Sunday, July 06, 2008

Walls, Boundaries, Barriers and the Like

Fixed fortifications, huh? Monuments to the stupidity of man.

When mountain ranges and oceans could be crossed anything

built by man can be overcome.

- George C. Scott (as George Patton in the film "Patton")

Robert Frost penned Mending Wall in 1914. For nearly a century now five of its most quoted words often remain misused. "Something there is," begins Frost, "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 places himself and a neighbor making their annual walk to repair the stone division between their properties after nature has completed her winter handiwork. In the midst of his share of rock laying Frost ponders aloud the need for a wall's existence. His neighbor hears this and replies with memorized certainty, "'Good fences make good neighbors.'" A reflective mood descends on him and he wonders, "Why do they make good neighbors?... 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." Those five words were arguably meant to cause us to think and consider other possibilities, possibilities that could make walls unnecessary. Sadly, many have used those five words to justify isolation.

Ironically the year Frost contemplated the rifts between and within people and completed that poem the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Archduke Ferdinand, was assassinated in Sarajevo. The result: The War That Would End All Wars raged for four years, split at world, created more walls, more fear and distrust, the remains of which stand to this day, not only in a physical sense, in that part of the world ... and here.

Today is June 30, 2008. A stark image (and its accompanying title, "The Great Wall of America") rips across the cover of Time Magazine and catches my attention. I buy a copy. A solitary black line cuts the white desert sand that joins (or divides depending on your viewpoint) the United States of America and los Estados Unidos de Mexico. Unrelated and juxtaposed (my opinion) another image appears in the magazine cover's upper left hand corner: the image of a gazing down Tim Russert. A man dedicated, at least the latter years of his life, to questioning lines drawn by people... lines sometimes based on inaccuracy or dishonestly or greed or without merit (again, my opinion) fashioned by people wielding huge amounts of social, political and/or economic power.

Time's cover urges my own reflection and I recall the small mining communities of my youth: Ray, Sonora, Barcelona and Kearny, all just a few miles north of the Gila River, which also cuts - though not as unforgivingly as the fence on Time's cover - across southern Arizona. The Gila constituted the U.S.-Mexican border until 1853 when James Gadsden and Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana signed a controversial deal that moved the border dramatically south and added about thirty thousand square miles to the U.S. Given the nature the deal, had it occurred last year (2007), Gadsden and Santa Ana would likely have been invited by Russert onto Meet the Press for a good grilling. Santa Ana (President of Mexico) squandered the money received... money badly needed by his citizens; and Gadsden, our Minister to Mexico who brokered the purchase did so to make possible a rail link between Texas and the Pacific, and in the process personally acquired corporate shares of the railroad involved. Then there's the little known case of Tennessee-born William Walker. A lawyer turned filibuster and businessman, Walker's righteous outrage and zeal to secure more land for America than the Gadsden Purchase allowed, led him and his band of mercenaries into Mexico in 1853. There he established the short-lived independent Republics of Lower California and Sonora. Of course this all happened one hundred fifty-five years ago. Shenanigans of this sort involving obscure deals at high government levels, blurred lines between public service and corporate (or personal) interest, and privatized armed incursions led by American civilians onto foreign soil establishing supposed sovereignties are impossible today. Correct?

Twenty years following Gadsden's deal and Walker's incursion, copper oar was discovered in an area north of the Gila River and Aravaipa Creek confluence. In the 1870's the small towns of Ray, Sonora and Barcelona came into being and from then until the mid-1960's they circumscribed the mine that sought the copper. This mine still exists, and is today one of the world's largest. Ray, Sonora and Barcelona, on the other hand, are dead. Were you to look where they once stood you would find no evidence of their existence. Their memory literally hangs in the air.

Initially an underground operation, the Ray Mine created opportunity. Different cultures came together for work. The communities these cultures formed, however, were separated by a subjective wall. We had no name for it. It was simply "just that way." Of course no one called it segregation; because segregation was something that existed in Georgia and Mississippi and Alabama... not Arizona. For six decades the residents of Ray greeted one another with, "Good morning." In Sonora and Barcelona, both only a mile distant, the salutation was, "Buenos dias." And, unless going to or from work or church, it was unwise to cross the invisible wall, especially after dark. On foot, in a car, on a mule or horse, on a date with your girlfriend or boyfriend, to school and certainly by marriage you stayed where you were expected to stay. Then something shifted.

By the late 1940's high-grade veins of copper were being mined out. Only low-grade ore remained in the rock, rock that could neither safely or economically be taken using underground shafts. The shafts and the small compressed air locomotives needed to haul the booty were abandoned. Large treaded earth scooping "shovels" and mammoth trucks replaced them to strip and move the ground off and into the milling/smelting process. A small open pit emerged and became a symbol of progress. As the symbol (the pit) grew it forced cultures to adjust. Of necessity, people were uprooted, moved from one town to another and began living next door to each other. The pit, a physical wall of sorts, grew into and overcame the towns. The transformation ushered the demise of separation. Once kept apart by a mile-wide hole, the people (actually we, because I lived there then) were obliged to join and live with each other.

In the mid-1950's the mine pushed west. Barcelona disappeared. Sonora began to shrink. It's swimming pool vanished as did some businesses. People with names like Contreras, Mercado, Abril, Escalante and Campos ventured across the divide and found homes next door to the Smoots, Hatfields, Warrens, Tafts and the Bishops. Schools consolidated. Kids with different lineages, languages and religions had to sit next to each other in Ray's one-building high school and one-building elementary school. Not everyone liked it. Knives were common at school. Chains were carried on the streets at night. Crossing any barrier, any wall, requires not just physical action, it is often an act of the heart made in the face of fear.

People rarely abandon their fears. Even if they espouse the opposite, change of this nature takes work, effort and practice. We try, we fall down, we get up and go at it again. Life is a journey not a destination. Yes, that is cliché. That's why it's so valid! Our fears are our greatest walls and potentially our greatest anchors. In times of challenge and change it is human nature to slip back into the past even if the future is better. This is homeostasis. In Mastery, George Leonard urges an understanding of the power and the effect of homeostasis, and reminds us that every self-regulating system (we certainly are that, individually and collectively) will resist change even if the change we seek is good for the system. On pages 149 and 150 of Mastery he addresses a key tool for progress in the face of homeostasis, which he calls The Edge. He writes: "The path of mastery is built on unrelenting practice, but it's also a place of adventure. A couple on the path stays open to experience and is willing to play new games, dance new dances together. Perhaps the greatest adventure of all is intimacy: the willingness to strip away one layer of reticence after another, and on certain occasions to live entirely in the moment, revealing everything and expecting nothing in return."

America's post-war economy rushed to greet the 1960's. Industries and families were spreading across the country along with an increased press for inexpensive goods and services. Copper was in high demand so that the electricity this growth required could be transported. Similar demands rested on European nations re-emerging from WWII and united with the U.S. as NATO - racing against a Soviet Warsaw Pact living behind an Iron Curtain. The pit mine near the Gila River quickened its expansion - now spreading north and east. The backyards of Ray's inhabitants (time-honored as well as those more newly arrived from Sonora and Barcelona) were threatened and devoured - and became dumping grounds. Raw earth, we were told, would soon cover Ray's ball fields and parks. Even the graveyard was not immune. Families were informed that their departed loved ones' remains would need to be relocated. It was all hard to imagine when we were first told. But it all happened. Knowing that growth would continue and that people working and living together were essential to sustain the growth, the mining company built a new town "just down the road a bit" from Ray and Sonora and empty Barcelona. Kearny was born. A place where everyone would live together, not because we were in search of something from one another, but rather because we had to.

In 1961 while a one-upon-a-time barrier pressed different peoples of our communities to live and communicate together, a barrier of a different nature, an actual wall, was under construction 5,636 miles to the east. Berlin. And its purpose: separate a single city populated by like peoples; force them to part and communicate no more.

Walls. They seemed to be everywhere.

The morphing of Ray and Sonora into a singular Kearny gave rise to new challenges and opportunities, e.g. the five structures housing differing religious perspectives now had to co-exist in closer proximity. The volume of weekend rhetoric espousing each one's separate, yet correct TRUTH got louder on certain street corners. Distinct divisions were drawn in verbal sand. Righteousness (in whatever form) was no longer contained within the structures that housed the pulpits and pews; it found its way into cafés and bars, playgrounds and schools. Everyone knew who to hang out with and who to avoid, who was right and who was wrong, and who was and wasn't going to make it to the Other Side.

As I read the main article "A New Line In the Sand" in today's Time, I am particularly struck by a paragraph near its end and find myself looking beyond these words as a strict application to a border between two countries. David Von Drehle writes:

"What the fence tells us, then, is that marking the border and aggressively patrolling it can reduce illegal activity. The fence also carries a lesson about limits, for it is only as effective as the force that backs it up. Even the Great Wall of China was not impermeable. Osmosis explains why concentrations of water seek equilibrium across a barrier. Something similar applies to money. The difference in per capita income between the U.S. and Mexico is among the greatest cross-border contrasts in the world, according to David Kennedy, a noted historian at Stanford. As long as that remains true, the border fence will be under extreme pressure. People will climb over it; they'll tunnel under it" they'll hack through it; they'll float around it." (p 35, Time, VOL. 171, No. 26 / 2008)

Boundaries are important especially with regards respect, dignity, understanding and learning to live with others. But walls can also become hard, steadfast and rigid. They can eliminate the potential and possibility for future communication. There is a serious problem, I suggest, when the statement that a barrier or wall makes becomes more important than the potential for future constructive communication that the wall blocks; communication that honorably could come through to find common ground and understanding for a harmonious future. Harmony is not static tolerance. It is a dynamic dance of separate tones. It evokes grace, ease, joy, spontaneity and moments of playful surprise.

I look at the cover of today's Time again and find myself thinking about boundaries: personal and group. Walls are not single-functioned, one-sided structures. I gaze again and think, "Hmmmm, what if someone - a U.S. citizen - standing near that border saw an oncoming brush fire, or a swarm of hornets, or an angry mob or gang approaching from the north, or an unjust sheriff or a body of government officials (when did we start referring to public servants as government officials?), or a bully, or a deranged person carrying a club, or a despot - or a system clever enough to successfully scam people out of their voice (its responsibility, authority and freedom) and into a comfortable cloak called security - woven by threads comprised of promises. (Have you ever seen anything in nature that is actually static and therefore secure?) And suppose that that person needed to move... to walk or quickly flee south ... in order to avoid the fire or the disease or the bully, etc., for the sake of health or preservation or freedom for himself or herself or the family. Well then, the wall wouldn't be keeping anyone out... it would be keeping that person in. We have to understand that walls are impersonal and those with little or no doors, or doors that are controlled by the few can house prisons. For eighteen months I weekly visited a prison doing volunteer work. It always struck me that in many ways that the inmates were not the only prisoners who lived there. The inmates were the prisoners that stayed overnight. Ahhhh... but this is all kind of far-fetched imagining when considered within the context of "The Great Wall of America" on Time's cover. Isn't it?

This past Friday and Saturday I delivered a program for Run Rhino , a Santa Cruz, California consulting firm. The program included an interactive aikido demonstration, which when completed opened to a reflective dialogue for participants who translated lessons the demonstration provided into issues relevant to relationship and communication. Aikido is a martial art dedicated to promote harmonious resolution to all conflicts. One of the participants, a woman from Canada, offered, "I saw simultaneous acts of leading and following, and it made me think of the possible agreements and solutions that could rise out of conflict, agreements and solutions that could come into being - but only if people are willing to look for, create, and share a common language... not just words, but a language based on understanding."

Today is Monday, June 30th. I'm sitting at my desk looking out onto Prospect Street here in Petaluma, California. Having these thoughts and writing these words and wondering if the underlying fabric of the notion of walls and barriers and boundaries really matters in any way to anyone in particular. This is my nineteenth year in Petaluma; I've lived here longer than anywhere else in my life... including the communities of Ray, Sonora, Barcelona and Kearny. I've been (and am) a Petaluma west-side resident. Hail to the Trojans! - Petaluma High School's mascot (this side of town). I've been an east-side Petaluma resident, too. Hurray for the Gouchos! The mascot for Casa Grande High School (the other side of town). Petaluma's a nice place: fifty-five thousand people divided right down the middle by a freeway; old farms, heritage homes and chicken houses to the west; stucco and high-tech buildings to the east. Friendly competition.

I look out the window this morning. A man walks down the north side of the street. He's walked this way everyday since I moved into my house. His motion breaks my concentration. He passes #510 Prospect across the way and enters more of my field of vision. I find myself wondering, "What will he do today?" Each morning he shuffles by here wearing a cap and an oversized black windbreaker. His shoes, sneakers, look out of place for his age. He has a bushy mustache. He's headed east (as usual) to the corner of Prospect and Walnut Streets where a yellow fire hydrant adjacent to a stop sign stands like a silent sentry guarding the neighborhood. In the past this fellow has always stopped at the hydrant, gazed east ... then south... then west from whence he came ... then east and south again. It's obvious he's pondering. Something inside him is talking. It's as if he's listening for someone to say, "It's OK. You can go across Walnut Street today and continue walking two blocks to Liberty Street, or wherever else you want to go." But I've never seen him take a step to cross over Walnut Street. In fact, I've never seen his foot depart the sidewalk and touch the pavement. He always turns north after his pattern of gazing and shuffles up the road away from where I look. He always disappears into the shadows until the morrow when he comes back - again from the west and headed east. I don't judge him, but I am curious. I wonder about him. He looks like a nice guy. I think someone probably cares a lot about him. Today I find myself quietly rooting, "Go ahead ... take the step ... it's OK... it really is." Then I go still and watch. He stops, considers the hydrant, gazes east, gazes south ... turns back to look west, then to the east and south again. Interestingly, now, he moves diagonally to the storm drain right at the edge of the walkway and looks down. And then ...

      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.


      And on a day we meet to walk the line

      And set the wall between us once again.

      We keep the wall between us as we go.

      To each the boulders that have fallen to each.


      Before I build a wall I'd ask to know

      What I was walling in or walling out,

      And to whom I was like to give offence.

      Something there is that doesn't love a wall,

      That wants it down. I could say, 'Elves' to him,

      But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather

      He said it for himself.


      He will not go behind his father's saying,

      And he likes having thought of it so well

      He says it again, 'Good fences make good neighbours.'

... he turns and proceeds north, as he has each day for quite a long time.

What are the walls we, you and I, live by? The ones between us? The ones within us?

What do they serve? What don't they serve? What do they cost?

What do they wall in? What do they wall out?

Are they worth it? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

if not, then what can be done about this ... if only in some small measure ... today?

Do it.

The Afterward. It's early Thursday morning, July 3rd, 2008. Tomorrow is Independence Day. I'm at Starbucks. I walked across Petaluma a little while ago, over the freeway to the east side, to shop and have a cup of coffee where my youngest son works. In a little while I'll walk back to my home office. No one's permission needed for the journey, except mine. It's a long way to walk for a cup of coffee, but that's OK because I can combine exercise with errands, and errands with breakfast, and breakfast with the possibility of seeing a young man at his first real job. I can save gas, too. No car needed, just a good pair of sneakers. Above my head the sound system is piping out music. I strain a bit to hear the tune. Starbucks sells good CDs in addition to good coffee. They play their music low so that customers are enveloped by subtle background sounds. Similarly, the background aroma of fresh coffee heightens the possibility that some in the store will be influenced into buying another cup. Smart marketing. It helps drive sales. Lord knows Starbucks needs help. Yesterday's headlines included news that the mega-chain will soon close six hundred U.S. stores. I hope my son keeps his job. But, there is no such thing as stability, and there are no guarantees. It's out of his (and my) hands. A job lost won't be the end of the world, just an opportunity to deal with change. A learning experience. I strain a bit more to hear the music. I think I recognize the duo, but it sounds like a live recording, not the studio version that was one of my favorites at Ray District High School back in Kearny. Sure enough it's them - Paul & Art - live! I listen ... and I hear:

      A winters day

      In a deep and dark December;

      I am alone,

      Gazing from my window to the streets below

      On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow.

      I am a rock,

      I am an island.

      I've built these walls,

      A fortress deep and mighty,

      That none may penetrate.

      I have no need of friendship; friendship causes pain.

      Its laughter and its loving I disdain.

      I am a rock,

      I am an island.

      Don't talk of love,

      I've heard that word before;

      It's sleeping in my memory.

      I won't disturb the slumber of feelings that have died.

      If I never loved I never would have cried.

      I am a rock,

      I am an island.

      I have my books

      And my poetry to protect me;

      I am shielded in my armor,

      Hiding in my room, safe within my womb.

      I touch no one and no one touches me.

      I am a rock,

      I am an island.

      And a rock feels no pain;

      And an island never cries.

On the recording the crowd cheers wildly. Sitting at Starbucks I mist up and almost cry. But I stop. Someone might not understand or think I'm weird, so I keep my feelings inside. I'm caught ... still learning ... still practicing. Walls, they seem to be everywhere.

© Lance Giroux,

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