. Overlooking the signal being sent by the pain that something had gone awry, the Olympian in me pushed myself to complete the 3 miles.  And then I stopped running.  And then I noticed the unbearable pain.  And then I noticed that I could not even walk.  And then I spent the next several months relying on crutches, walkers, and grocery store electric carts. One happy discovery – People get out of your way when you’re cruising down the aisles of Whole Foods in an electric cart.  And strangers extend acts of kindness, reaching things off the top shelves for you that you wouldn’t have been able to reach even if you were standing because those shelves were not made for people who are barely five feet tall. And speaking of that – While sitting in those wonderful carts, my feet actually reached the floor, instead of swinging around in the air, like they do when I sit in any chair made for grown-ups.  Not that I recommend injuring yourself , but  those months will be remembered as some of my most pleasant shopping experiences. And while I now know that groin injuries can take at least 9 months to heal, and possibly forever to fully recover, for a moment in time I can say that I indeed had a good run.

But back to my neighbors.  The “seasons” have turned, which essentially means that the 3 “winter” months, during which it is possible to keep the windows open, have passed.  The good part of the return to closed windows is that it keeps out the yogi laundry fumes.   The not so good part is that now I am once again reliant on my air conditioner.

I ride the waves of rage and indignation at what so often feels like societal blindness to my own basic needs for survival.  I ride the waves of rage and indignation at what is so clearly societal blindness to the basic dignity of all Beings.  I look around at the planet and its inhabitants, and recognize with perspective and poignancy how privileged I am, and humility returns.  And I surrender, sometimes gently, sometimes angrily, sometimes defeatedly, and sometimes gracefully – making my peace with what is.

While I can’t claim “entitlement” to financial support or healthcare coverage or safe, healthy housing, or unscented air to breathe – I can take a stand for doing my part in co-creating a world in which we are interested in not just our own needs, but the welfare of our fellow humans as well.  And in the chaotic craziness of an “America First” mentality in which we need to diminish, disregard, and demonize “others” in order to raise ourselves up, I can challenge myself daily to be the kindness I seek (which includes interrupting my mind’s tendency to fantasize about hurling bags of dog poop at my neighbor’s house to give them just a “whiff” of what it’s like to have your home invaded by sickening smells).  But where was I?  Oh yeah – kindness.  Not as easy as it seems. I return – reluctantly, resourcefully, resiliently.  Ah, yes.  Kindness.

In the big picture, my needs are indeed met.  While the big picture is often difficult to discern because the small picture is so very vivid and compelling – the truth is that I am really ok.  And smells and sweat and symptoms and sensations and creepy crawly creatures – All of these are temporary circumstances.

And when I am perceiving from this proper perspective, I can find gratitude for the blessings in all of it – The ability to be with my almost 91-year-old Dad during this final chapter of his life, the chance to be closer to my only sister, the mornings like this one when the air is magically cool and the blue of ocean and sky welcomes me gently and gracefully into the new day.

So I look to the next moment, and the next, and the next, with open eyes and an open heart – if not always an exactly open mind.  Witnessing this unfolding journey as an endless supply of “creative material”, I relax – making a soft, silent promise to myself that I will keep on writing, keep on discovering the delight in the daily details, and keep on recalling the larger view.

And while I earnestly continually strive to cultivate compassion, acceptance, and forgiveness –  if my neighbors move before next “winter” comes, that would be ok too.

2 thoughts on “Love Thy Neighbor”

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