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.
“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.
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.”