Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

Growing up Mormon, I was taught early on to choose my friends and acquaintances carefully. Notice the effect they have on you, I was told. Notice how they treat other people. Consider how you feel around them.

Scripture verses were passed out along with crayons and animal crackers, and one of the first things I learned along with my ABCs was that “ye shall know them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:16)

And though I’ve since become an ex-Mormon, a faithless apostate consigned to Outer Darkness, I value much about my religious upbringing. Not least of which is the adage that Mormons must strive to be “in the world but not of it.”

Fences then. Boundaries. Borders. Faithful or faithless, open-minded or not, gregarious or introverted, a little bit of insulation between us and the rest of the world is what keeps our sanity. And our relations with our neighbors.

Fences are the marker of what’s mine and what’s yours–and as such, they invite negotiation. Overleaping. Twining about and flirting with, like ivy.

Neighbor's picket fenceThere’s something tantalizing, something seductive about fences. They exclude at the same time that they offer to us. Gray areas, these fences. And while I learned in childhood to be suspicious of gray areas, as an adult I love them. It’s there–on the borderlands–where complexity and deviance and play thrive.

Leaning over their fences, neighbors can tell stories of lost love and dead relatives, of estrangement and grief and miscarriages. And I think we can talk that way because of the fence–it frees us to cross other boundaries because we know this one is still there, solid under our perched elbows. And it will be there when we finish telling our stories at twilight, and we’ll smile at one another, and then we will withdraw safely behind our separate doors, into our separate lives.

As a child, I believed fences were walls, impenetrable and buttressed. They were there to keep things out. But now I see that they are the very things that make intimacy possible. They safeguard our energy and mental territory and identity; they delineate the center from which we can move outward. Without fences, there is no center and no home.

For what would an invitation to tea mean, without a fence? Without a gate for the guest to pass through? What would my friendship or yours mean, if it was offered to everyone?

 

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