In the Spring of 2016, not long after two major New England snow storms, I noticed that the base of a post holding the corner of the long, heavy, 8 foot high wooden fence that ran across the expanse of my side yard, had rotted. I enjoy physical work, so I considered this an opportunity to go to Lowes, pick up a fresh new post and some concrete mix, dig a hole and replace it. Three hours max. Just in case, I surveyed the rest of the fence. The damage over the winter surely must have wreaked more havoc than just one post. And besides, that just meant a chance to get some good physical exercise in. Who needs the gym when you’re a homeowner in the Northeast, right?
It would have been one thing, though, if I had found that two, maybe three more posts had rotted. When I calculated that 90 percent of the posts needed to be replaced, my thought process changed. I became more professorial about the matter, internally debating, weighing the pros and cons of just the ‘idea’ of a fence. I mean, what is a fence anyway? Do I need a fence? What message is it sending? No one else in my neighborhood has a fence like ours. My kid’s friends come over all the time. It’s a safe, quiet neighborhood, and so we sit here in the middle of an ocean of normalcy, seemingly guarded from...what?
I stood staring at what had become in my mind, an offensive symbol of divisiveness, and couldn’t think of a good reason to keep it. And I knew I had to make the commitment before my wife and daughter got home from shopping. Sure, we had enjoyed the privacy at times, but most of the gatherings had always taken place inside the house, especially because of the long winters.
I walked over to the center panel - the one that looked most vulnerable. It had supported the pressure of a car-sized bush that had spent many weeks weighed down with five feet of snow and ice. I tapped the middle of the panel with my boot. I melted forward in slow motion onto it’s face and rested on the freshly cut grass. The panel to it’s right had a similar emotional response to seeing it’s sibling give up. I knew there was no turning back.
Three hours later, soaking in sweat, muscles aching, back sore, I was done. And how long does it take for my wife and kid to shop for clothes, anyway? I took that as a good sign, giving me more time to put all the panels in one place - the back of the back yard. 14 panels, 13 posts later, with holes in the ground and debris all over the yard, I waved hello to neighbor who was walking her dog. She stopped and laughed. I didn’t know why she laughed - maybe it was because I look like I had wrestled a dragon, maybe because she knew my work wasn’t done, maybe because in fact the whole neighborhood had waited for this moment.
Then suddenly I felt like I was on another planet and totally exposed to the world. I dropped my gloves to the ground, wiped my forehead and waved hello to two neighbors who were on a walk. A kid from my daughter’s school rode by on his bike and said, “Hi”. The UPS guy drove by and waved. And it’s not like everyone always waves hello - this is New England after all - that just doesn’t happen here. But maybe it was the freshness of the moment, maybe my perspective. Either way, it felt good.
We guard ourselves in so many ways. Curtains, walls, doors, gates, fences...and language. There are many good reasons for all ways in which we separate ourselves from others, and yet everything is on a continuum. Curtains, doors, fences and gates have openings. Language, speech and dialogue are living, breathing things, guarded and not guarded, hurtful and loving.
All I know is that if I feel safe in my community, let down my guard, open up a conversation, then there’s a better chance I will understand where the other person is coming from. And if I decide to put up another fence (I’d have conversation with my wife first), maybe it would be a short one, or a little gate, or maybe nothing at all. I’ve been enjoying saying hello to neighbors. I still don’t really know most of them well, but what I do know is there’s a better chance I will.