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.
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 People who continue a practice that, no matter how outdated, offers some comfort or, sadly, the opportunity to put a checkmark in the box for the day and go home.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.