Part I: Awareness
I remain awake at night worrying about my son
in this house. Just like many other fathers, I want to protect
my son. I want to barricade this house. There are malevolent people
lurking. This is my property, and now that I am a father I want
to protect my family from these people. In true obsessive-compulsive
disorder fashion, I make sure that all the doors, windows, and
locks are set in “castle mode” before I go to bed.
My wife Lisa is certain I am crazy. I simply remind her of the
evil that lurks, as evidenced by the detailed warnings delivered
by the people with very white teeth on the evening news.
Many people have walked the floors of this house.
The most impressive footsteps are those of Lucas, for he is my
son. When he wakes up in the morning, Lucas jumps out of bed and
runs to the edge of the stairs where he can barely see the light
in the kitchen. He calls my “name” out with an inquisitive
tone: “Dad?” I assure him that I am downstairs, and
this is important to him because there are monsters in the kitchen
if I am not there. When all is safe, and Lucas is assured, he
begins the slow walk to my arms, one step at a time. Amazing.
Lucas and I watch cartoons and make funny faces
at each other. He likes it when I flair my nostrils simply because
I have a big nose, and when I flair my nostrils they look like
big caves in which bears must be hibernating. Lisa is upstairs
sleeping and enjoying the quiet solitude of the morning, knowing
full well the fortress in which she sleeps is safe and secure.
There are no monsters in the kitchen, and the evil that lurks
is outside because I have locked all the doors and windows, and
raised the bridge over the moat that connects the house to the
I make Lucas toast, or waffles, or yogurt with
blueberries, and he helps me make a fruit smoothie with whey protein.
He covers his ears when I push the frappe button. He says he wants
to be like me when he grows up. I tell him, without really telling
him, that he is the representation of an Eastern mind, perhaps
Buddhism defined. He stands before me in a state of complete openness,
aware only of his present feelings, his heart is on his sleeve,
he laughs viscerally, yet he may cry at an instant, and he is
not worried about the future, or the dangerous people (only monsters),
nor the volatile nature of his feelings. He is awake.
I tell Lucas that I want to be just like him:
vulnerable to the moment at hand, and nothing else. We smile at
each other and proceed with the morning rituals. He does not understand
me, but I understand how much his presence, and innocence, mean
to me. There are bills to pay, projects at work, airplanes to
Oakland, employees to manage, suspicious people in the neighborhoods,
and planning for retirement. I worry too much. I want to be like
him. I want to protect him.
I am doing the best I can to live in the present,
to fully appreciate the now, but it does not come easily to me.
I am often reminded of my inability to remain focused on the present,
and I agree with these observations. My practice of Ashtanga Yoga
and knowledge of the Sanskrit name for the poses mean nothing
to anyone. I mention this as if to impress, to show I am attempting
to marry body and mind into one seamless process.
I often go to bed repeating the famous directive
by Ram Dass, namely, “Be Here Now.” Looming earthquakes,
evil people lurking, and the general state of the economy get
in the way, however. This is probably why I wake up early to exercise:
to burn off the excess stress that builds in my body, the pressure
of my attempt to control the world. When I fly in an airplane,
for example, I imagine that I am controlling the take-off and
landing by hanging on to my seat with wild abandon, white knuckles
and all. I want to live more in the moment, and worry less about
the turbulence in the world.
Part II: Revelation
We live in a tract home: a prefab home. Prefabricated
homes, just like friendships in California, aren’t made
from the most stable of materials. If the big earthquake hits,
which I worry about, I am sure the world’s economy will
collapse simply because many Californians will be homeless, and
since California’s economy is essentially the 4th largest
on the planet, I am sure stock markets will plummet in the aftermath
and many people will remain homeless. I don’t have any particular
plans in place if the “big one” happens. I suppose
I may understand Buddhism on an even deeper level then…the
part about the impermanence of all things.
When I first bought the house, the builder only
promised the home, the structure. In other words, the flooring
inside was incomplete (think slab of concrete), and there were
no curtains on the windows. Just walls. In the beginning, before
I had money to put curtains on the windows, I began to contemplate
the life of a cognitively aware fish living in a fish bowl in
someone’s living room. No privacy. I wondered what it would
be like to never have curtains, to live in a fish bowl, allowing
the outside world to always have a look into my life at night.
What would that be like? Horrible, I decided.
Outside, the builder was only required by law
to prepare (to flatten the ground) the front and back yards for
eventual landscaping, which I had to pay for. All you could see
surrounding the house was dirt. There were no fences separating
the neighbor’s yard from my yard. Can you imagine no flooring,
landscaping, window covers, not even a fence to protect my land
from the neighbor’s land on either side?
Fences. I thought quite a bit about fences in
college. I studied English at THE Ohio State University. As an
English major at OSU one must study the poem “The Mending
Wall” by Robert Frost at least 4258 times before graduation.
My experience was no different. “Good fences make good neighbors”
is arguably one of the most known lines from this poem, and certainly
of any American poem. There have been many dissertations and certainly
thousands of debates about the meaning of that line.
When I was in college, I rented an apartment with
several others and barely had enough money to buy a bagel at Bernie’s.
In comparison to my problems, the idea of building a fence seemed
insane, and expensive. I had some idea about the world, but not
enough to contemplate the need to build a fence. Whether important
or not to the cosmos, the famous line from the poem continues
to be contemplated in a variety of environments, though usually
not at an insurance company, or in my barren back yard where I
first met my neighbor, Tom.
When I met Tom, I began to contemplate the “The
Mending Wall” in a different context. I did not discuss
the poem with Tom; I thought it would be futile to philosophize
with him, though admittedly being an English major I thought it
my duty to remind Tom of Frost’s famous line. Tom has since
moved away, but when we first met he was quite intent upon immediately
calling a contractor to build an impressive fence separating his
land from mine. I wondered if Tom thought I would make a better
neighbor if we had a fence between us. Why was he building a fence?
Was it to separate us? Was it to make “his land” less
“my land”? I re-read the poem, thereby making my professors
proud of their influence on me, and discovered a new meaning in
When I met Tom I was 25 and he was 50. Now that
I am 40, I understand the issues that prevented us from being
true friends back then, and perhaps why he loved fences so much.
I was a new homeowner, bright eyed, not fearful of the future,
less hurt by other people, awake. I did not need a new season
to arrive to re-build the fences in my life. Tom did. As we know,
“seasons” is a metaphor for change. Tom needed the
change inherent to the change in seasons; he commanded control,
and he wanted to create something of his own since most everything
else was rotting in his life. He complained about people, and
was happy to have moved to a safe neighborhood where less evil
Tom was a suspicious guy, twice divorced, a government
employee, angry at his children, and hateful of neighbors who
did not grow big trees, take the garbage out on time, and mow
their lawns every Saturday. I tried to make Tom hate me less by
placating his “old” ways. I may have agreed with him
to avoid an argument. “He moves in darkness it seems to
me” says Frost.
Now, 15 years after meeting Tom, I understand
him a bit more these days. And so, here is what I think about
the meaning of Frost’s poem as it relates to Tom: I think
Tom believed very few people in life are worth knowing, and those
that you do allow into your life are best kept close. In order
to sustain such an insular viewpoint, building fences, either
real or imaginary, protects you and the ones you care about and
provides that elusive secure feeling we all seek. It’s an
awfully lonely life if you live it entirely this way. That is
probably why Tom was so unhappy. The lesson for me is to learn
to be more like Lucas, and less like Tom, and even less like me.