A Feature Review of
Start with Hello (And Other Simple Ways to Live as Neighbors)
Reviewed by Leslie Verner
Shannan Martin writes, “I can’t help but wonder what the world would look like—what it would feel like—if we were quicker to notice, faster to care, and more eager to link arms and lift our weary neighbors over hurdles?” (168) In her third non-fiction book, Martin continues her journey of learning and relearning how to neighbor well. Since her last book was published, her children are older, her roots deeper, and that rootedness leads to profound reflections on being neighborly and loving others. In Start with Hello, Martin welcomes us into the current of questions in which she is living.
Unlike her previous publications, this book is laid out in a more streamlined way, with ten chapters that cleverly use less than/greater than symbols to drive the point (think “the alligator mouth opens to eat the bigger number…”), like chapter 1: Awake > Asleep and chapter 4: Open Door > Perfect Décor. She doesn’t leave us wondering where to start or how to continue in our quest for community. She walks readers through hosting a potluck, offering taco bowls and soup as easy options of meals to prepare. Each chapter concludes with a simple practice, or “baby step,” to live as neighbors. Among these ten practices, she includes low-pressure, practical ideas such as meeting and writing down the names of our neighbors, inviting someone over, or planting a garden. She practices what she preaches, and doesn’t challenge readers to do what she hasn’t first done herself. As the title suggests, Martin sets the bar just slightly above our comfort level, but not so high that we quit before we begin.
Like most books published in 2022, this book was written at the crest of a political tsunami, a global pandemic, and wide-spread race riots that are not yet out of our rearview mirror. The clash of values within the United States means a book inviting us to see and love one another could not be more crucial, or ignoring the message more catastrophic. Martin doesn’t cower from this moment in history, but calls us to more noticing, more serving, more listening, and more connecting. She admits that we “don’t pursue connection because we know it will be easy. We pursue connection because we believe it multiplies our possibilities for wholeness” (209). We belong to one another.
Start with Hello will appeal to a wide readership. Published by a Christian imprint of Baker Publishing Group, the book isn’t overtly Christian, with Martin giving just a nod or two to being a “Jesusy” person. The advantage to this is that the book might be less threatening to read with neighbors or non-“Jesusy” friends and family. She ends with a neighbor’s blessing devoid of Christian lingo and the book itself has few Bible references. Those aching for unity will still find solace in her sacred stories of human connection; and those looking to spiritualize her message will have no trouble locating Scripture to support her ideas.
Martin’s trademark self-deprecation is as disarming as ever, making the reader feel like he or she is sitting cross-legged on Martin’s living room floor devouring chips and salsa, not being delivered a witty, and somehow still earnest and intelligent, plea to be a better human. A poet-comic, Martin up-cycles bland clichés and tired phrases into fresh sentences and delightful one-liners. (For some extra spice and chuckles, be sure to read the footnotes!) She soothes our social anxiety with her own endearingly awkward and honest stories. She writes that “the path toward discomfort is the path of connection” (43). Even more than the last two books, her tone is tinged with sorrow, as she shares about one of love’s most tragic costs: saying goodbye. Her conversational, humble tone paves the on-ramp to musing, discussing, and challenging unjust systems (like racism and immigration), starting at the micro-level of our right-now lives.
Although the content of this book isn’t new, the reminder to love more, love better, and love longer will never grow old. Martin writes that “our homes are meant to shelter us, but they never truly will until they shelter others too” (94). Especially after sheltering-in-place and living in fear of one another during the pandemic, society can find itself stiff from inactivity and out of practice in connecting with the humans all around us. This book is a wake-up call to stretch our legs and intentionally form stronger attachments with the people who live in closest proximity to us—our neighbors.
Leslie Verner is a teacher, speaker, and the author of Invited: The Power of Hospitality in an Age of Loneliness (Herald Press). She lives in Colorado with her husband, three children, and too many animals.