People often quote Robert Frost as saying, “Good fences make good neighbors.” In fact, though the old adage is in his poem, Frost puts in in the mouth of his neighbor farmer, quoting the old saying as gospel. Frost’s point, and the point of the poem, is: Why? What are we walling out or walling in? He wants to ask his neighbor:
Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Frost points out his neighbor’s farm has pine trees, and his apple trees:
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
Pretty cheeky, especially for a New Englander! The stoic farmer just repeats the adage and goes on repairing the wall. In fact, that is what they are both there to do, repair the stone wall that has been broken up over the winter, raising the other question of the poem: By whom? Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, says Frost
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
I thought about this poem a lot this winter, as the 60+ inches of snow fall in Boston had me out shoveling day after day, creating, by necessity, giant walls of snow along the sidewalk and between parked cars. There was nowhere else to put it all. One day my neighbor came out, angry, to clarify the property line between our two houses and tell me all the things, in his opinion, I was doing wrong in my shoveling. I was not happy at being yelled at, already tired from so much shoveling, nursing a shoulder injury from it that is bothering me, still, in May.
And I’d been doing more than my fair share of the work for the five of us who lived in the two units in my house, and trying to do it generously and not resentfully. I’d actually been praying with each shovelful, thinking of my housemates and downstairs neighbors, praying to love and serve them, hoping they’d be blessed when they came home from a long, maybe rough day and found a parking spot dug out for them. Praying to be loving and not grudging. So I was not in the mood to be taken to task. Not at all. I was working hard to be okay with not being recognized and affirmed, but actually being scolded? No. Too much.
So I yelled back. Not yelled, really, but stood up for myself. Vented my frustration. Asked my neighbor to give me suggestions about where the heck to put all the snow if he didn’t want me to put it in x, y and z places. He was going to just yell at me and walk away, but I drew him back, asking questions, arguing but trying to listen as well.
I thought about the poem again in March, as the walls of snow began to melt, and my muscles, tensed against the long, cold, dark winter began to relax. Something there is that does not love a wall. I thought about my neighbor, and the intentional Christian community I’d lived in for seven years, and about cows and trees and boundaries. There’s so much I don’t understand about community, so much I experienced in reality that doesn’t go along with what I still believe strongly in theory. But here’s what I do know:
Sometimes your neighbors have pine trees, and you have an apple orchard, and you have to ask yourself, Why am I building a wall here? Or, why are they? Do we need one? Can we leave the crumbled part of the wall that Something broke down, leaving room enough for two to walk abreast? Can we walk through it together?
And sometimes you or your neighbors have cows, and it is very, very important to build up your walls and fences. You do not have to allow your neighbor’s cows to trample your crops. They do not have to allow yours to trample theirs. Boundaries are okay. They are important. In that case, good fences do make good neighbors. But, as Cloud and Townsend point out, good fences also have gates in them, so you can let yourself out and let others in.
So, I will continue to build and repair the walls on my property line; continue to learn to respect my neighbor’s boundaries. But I will also continue to question, and to listen to the swelling ground and the crumbling stone walls, the Something that breaks down our man-made boundaries and spills the boulders into the sun.