Yesterday we had our first celebration of Mum’s 93rd birthday, which is coming up next week. Our dear friend next door has hosted a pre-birthday lunch for Mum for almost all of the past 10 years, if I am to go by the dates on old photos I was browsing. Two other good friends, who are both regulars at this event and both formerly from Holland, managed to attend as usual in spite of the looming World Cup match between The Netherlands and Argentina. The luncheon is a wonderful ritual, fresh and full of fun each year. Mum loves it and responds full-heartedly as these younger friends of hers acknowledge her good life and ply her with questions about her past and her family. I love it, as these women have become very good friends of mine as well.
How lucky we are to have a neighbour like this one. You really couldn’t do better. In addition to being lively and fun and generous, she’s a doctor and shares her medical skills on a moment’s notice. She’s full of news about local entertainment. Our lives are immensely richer for having her next door.
Another friend at the party was chewing her nails over a big tree in her own front garden that was being taken down exactly as we were having lunch. She is the most peaceable and civilised of people, but she has a neighbour who took offence to one of her trees. I often think that the quality of the relationship with a neighbour reflects what you yourself put into it, but I can assure you that’s not the case this time. My friend has brought every well-honed tool in her negotiations kit to bear in the relationship, to little avail. Some people you just can’t deal with in an enlightened way. Court injunctions, lawyerly conversations and attempted tree poisoning became the order the day.
Reflecting on these two types of neighbours led me to think about a poem I studied and loved in high school: Robert Frost’s Mending Wall. The line from the poem that I’ve used as the title for this post has remained with me all my life. So I looked up the poem and took great pleasure in reading it again this morning.
It’s about a guy and his neighbour who meet every now and then to fix the stone wall between their properties. Here’s an excerpt that sums up the story-line:
But our protagonist can’t quite understand what all the fuss is about:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
And the neighbour’s response?
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Well, between our property and our next-door neighbour’s is a mighty fence – a laurel hedge that grows a metre or so every year. If nature had her way, that hedge would climb to be 30 feet high and almost as wide. As it is, we attack it with the hedge-trimmer a couple times each summer so we can peek over the top and exchange a word or two with our friend. Mum, who planted the hedge some 35 years ago, every now and then says, “We should take that down.” But…it’s not unattractive, has a life of its own, hosts hoards of little birds—and perhaps sometimes good fences do make for good neighbours. So we leave it, and probably will for some time to come.
When our friend first moved in next door, some 20 years ago, she had a soon-to-leave husband, four young sons and a big wandering dog. Needless to say, there was the occasional minor border skirmish between the two households, and that laurel hedge probably helped give both neighbours a little privacy. And that’s the thing: stuff comes up with neighbours. You can’t help thinking that if you have a big enough, solid enough fence, that stuff can’t reach you—which couldn’t be further from the truth, of course, as my friend with the wayward tree could tell us. She has a rollicking good fence and that didn’t spare her the Neighbour Wars.
Back to the poem. Eventually we get to the heart of Frost’s ruminations:
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself.
Well, if it’s not elves that want a wall down, what is it?
There’s a moment in time that stands out like a video recording in my memory. It was a warm spring day in November 1989, and I had taken the train to the NSW Parliament House in Sydney to conduct a day of training. I had plenty of time so I popped into a milk bar across the street to buy a coffee. And while I waited to place my order, I saw, on a sidewalk newspaper stand, in full-page letters of the size that they use to announce an invasion or a catastrophe, the words: BERLIN WALL COMES DOWN. It was a complete and utter shock, and I was unable to stifle a gasp that was almost a sob. A man standing beside me looked at me and said, “Yeah, that’s really something, isn’t it?” I couldn’t speak for the tears.
Now, THAT was a wall with a big history. Notice the photo. That’s no elf attacking that wall: that’s a human spirit intent on regaining freedom and opening up possibility. Many such walls have been built over the centuries—none with an intention to generate well-being with the neighbours. And it isn’t elves that bring them down again.
Watching Mum and our friend next door laughing and chatting together has me think that the fewer boundaries we put between us and others around us, the more we can draw out of life. Our neighbour at home on Mitchells Island, Farmer Scott, knows it’s important to leave up the thin strands of barbed wire he uses to keep his cattle in his pasture and out of our bromeliads. In Frost’s words, Farmer Scott is clear about what he is “walling in or walling out”. Sometimes a fence is critical. But mostly, let’s encourage that core part of ourselves that doesn’t love a wall.