Let’s See Where This Goes

This is part 3 of a series. Follow these links for Part 1 and part 2, but for reference we’re focusing on line 12:

I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.

I had one person tell me after part 2 was posted, “I’m with you on the Mending Wall.” I’ve had more than a few people say, “I still don’t understand poetry.” Stay with me. We’re about to move on from the poetry.

Part 2 is usually where I get stuck with the Mending Wall project. It’s why I haven’t written in two weeks. I feel like the poem is saying something about something, but I’m not sure what to call either of the somethings. Is it a commentary on habit and ritual? Was Robert Frost trying to illustrate a lack a self-awareness in the neighbor that each of us needs to analyze in ourselves? I don’t believe that he included the words in the poem without reason – as filler or because the words fit the rhythm of the work.

So, when Frost writes in line 12, “I let my neighbor know”, what is he saying? Why is he saying it? Why did this neighbor – the one who can see the doldrums in the old stone savage and even has the presence to not only critique and review the way the old stone savage works but question the reason and need for the work itself – why is it that this neighbor initiates the rebuilding of the wall?

Could he just not help himself? We’ve all been there, right? “Man, I just couldn’t help myself, I had to get a frozen lemonade from Chick-fil-A.”

I try to stop and think about the response of the old stone savage neighbor when he received the call letting him know that it was time to fix the wall.

I think that the old stone savage was enjoying a cup of coffee on a nice spring morning when his neighbor broke the hymn the birds were singing and interrupted the game of tag being played by the squirrels and said, “hey, it’s time to rebuild the old stone wall between the pine trees and the apple trees. Let’s meet Saturday morning and get the job knocked out.” The old stone savage just said, “okay”.

I think he rolled his eyes. I think that he took a deep breath. I think that a part of him did remember the words of his father and he told himself, good fences make good neighbors, but I don’t know that he believed the words and I don’t know that he wanted to rebuild the wall. I think he went back in to the house and complained to his wife for a little while. “Can you believe he wants to rebuild that wall again this year?”

The wife just asks, Why didn’t you just tell him ‘no’, honey?

Let’s recall that in part 1, I kind of laid out an agreement that we all wanted to be the neighbor that was questioning everything. We wanted to be the observant neighbor, the well-reasoned neighbor. Next week we’ll get practical with it, because for us the wall may not be a wall. Maybe our wall is something else that we do over and over, and we make fun of the way other people go through the uninspired motions, but it’s really us that won’t let the wall go.

I met my English 102 professor on the second floor of Ferguson Center and went over the idea that I just presented above. She looked at me, eyes still a bit bloodshot, took a sip of her Coke and looked for a place to spit. Then she looked at me a again, still unsure if this was brilliant or just way off the mark, and said. “well, let’s see where this goes. It’s your grade, not mine.”

Thanks for stopping by. I’m running low on photographs of rock walls, so if you have a picture that you’d like to see featured here, send it along!

The Influence

This is Part 2 of a series. Part 1 can be found here.

There are, by most accounts, two main characters in Mending Wall; the narrator neighbor and his older neighbor. Between them lies a rather mundane, seasonal  task; to mend the broken wall that separates their property.

Frost describes the older neighbor for us through the eyes of, what we assume to be, the younger neighbor. We know that he looks like an “old-stone savage armed” and “moves in darkness”. Not a darkness created from an absence of light, but a mind-numbing darkness of expression brought about by monotonous routine and ritual. A darkness, I think, that only boredom and a lack of purpose can create.

The old-stone savage armed introduces us to the phrase “good fences make good neighbors”, though we don’t receive a clue as to why that is so. With, “He will not go behind his father’s saying”, the narrator neighbor attributes the saying to his neighbor’s father, and that is really all that we get from Frost about this neighbor.

My classmates in English 102, inferred lots from Mending Wall about the old-stone savage armed. He was stuck in his ways, old, unable to change, a sad man who’s best days were behind him. He, himself, really didn’t know why he was rebuilding the wall, only that his dad told him that “good fences make good neighbors.”

You and I know people like this.  There are times that you and I may be this person. Today we say that this person is “just going through the motions.” You have them in your office. You see them at church. You see them as they drop off one child at cheerleading practice and then scramble to have another child at soccer practice. You wake up one morning and your life is a series of daily routines and rituals. You move in a cloud of habits.

Photo Credit: @JimHHartsell

I’ve worked at one of the largest retailers in the country, one of the largest privately held companies in an industry, and at the largest employer in the state. I’ve seen a fair share of old-stone savages at each of them. People who lost the zeal a long time ago, but they vested at five years and are determined to grind it out until they can retire. You’ve probably seen people like this also. If not at work, then at church or in the PTO or, perhaps, in your own family. People who continue a practice that, no matter how outdated, offers some comfort or, sadly, the opportunity to put a checkmark in the box for the day and go home.

No one really wants to be the old-stone savage, right? I don’t know that anyone loses the fire on purpose, but it happens. People don’t understand their role within the mission of the organization and so their work, this wall that there is something that doesn’t love but that constantly needs repair, seems meaningless. We get busy with treading water just to keep up and we look at the calendar and realize that we’ve treaded water for years…and we’ve gotten nowhere.

We all have seasons of treading water, some have longer seasons than others. But if those around us are walking in, even blinded by, this fog of habit, then who are we? Are we the narrator neighbor? That’s who we want to be, right? We don’t want to be the one walking in a fog. We want to be the one asking questions and challenging the status quo and driving change.

We don’t want to just observe the rituals, we want to question the reasons the old-stone savages are doing the things they are doing or, at least the way that they are doing them. We want to question, but we know the answer would be something similar to “that’s the way that we’ve always done it” or “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it”.

I think that a lot of people believe themselves to be the narrator, but I propose that the narrator neighbor isn’t just a bystander in the ritual. I suggest that he is the one who puts the ritual in motion.

Twenty-five years after my introduction to Mending Wall, the words that I’ve always remembered come from line 12 and are spoken by the narrator;

I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.

I let my neighbor know…the narrator, the one wondering if the old-stone savage armed ever questions why he has to rebuild a wall to keep apple trees from pine trees, is the one that let his neighbor know that it was time to rebuild the wall.

If you and I are the narrator neighbor, we have to ask ourselves if we are the reason that the people around us continue in their ritual and routine for years without understanding of purpose. We have to question our own influence and how we’re using it.

After 25 years of pondering that line, you would think that I could better articulate the red flag that line 12 raises for me. I can’t just skip over it and act this is a poem about an old man and his stubborn ways. I believe that Frost wrote the words for a reason. There has to be some correlation between ignoring the words and failing to recognize our own influence.

That’s all for this morning. Have a good day! Influence someone with your smile today.

The One Where I Take the Leap

Part One of a Series

Two years ago, when I started this site, my intention was to tell a story that was, at the time, over 23 years in the making. My goal was to get the story out before the idea turned 25. Instead I wrote about things that were completely unrelated and safe (except for the Yes Ma’am post that ended up being not so safe). People shared those stories via Facebook or Twitter, so I thought that perhaps I should just write haphazardly and see what stuck to the Facebook feed. It’s been fun to watch the number of shares and comments and just float along through the blogosphere, but deep down I’ve felt more like the Jon Acuff who has cable than the Jon Acuff with DirecTV.

Then the New York Post published this article on August 16, 2015 and I thought to myself, if I don’t hurry up and post that idea people are just going to think that I ripped the whole thing from the New York Post.

I humor myself sometimes thinking that you guys take my posts serious enough to actually research where I get my ideas.

Nonetheless, for 25 years I’ve struggled to get this idea out; I’ve started a book that I never pushed through to completion. I’ve collected photographs that my friend, Jim Hartsell, was kind enough to send to me but that I never posted. I’ve started key note presentations on the off chance that the revelations in the book went through the stars and I was in high demand to speak to business leaders and at commencement ceremonies about the idea. Then the Post went and scooped me. Alas, today I start a journey. I don’t know how many parts will be in the series. Maybe three. Maybe three hundred. May be that the site finally finds its voice expressing the idea for which it was created. I really don’t know. I just know that I’m standing here about to jump…here goes….

An Untitled Work (Abridged)

I don’t remember her name. I remember that she was unlike any “teacher” that I ever had before. She had a haircut like mine and, regardless of the weather, she wore the same outfit to class every day; baggy sweat pants with an oversized t-shirt. To prove herself a professor, she wore socks with sandals. I guess, more accurately, they were ugly rubber sandals that were worn by most, sober, college freshmen in the community shower. She drank regular Coke from an aluminum can and, more than once each class, it seemed that she was looking for a place to spit after taking a sip.

She cursed. Freely and fluently and thoroughly and without apology. This was before the time of cell phones and email, when the unwritten rule was that class was canceled if the professor did not show after 15 minutes. Even though class began at 10:00AM, the unwritten rule canceled several Friday classes.

It was the Spring semester of 1990 at The University of Alabama. After four years of AP English in high school, I still didn’t score high enough on the English AP test – or any other AP test for that matter – to skip any college coursework. Alas, I sat in English 102, terrified that I would be called on to explain the works of Wilde, Whitman, and Cummings.

In high school, I raised my hand to answer every question. In college, I hid on about the fourth row – not the front of the class, but close enough to the front to give the illusion that I wasn’t afraid to be called upon. Not at the back of the class either, which is a sure way to be called upon. I sat just far enough back that I would be overlooked. [If you’ve ever wondered how or where it started, it was in this class, or perhaps English 101.]

I didn’t know what the writers were trying to say. To me their words were just what appeared on the page. The words meant what the words meant, and I had a hard enough time just trying to figure that out. I couldn’t begin to imagine what they were REALLY saying.

So we came to the a study of Robert Frost. To my knowledge there is one poetry book in our house, The Poetry of Robert Frost. Though his work is not hard to understand and appreciate, I learned to enjoy the works in English 102. His words needled together in black ink against white paper created visions of color and life that even I, who made a 2 on the AP English exam, could see.

Everyone knows The Road Not Taken (Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…). Fewer, perhaps, know another favorite, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.  The poem that has stayed with me for 25 years now, the one that won’t go away, is Mending Wall.

Mending Wall

Photo Credit: @JimHHartsell
Photo Credit: @JimHHartsell

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.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
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.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
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 neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
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.
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. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

– Robert Frost

Pretty spectacular, right?  I don’t want to say that Mending Wall haunts me. I sleep well most nights, but there is something about the poem that I think applies to me and you. Once we recognize it and understand it, we can begin changing the way that we relate to others. We can become a better son, daughter, husband, wife, parent, employee, leader. That’s why I’m writing this series.

That’s where I’m going to leave it today. Thank you for stopping by. Have a great weekend!