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When you live near other people, trouble ensues. Thankfully, guest columnist Pious Petunia offers sage advice for this season’s neighborly dilemmas.

Dear Pious Petunia: I can hardly stand walking the dog around the neighborhood these days. I live in a mixed neighborhood, politics-wise, and some of the political yard signs in my neighbors’ lawns disgust me. How can they support those horrid candidates who want to destroy America? Is it OK if I sneak out in the middle of the night and destroy their signs?

Miss P: This is a rough season, it’s true. Gone are the days when the most emotionally fraught neighborhood divisions involved rival state university football teams. Instead, autumn in America now comes with dismaying evidence that some of your neighbors live in an alternate reality. You’ve exchanged friendly hellos while fetching the mail, and now you wonder: who are these alien beings?  

Miss P can never recommend trespassing, vandalism, or arson, much as she might understand the appeal. So perhaps refrain from prowling about under cover of night. However, some ritual act of destruction could prove cathartic. Perhaps gather those incessant third-class mailers from not-your-party’s candidates—the slick, cardstock annoyances featuring hysterical claims about the other side and deploying vague promises about “jobs” and “family” to be bestowed upon the electorate by the promoted candidate. Build a nice fire in your own firepit or fireplace and toss those pieces of rhetorical malpractice right in. You’ll feel better, and you’ll be striking a blow against logical fallacies.

Meanwhile, the puppy needs exercise. If you really can’t do the neighborhood walk right now, no doubt puppy will be thrilled with a car trip to a nearby park. Pray there’s no meet-and-greet going on there with a candidate for Drain Commissioner.

Speaking of prayer, one should probably remember at this point Jesus’ words about loving one’s neighbor and praying for one’s enemies. It’s true that Jesus never lived through an election season in America, but one must assume the Lord’s recommendations remain binding. So Miss P also suggests accompanying any incendiary rituals with a sincere prayer for one’s neighbors near and far, political enmity notwithstanding. And be sure to add earnest and urgent prayers for the healing of America’s insane divisions. At this point, only some divine rending of heavens can set us on a better trajectory.

(Please note Miss P’s careful avoidance of taking sides politically in this response to a reader. Thank you. –ed.)

Dear Pious Petunia: My neighbors are so good at decorating their homes for holidays. My house always looks lame and blank compared to theirs. When did this constant need to decorate the front door/porch/stoop start and where will it end?

Miss P: A good question. Miss P has also noticed a kind of twinkly-light creep going on, wherein the use of outdoor twinkly lights is no longer limited to the joyous Yuletide season, but seems to have become de rigueur year-round. One could imagine this as a clever capitalist ploy by Big Twinkly Light. But perhaps the trend simply reflects a longing to create friendly good cheer in neighborhoods at a time when living near other people at all feels mildly threatening.

Miss P remains somewhat concerned, however, about the way this decorating frenzy ritualizes the Holy Consumer Calendar. People decorate for Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, July Fourth, etc., a jumble of quasi-religious and post-agricultural “holy” days mostly emptied of cosmic meaning and focused instead on silly consumer spending and tiresomely cliché symbols. This is how we organize our shared cultural mythos.

To resist, one could consider decorating the front door instead according to the Christian liturgical year. Dead mum plants, for example, might be appropriate for Advent—signifying how we are all dead in sin without a Savior. Christmas season might feature barn-type accoutrements strewn about the porch, such as straw and manure, to emphasize the nativity of Christ and the kenotic scandal of the Incarnation. Epiphany, of course, would be the appropriate twinkly-light-intensive season. And Lent would require more dead plants.

On the other hand, perhaps it’s better to emphasize friendly good cheer year-round. Miss P suggests you keep it simple. Don’t worry about fussing with twinkly lights or a 12-pack set of expensive seasonal wreaths. Just sweep your front step regularly, put out a nice welcome mat, and try to remove those dead mums in a timely fashion.

Dear Pious Petunia: Maybe it’s still Covid exhaustion or something, but I just can’t get myself to go out there and rake my leaves this fall. My neighbors are all fastidious about yard care, and their lawns are always perfect carpets of tidy green. They seem to be eyeing me judgmentally these days.

Miss P: Friend, you are in luck. The perfectly manicured lawn is so twentieth century, so passé. You are the one on the cutting edge here—or more precisely, the not-cutting edge. And the not-raking edge as well. The latest wisdom on yard care is: less is more.

The American obsession with a sweeping turf lawn and imported, ornamental shrubs and flowers dates from earlier centuries, when Americans longed to be lords of their own tiny, European-style estates. Turf lawns appeal to our class aspirations, provide relatively mud-free places for youngsters to play, and set up a field of competition on which neighbors can establish social superiority merely by deploying a good electric edger.

Unfortunately, all this rage for class-inflected lawn perfection—all the herbicides and fertilizers and expense and constant labor—has created millions of acres of depauperate, toxic land. In other words, we’ve killed off the native species of insects, plants, and slimy things that form the base of a healthy ecosystem. The solution? Stop the madness and embrace the mess.

Don’t bother to bag your leaves—instead, rake them into your flower beds to create cozy over-wintering habitat for bugs and slugs. Don’t cut down your perennials—more habitat and food. In the spring, don’t mow until the end of May (depending on where you live; mileage may vary) to allow weeds (seriously!) to supply early pollinators. And next year: replace some of your lawn with minimal-maintenance native plants.

Meanwhile, start dropping hints about your superior ecosystem practices to your still-benighted neighbors. When you see them spending glorious autumn afternoons raking leaves and stuffing them into dozens of yard waste bags, walk by and shake your head sadly, muttering, “Such a waste.” Put up a sign in your yard saying Birds and Bugs Welcome Here or Native Plant Sanctuary. You have the moral high ground now. Feel free to enjoy just a smidgen of smugness.

Better yet, pick one neighbor to “convert,” let the good news spread, and maybe after a few years, the whole neighborhood can enjoy autumn days lounging in hammocks rather than laboring with leaf-blowers. Who knows? Perhaps shared pollinator support projects could distract us from political mud-slinging and get us on our knees in the actual mud together, doing something useful.  

(Note: For more information, Miss P recommends reading this book, checking out this website, or searching for native plant influencers on TikTok. And finding local experts. -ed.)

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Debra Rienstra

I am a writer and literature professor, teaching literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty since 1996. Born and bred in the Reformed tradition, I’ve been unable to resist writing four books about theological topics: beware the writer doing theology without a license. My most recent book is Refugia Faith: Seeking Hidden Shelters, Ordinary Wonders, and the Healing of the Earth (Fortress, 2022). Besides the books, I’ve written well over two hundred essays for the RJ blog as well as numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. I am married to Rev. Dr. Ron Rienstra, and together we have three grown children. Besides reading and writing, I love classical music, science fiction, fussing in the yard, hiking, and teaching myself useful skills like plant identification and—maybe someday—drywall repair.


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