Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

When it comes to our neighbors, my nickname for my husband is Mr. Wilson. Even though the original Mr. Wilson was the cantankerous next-door-neighbor to Dennis the Menace, the Mr. Wilson my husband more accurately resembles is Wilson Wilson, the next-door-neighbor who peers over the top of the fence in episodes of Home Improvement offering advice to Tim Allen.

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Either Wilson, my husband is the “hidey-ho” neighbor who will venture into your garage if you are working in it, will help you shovel your driveway in winter after he’s finished with ours, and will deliver the homemade Christmas treats he asks me to bake for the half dozen neighbors whose homes surround ours. When watering the lawn, he waves at each car that he recognizes as belonging to one of our neighbors, one hand held in the air, a salute to our block. Mike’s the reason we get invited to Labor Day parties across the street where our children swim and I make small talk until it’s time to walk back home.

I, on the other hand, am not like Mike. While I like my neighbors very much, I also like fences.

Don’t get me wrong. You are more than welcome to borrow a cup of sugar from me and I too, will do the obligatory wave should I see you walking out to your mailbox, but whereas my husband thinks we should invite you to a BBQ, I prefer for you to just smell the hamburgers I’m grilling as the smoke wafts over the fence.

Some might call me stand-offish, but there are healthy boundaries to every relationship. My home is where I relax. Barefoot and braless, I experience a jolt of panic when my doorbell rings. Who is it? Why are they here? What do they want?

Not my husband. Ring our bell and he’ll stand on the stoop shooting the shit for a good half hour while I peer through the blinds.

In the decade that we have owned our home, there have been relatively few changes to our neighborhood. For a few years, we had one house to the left of us that was vacant after a foreclosure, and when we finally got new neighbors, they were less than ideal. Their dirt backyard grew weeds taller than the fence. Here, they kept their son’s two monstrous dogs after he moved out. Since they owned cats too, the dogs were not allowed in the house. Living in the junkyard that was their backyard, no one ever picked up the piles of dog poo or told them to stop barking. In the heat of the summer, and with the right wind, we’d suffer through the flies, the smell, and the dust. One time they put a couch in their backyard, right next to the (broken?) elliptical machine and the two dozen bikes, which became a giant chew-toy for the dogs. I always wondered whether they got the sofa for the intended purpose of letting the dogs destroy it, but soon enough, they put their house up for sale, and I wasn’t the least bit sad. We lucked out with the young couple that bought it. They immediately planted sod and neighborhood equilibrium was restored.

Recently, however, conditions on the right have changed. New neighbors have arrived and we are already mending the wall.

I was headed to my car when I first saw them standing in the road talking to our neighbors from across the street. I would have just said hello, but my neighbors waved me over to meet them. The first thing I noticed was the window decal on a very large pick-up truck: a picture of Donald Trump urinating on “LIBERALS.”

Great, I thought. He is all pine and I am apple orchard.

The wife, in a three-minute conversation, was able to overshare several tidbits of their life; from job layoffs to nasty custody battles, the largest red flag came when she mentioned their last house had burned down.

I tried to keep a smile on my face, but inside, my thoughts were spiraling. Was it arson? Did you leave the iron on? Were you running a meth lab in the basement?

They seemed nice enough, but one thing was for sure: I wasn’t going to wear my Obama tee-shirt to the block party lest I find them dropping trou on my front lawn. Also, I needed to pick up some extra fire extinguishers. Stat.

Mr. Wilson wasn’t home when I met the new neighbors, but I made sure to fill him in on all I had learned. A week later, he finally got his introduction when the new neighbor came over to thank my husband for returning his dog when earlier that day, it broke through a fence post and ventured into our back yard.

As the two stood talking on the front porch, I thought it might be neighborly of me to come say hello. I listened to my husband espouse how great our neighborhood is when the new neighbor told us the reason they purchased the home next to ours.

“When we came to look at it, it was just after the fourth of July and every house had an American flag flying. I knew then that this wasn’t going to be a neighborhood full of Liberals and Communists.”

Mike chuckled as I turned and walked back inside wishing that the Democratic Party would conveniently call for my husband at that very moment. If only it was dinner time. 

When Mike found me hiding in our bedroom, he took one look at me and laughed.  “So I guess Liberals don’t fly American flags?”

Since Trump’s election, I’ve witnessed a country divided in ways I have never seen before. I’ll be honest, I’ve clicked that button to hide the political posts of friends and family on social media, but I’m not sure how to hide my new neighbor except by building a taller fence.

Yet for as much as I believe that good fences make good neighbors, I know that for better or worse, he is my neighbor, and maybe, rather than mending walls or building walls, what we need to do is start taking them down.

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In an article published in the Los Angeles Times, Alexander Nazaryan writes, “To wall off is an ancient human impulse, and there is no use in pretending that we’ve transcended that desire. It’s what we do with that impulse that matters.”

As I settle into the different sounds coming from across the fence, perhaps it’s time I take a clue from Mr. Wilson and invite the new neighbors over for a BBQ.

After all, boundaries, like some window decals, only serve to alienate one another. After so much division, it’s time we started coming back together. Conservative or Liberal, we all fly the same flag.

“[S]ome do not love walls, but others do, and always have,” Nazaryan writes. “A demagogue like Donald Trump will use it to his own hateful ends. An artist like Robert Frost will take the same and, listening to the complex rhythms of the human heart, create a thing of beauty.”

It probably will do no good to write my new neighbor a poem. I’m not naive enough to wonder if I could put a notion in his head. But I bet a plate of homemade brownies wouldn’t hurt. After all, we’ve still got a few years till 2020, and I’m hoping we can make the best of them.

If you want to read “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost, click HERE

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