Scream as loudly as you can at random times, day or night, without shame or apology.
Sing the music in your head without regard to melody or rhythm. Performing outside announces your presence and asserts your identity.
Shout “Hi, neighbor!” to everyone you see. Stranger Danger is for cowards.
Eat your Popsicle while facing the sun, eyes closed. Celebrate the ephemeral.
Denude your neighbor’s garden of all freshly blossoming flowers. Present these flowers to your neighbor as gifts “from my garden.” Smile innocently when your neighbor says, “I just saw you pull them from my garden.” Forgive the accusation. Your neighbor’s knowledge of property rights is limited and unsophisticated.
Do not be deterred when your neighbor yells, “Get out of my yard!” Know that “Get out of my yard!” is correctly interpreted as a challenge. Strengthen your resolve to show your childless neighbor all you have to offer.
Stare into your neighbor’s window. Observe the specimen behind the glass for extended periods of time; closely examine her activities. Ignore the specimen if she calls you a “little creeper.” She is incapable of understanding your infinite need for knowledge.
Discard any item that no longer pleases you. Trust that the beach ball from your inflatable splash pool, the tray of dried-up watercolor paint, and the Hello Kitty sneaker you left in your neighbor’s yard will magically reappear on your side of the fence.
After your cats have established residence in your neighbor’s backyard and after your cats have caught with one quick swipe of their deadly paws the hummingbirds your neighbor worked to attract and after your cats invaded your neighbor’s greenhouse and used the containers of her carefully tended lettuces for their litterbox, it’s perfectly reasonable for you to pick the recently installed lock on your neighbor’s backyard gate to retrieve the cats. Your cats may appear to favor the neighbor’s peaceful garden over your all-encompassing love, but, really, they’re just playing on a new field, and dedication to play is the highest virtue.
Show no care or attention to your long red hair or how its tawny color complements your amber eyes. Sure, you could be considered a luminously beautiful child, but dirt and snarls and tangles are honest.
When, at age four, you see the motorcycle in your neighbor’s open garage, and when, at age four, you ask your neighbor to spell out “motorcycle” for you to transcribe into newly learned characters, and when, at age four, you ask really, really nicely, your neighbor will permit you to write the word in big, swirly, shaky purple chalk letters on her driveway. Assume that your neighbor will be secretly proud of your graffiti and will be filled with inexplicable sadness when the rain washes it away.
When your so-called friends tell you you’re stupid, and when your so-called friends tease you about your hair and call you “red bird,” and when there’s no one else to confide in other than your neighbor who yells at you, be brave and tell her that your so-called friends hurt your feelings. Maybe she’ll say that you can’t possibly be stupid because you know, at age four, how to write “motorcycle.” Maybe she’ll tell you that red birds are the most beautiful birds and the next time someone calls you “red bird,” you should thank that person for telling you how beautiful you are.
Remain ignorant of your neighbor’s fear as you run alone up and down the street in your nightgown at dusk, clutching your plush tiger, so strangely similar to a toy your neighbor loved to the stuffing when she was little. Pay no heed to your neighbor’s fear that her front yard, visible from a busy cross street, could be the one from which a bad person snatches you. Assure yourself that your neighbor is paranoid, irrationally protective of a child she barely knows. Take comfort in the fact that your neighbor never had children of her own to smother.
Delight in the image of your neighbor’s smile as she discovers the two carefully chosen pink rocks you placed in her mailbox.
Never hesitate to pick up that big stick at the base of your neighbor’s oak tree and bang it again and again for a solid hour against every available hard surface in her front yard. Wait for the rhythm. It will find you. She will hear it.
Jane Armstrong was a National Endowment for the Arts literary fellow in creative nonfiction in 2018. Her stories and essays have appeared in The North American Review, Mississippi Review, New World Writing, River Teeth, Newsweek, Brevity and Airplane Reading, among others. Her commentaries have aired on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She is a winner, with painter Christopher Kane Taylor, of the 2016 Viola Award for Excellence in Storytelling from the Flagstaff Arts Council for their collaborative exhibit, Aphasia: Neurological Disorder in Text and Image. Her essay, “Aphasia,” was awarded the Torch Prize in Creative Nonfiction for 2018. She is a past recipient of an Artist’s Project Grant from the Arizona Commission on the Arts and she lives in Normandy, France.