Good Manners Make Good Neighbors

The pain of loss sometimes divides me between a life I once knew, and the life I have now, a wall not welcome yet one all my own. Most days my mostly Buddhist self says, “Let’s not attach to the pain of loss or we’ll get stuck in its drama.”

But there seem so many days I am too bound to my mind and unwilling to face life as it is now. My lifelong friend is dead, my ability to move through life threatened emotionally as well as physically. A life I knew is no longer but I hold onto it, as if “walling in” a life were possible.

Finally, reality forces me to focus—I have poured coffee into my oatmeal–mindfulness makes me aware of the wall I have so carefully constructed. So often it is the human way to try and still life.

Good Neighbors 0214

“Something there is that does not love a wall” is a line from Robert Frost’s “The Mending Wall,” a poem I once knew by heart some fifty years ago. Now, all I recall is a single line but it seems enough.

In the poem, two Maine landowners perform their spring ritual of reinforcing a rock wall that keeps separate his land from his land. Whether it is nature, the magic of elves, a burrowing animal, or a thoughtless hunter that tear down the wall matters not. “Good fences make good neighbors” is the belief of one neighbor while the other wonders if that is true.

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.
(Robert Frost, “The Mending Wall”)

When I first wrote about this poem in some grade school or junior high English class, I sided with the neighbor who believed a wall was a sign of respect, a reminder of what was not one’s own, a sign of good manners.

Now, I am older or simply old—a final label—yet still on the life side of the wall between here and whatever comes next–the unknown, the intangible—I am here within the laws of nature.

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 neighbours.’
(Frost, “The Mending Wall”)

In my later years, I re-consider what makes good neighbors. It is not good fences or any walling in of loss or walling out of life. It is good manners, a respect for life as it renews on terms not for us to understand immediately but ultimately for us to accept.

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Ours is to extend good manners in our relationship with every form of life. It is ours to mimic the apple orchard and the pine forest, as each respects the other without transgression, as both drop their seeds for a life larger than their own.

Ours is to grieve for those who are no longer here. We respect that they lived and left life with us. It is ours to continue without a wall at all. It is good manners that do not love a wall; it is good manners that make good neighbors.

Reference Notes: For a profound essay on grief, loss, and life, I recommend Francis Weller’s “In Praise of Manners;” also, here is a link to Robert Frost’s “The Mending Wall.”

15 thoughts on “Good Manners Make Good Neighbors

  1. “Ours is to extend good manners in our relationship with every form of life.” I would include ourselves and the planet. So wise, my friend. Funny how we opt for walls in our youth, yet find true freedom with the unknown as life goes on. Glad to be your neighbor, my well-mannered friend. {{{Hugs}}} Kozo


    1. As you say, real freedom exists only without walls, without knowing what comes next; it is what makes every moment possible and to wall in or out is to deny life. Thanks, dear Kozo.


  2. There are many ways to frame loss. It is a matter of choosing your metaphor. When my mother died I was so shocked that I cut off that bottomless grief and as a result lost the good with the bad–she became very remote and is still hard for me to call up whole. When my father, one of the best friends I will ever have, died, I decided not to make the same mistake. Grief was something I had to feel in its entirety, and so I did. And this is the metaphor I came up with. We carry our beloved dead with us, almost as if we have hiked them up on our backs–and we go forward. Yes, the grief is heavy, but it beats the lightness of forgetting. As a survivor, I am the witness to the vivid lives I have known; I am their voice in absentia..


  3. Despite its benefits, letting go often seems to be the hardest thing we must learn to do. I admire your ability to glean such beauty and wisdom out of the many losses you are facing. In and of itself, that seems to me to be a sign that you have not walled yourself off from your experience and are instead treating even these challenging times with good manners so as to learn from them.


    1. Hope you have an opportunity to read the Francis Weller essay as I think you will find it as amazing as I did. Good manners, when I consider them, are always possible, and in the face of loss, especially when it comes to the planet, good manners seem the way to extend reverence to the life that is here gives me a way and to do as much as I am able for all of the life that will survive me. Thank you for your kind and thoughtful comment, as always.


  4. As always, this was inspiring. And so true. I think as a society, we’ve strayed away from manners. The me-ism, self-first spirit that is portrayed has influenced the forgetfulness of good manners. There is more happiness in the giving. That seems to be lost. Yet, when we practice giving, we receive so much more. Wonderful post Karen. Take care and have a great week! 🙂


    1. Hi, Karen!
      Hope you get a chance to read the Francis Weller essay, for you will enjoy his views on the natural world and the hope we all can have. Of course, the hope is extending good manners to all life so that what lives on beyond us is the best of life. Thanks for stopping by, Karen; it’s always great to see you here. Hope all is well with you and yours.


    1. Hello, Ruth!
      I am glad you enjoyed the post. Thank you, again, for directing me to the Francis Weller essay, words I read and re-read. Good manners, “a simple reverence” as you say, seem such a ray of hope because good manners are something of which all humans are capable. We have to look to the rest of our natural neighbors. I really appreciate your comment.


  5. KM, thanks for writing this incredible essay. I know you have had a lot of huge losses. My losses are more incremental but are beginning to mount up. The Frost poem has long been a favorite, and I’ve taken different meanings from it at different times in my life. I like your interpretation. — Miss Case


    1. My dear Miss Case,
      Glad to know that you, too, have loved this poem. As you say, it allows us to see our lives in different perspectives, and maybe aging does that as well. Yet to know such a poem is a comfort, isn’t it? I know that loss has been significant for you, too, of late, perhaps yet again a result of aging but also of living. You and I go on, and that, too, is a comfort. I must tell you that to read a comment from “Miss Case” just starts an avalanche of years of memories. Thank you for each one of them.


  6. Hi Karen and thank you again for sharing your heartfelt thoughts as you navigate through this difficult time. Buddhist teachers tell us to drop the storyline, don’t cling to feelings—good or bad—but it is such a test when we are put in the position of doing so. I find it so appropriate that you chose a passage referring to walls because I find during times of any emotional challenge, it is easy to become walled off. We communicate via our writing and the act of you sharing this content is evidence of you not emotionally walled off as you have just invited your readers into your heart. Not an easy thing to do but one of the many reasons I always find myself reflecting on my own process after visiting your page. My best to you, always.



    1. I appreciate your kind and thoughtful comment, Stephanie. As you say, it is quite easy to “wall myself off” but to do so is to deny life itself it seems to me. We live in relationship to so many beings that any kind of wall limits what is possible, even grief. There is an energy in grief, although sometimes hard to find or remember but if I extend good manners to the life around me, I extend the best in me, no matter how little that may be at times. Thank you, Stephanie.


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