Talk of border walls made for contentious media reporting in the run-up to the US elections in 2016. Less contentious is the matter of the wall that defines the extent of my backyard. A few months ago it was in rather a dilapidated state, and from time to time in the last few years I had braved snakes, female mosquitoes (the males are harmless—they don’t bite, apparently, though I have never looked closely enough to check for myself), and some ominous looking plants in order to do a temporary patch-up job and stop the whole thing from falling down like a giant pack of wooden cards.
Then, one day, a letter in an important-looking envelope from the Taylors Fire and Sewer District arrived informing me (and all my neighbors, for they also received the same) that the area of no-man’s-land that runs between all the back-to-back properties was to be cleared and widened, and, sorry to say, all fences would have to be taken down—or, if we preferred, the Taylors Fire and Sewer District staff would do this for us, endeavoring to minimize damage so as to enable subsequent reconstruction to take place.
Well, who am I to take issue with the Taylors Fire and Sewer District Chiefs? And maybe, after all, the fence could be improved on being put back up. So, a week or two later, I watched, resigned, as what looked like tons and tons of timber was removed and stacked in somewhat unruly piles. My heart sank at the thought of having to reconstruct this mess.
But this clearing the no-man’s-land suddenly enabled some good neighborly conversations to take place. Steve, or someone from the shadowy safety and confines of his side of his wall who had once shouted obscenities at me when I was burning some yard waste late one Saturday afternoon, suddenly became friendly and conversational, and his wife donated several golf balls to my son who has recently developed a fascination for the game. My son Matthew, now fourteen years old, has wildly been sending these little white missiles in ever more dangerous arcs across our backyard and not infrequently violating our neighbors’ airspace. Mrs. Steve’s generosity concerned me, as I imagined one of these projectiles, like friendly fire in a war setting, entering her closed kitchen or bedroom window and doing more than a little damage. But I thanked her kindly and was glad for one more opportunity to be friendly and hopefully to begin to build into her and her husband’s life.
Do we need walls? Are you familiar with the poem by Robert Frost, Mending Wall? It starts like this:
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.
Frost seems to think walls have some benefit, if I understand his poem well enough. They do demarcate territory; they do map out where one set of responsibilities ends and another set begins; but they don’t have to be overdone or overbuilt.
I’ve made a good start on building our wall again, but this time it is a recycled wall, a less-than-it-was wall. A previous owner of our home kept large dogs, so a wall was an important detail. But I thought a new wall should be less prisonlike and so, the way I designed it, instead of towering imposingly over me and hiding me from our neighbors, it’s more like a picket fence, not much more than four feet high.
I am thankful for a background in Africa that has encouraged frugality and good stewardship, so whatever could be kept and used again has proved the axiom “We need what we have, and we have what we need.” Old screws carefully removed have found new usefulness in lumber that should still be serviceable for some years. Warped beams have been coaxed back to a measure of straightness. And there, rising from the ground if not with elegance then at least with some character, a new wall graces and defines where our yard ends, and no-man’s-land begins… and not too much further away, our neighbor’s backyard begins.
Practical and Spiritual Lessons
I am thankful for the example and influence of my late father. I wrote about him some months ago HERE. He taught me some skills that have come in useful—like how to drill a hole, cut wood, use a hammer and nails, and many other things—all without loss of life or limb. I also learned from him that, if you do something routinely and keep at it, you will make progress. Rome does not get built in a day, but it does get built. The tortoise does cover some significant ground in a few hours, simply by keeping going, as I was able to point out to Sue one afternoon recently when one such little creature traversed our backyard.
I’ve also come back to the need for objective measurements: not just estimations or guesswork, but actual feet-and-inches dimensions, degrees of levelness, and the necessity of a straight line and a truly objective vertical reading. Our backyard slopes downhill, so posts have had to be put in vertically, even if they do not look upright. Crossbeams have to be horizontal and on more than one occasion I found myself thinking that my spirit level was wrong. But when I laid hands on my large L-square, I discovered that I was being deceived by an optical illusion. “Don’t do what you think looks right, Jim, do what you KNOW is right,” I found myself mentally admonishing myself. It was a good and practical lesson for Matthew who was helping me on that occasion.
We need objective measuring tools. Amos spoke of a plumb line (See Amos Chapter 7); I had to have at least a tape measure, a length of string, and a spirit level to establish that everything will fit, and will not look horrible once I am done with the work. By way of spiritual analogy, I am thankful that we have such in the Bible—the canon, the measuring line—that determines right from wrong, true from false, and gives us what Francis Schaeffer once called “true truth.”
Oh, and what about the sweat and mosquitoes I mentioned a bit earlier? Adam was promised hard labor after he exited Eden. Even though the small spade I got for the job worked well, the ground was hard and my shoulders and arm muscles were more than ready to take a break once each of the holes had been dug. Mixing the cement, too, was an interesting experience. And yet, even in circumstances such as these, it is possible to honor God in this kind of labor. Psalm 104:23 states that “Man goes out to his work and to his labor until the evening.”
Walls. I’m thankful for them, but glad also not to have to depend on them!