Walls and Fences

It all started when Star shared this poem at a poetry workshop she was leading for the library. 


BY Robert Frost

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

And spills the upper boulders in the sun;

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

The work of hunters is another thing:

I have come after them and made repair

Where they have left not one stone on a stone,

But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,

To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,

No one has seen them made or heard them made,

But at spring mending-time we find them there.

I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;

And on a day we meet to walk the line

And set the wall between us once again.

We keep the wall between us as we go.

To each the boulders that have fallen to each.

And some are loaves and some so nearly balls

We have to use a spell to make them balance:

"Stay where you are until our backs are turned!"

We wear our fingers rough with handling them.

Oh, just another kind of out-door game,

One on a side. It comes to little more:

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.

He only says, "Good fences make good neighbors."

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder

If I could put a notion in his head:

"Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it

Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.

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. I see him there

Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top

In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.

He moves in darkness as it seems to me,

Not of woods only and the shade of trees.

He will not go behind his father's saying,

And he likes having thought of it so well

He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors.”


    So while I was at Silver Bay YMCA camp, I began to notice the wall. There were stone fences, concrete blocks keeping a hill in place and a lovely wooden fence that could have been a railing for climbing instead as something that divided property lines.  The stone fence that went along the roadway was beautiful, although in someplace the stones were on the ground. There was even a cement cap on the top of the wall in places where you could have walked if you wanted to, but it was more for aesthetics or for keeping the wall in place. 

    The roots of downed trees had taken big stones out of the wall and some stones did look like Frost’s description - ‘loaves of bread.’  What a great a amount of work to keep a wall like that in place in the Adirondacks, where a few good winters could topple the whole thing. 

    I have a fence around my garden to keep the deer out, if I didn’t I wouldn’t have any flowers or vegetables. (Not that I get much anyway.) But our Old Forge deer love to get their hooves in places they don’t belong. So walls and fences can be useful things. 

    On the other hand, there are the deeper walls that we put up around ourselves. Walls so we don’t feel, walls that divide or walls to keep others away. These kinds of walls keep us from being truly alive. They shut us off from feeling or grief that is too hard to bear. It’s interesting that Father Greg Boyle SJ, has his ministry in the gang areas of Los Angeles, and he is right there with the people in pain, he does not put walls around his heart even when he has to bury a gang member that he has known and cared for for many years. He goes into the pain and lets it teach him about life. (Read his story in Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Unboundless Compassion.)

    Why do we erect walls in our lives, walls that divide, walls that shut others out?  America is always good at putting up walls especially during an election year. Wow, I can’t even listen to all this fighting, bickering and name calling. Walls are created when we think dualistically that someone has to be wrong and I have to be right. How do we stop that kind of madness? 

    Thomas Merton was quoted in the Journal Weavings as saying “the fully realized person integrates on the higher level by knowing ‘I love, therefore I am.’” It seems he found that breaking down walls within himself, to get to his true inner nature was freeing and opened him to see with the eyes of the other - to see that we are all one. I am a long way from that, but I want to think that breaking down wall after wall, or layer after layer that keeps me from thinking I’m better or different from another person, is something that is worth working on. Thomas Hart said in a recent article in Presence Magazine “a genuinely spiritual life keeps calling for a complete change of heart. Of course, we all love sometimes, but love as a way of life remains a huge challenge.” 

   Frost found that his  neighbor was a challenge because he would not move beyond his father’s thinking. Being stuck with someone else’s ideas can be crippling. We have choices to keep the walls of division in place or to let them crack open. John O’Donahue , in his book Eternal Echoes, talks about how we limit ourselves and it’s like walling ourselves off. He says: “It is strange how being caught makes you lose the sense of the outside and beyond. You become trapped on one side of a wall. After a while you learn to see only what cages you; you begin to forget other views and possibilities.”  

     Christine Valters Paintner says in The Soul of a Pilgrim “when I act with integrity, it means I’m always moving toward wholeness and oneness.”    As we work toward a life where love is totally integrated, where walls of division are broken open, where we can see with the eyes of heart, we can take the time to admire the beauty of a stone wall and say - wow what amazing workmanship - we’re an amazing piece of workmanship too, and we choose to keep on moving toward the beauty of a whole, integrated life!