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added Jan. 18

How to build a Wall
by Jeanne Treadway

A landscape without walls in New Mexico. Photo by Ryan Davis on the
'Drive for America' with the Howard Dean campaign, courtesy
Ryan Davis and

IN NEW MEXICO we build walls around everything: our houses, our patios, our land, our cars, and our hearts. I live in the little house on an 80-acre rancho that was once entirely enclosed by sandstone, stacked perfectly flush, smooth, and level, without mortar in a curvaceous purple, maroon, and honey-colored wall, one foot thick and two feet tall. Only remnants of the wall remain and I come across sections of the wall in strange places. Last summer I found about forty continuous feet of the wall running up a small cliff, down an arroyo, and over a dry streambed. Across the highway a wall of used tires, interlaced with sticks of desiccated cholla, a very spiny cactus, surrounds 30 acres.

Coyote walls are ubiquitous in this glorious land, formed with tall thin branches of juniper (no more than three inches in diameter and at least six feet tall) tightly knit upright with baling wire. These crazy-looking walls are fabricated to keep that wild and wily canine away from sheep, gardens, and pets. Around here walls are constructed with whimsy and creativity. There are walls made of bottles, catching and tossing sunlight, embedded in concrete; iron bedstead parts woven with ancient, weathered lumber; sculptured tree stumps lined up like Rockettes; Great Pumpkin-sized boulders balanced in cairns; cinder blocks painted with purple and yellow polka dots; rows of car doors and trunk lids tenderly painted with images of the Virgen de Guadalupe; thickets of rosa de Castilla with exquisite blossoms and devilish thorns; and dense cedar bushes pruned to look like Loraxes. These are all walls I've described, not fences. They are impenetrable and customarily have doors, not gates. And often, there will be a fence, usually barbed wire, within inches of these individualistic walls.

Many of our New Mexican walls are short; almost any human and all animals can easily scale them. Many require enormous amounts of patient planning and years of hard labor for their construction: Imagine building a sinuous, one foot by two foot sandstone wall around 80 acres, by hand with rudimentary tools and nothing to hold each stone in place except gravity and its neighbor. Most of these eccentric walls have tales explaining their existence. The ring of tires I see some distance outside my window was erected by one man, Juan Baca, who got tired of losing his favorite goats to their innate wanderlust. He worked on the wall well into his eighties, a decade after he sold his last milking goat. His cheese business failed but not his determination to finish that barrier to goat curiosity.

Internal walls can be as intricate and creative as any of these visible walls wending through my world. We may want to keep some metaphorical goat in or coyote out. We may have too many old and broken bottles building up in a pile in a corner of our heart. Our lives may be filled with a briar patch of damaged dreams that all magically knot themselves into an impenetrable morass one night while we're lost in deep sorrow. We choose where to put the doors, what colors to highlight, who will be given keys, who will be locked out. Sometimes our history provokes us into believing that if we build our walls stout enough, then none of the hell of living will ever again enter and unbalance our fragile equilibrium. Sometimes though, like Senor Baca, we continue building long after the need has disappeared. Sometimes those walls we've created become a prison instead of a fortress.

I'm curious about walls, both the amorphous and the tactile, because I am confused by them. Why do we humans build walls? Are we born with psychic walls or are we taught to fashion them? Why do we expend so much energy building them? Are they protective or they are harmful? Do we need them for survival? How do they help us survive?

For many years I believed that emotional barriers within humans caused most of the problems dividing humanity. It seemed to me that if we could just tear down our walls, those resistance-making things within us that cause us to emotionally seal some people out of our hearts, if we tore those things down, then we would be more open to all human beings, more compassionate, more understanding of our similarities instead of our differences. Of course, nothing is that simple. Try as I might to tear them down -- and I've been most diligent -- at times, I can still actually feel a wall raise up between me and another human being. Sometimes it's fear that mortars up that wall, sometimes a superficial judgment, sometimes an instinctive response that I spend hours deciphering.

Because I believed so strongly that internal walls were harmful, I spent short lifetimes with the War of the Roses reenacted repeatedly in my heart, allowing anyone access, never understanding what caused the wars, never healing from the wounds. I careened with my friends and lovers through our worlds bloodied and brutalized. Clawing and clamoring to be loved, we slashed the most tender parts of each soul we touched, our own included. Truces were negotiated and betrayed. Dirty fighting, no-holds-barred, was the norm and I had no well-built walls to cower behind when I started losing myself in the battles.

I eventually decided that there had to be a better way to live and that I needed to learn to construct protective barricades around my patchwork heart. It went against my grain and was hard work, but up those invisible walls grew. I created specific boundaries, strict rules of acceptable behavior, carefully outlined perimeters. I had less pain, certainly, and far fewer hours of raging torment. I also had less joy, less laughter, less marvelously varied human interaction. There were too many shadows cast by those barricades, hiding the subtle and mysterious, and they filtered out too many delicious colors. The new walls were not quite what I hoped for. Like the gated communities springing up everywhere they kept too much of the world at bay; they became the blank walls of a prison. I imagined I was safe but I knew without question that I was really just isolated and lonely.

I began experimenting. Instead of hard and fast, rule-oriented, impregnable walls, I imagined myself filled with exquisite walls of shimmering blue light, surrounding me with serenity. Those were lovely walls and functioned well, to an extent. They were still walls, however, and I was constantly breaching them to find companions. Then I decided to cut doors into those flickering blue barriers. I had to keep adding doors, though, because each circumstance, each new friend, each new love needed an individual door it seemed. The flames couldn't adapt to all those doors, so out went the rules and the blue flames. They weren't serving my heart well. Other walls were tried–some were very tall, some quite thick, others had many windows. They all kept me remote from the adventures offered to me by the life right outside; the siren songs of living wafted over their heights but my lonely voice was never quite able to join in the hosannas I heard in the distance.

After all this time and energy, I've never figured out if we are born with walls or if we are taught them. It doesn't seem to matter anymore. I studied the tire-wall across the road for a couple of years and I decided that Senor Baca had the right idea. He built his wall short, so he and his chivas can easily see the world outside. Others can peer into his world as readily. He put one door in his tire-wall and he marked it with poles and reflecting markers. Everyone can see where it is and how to get into his domain. He hid nothing, including himself, but he clarified what was important to him. He made his wall strong but his friends could easily step over that wall into his world.

That's the type of interior barrier I'm working to create. I want new people to feel as if I'm accessible, but I need them to understand that I have specific values and that I protect them. I warn the predators that they are entering defended territory. I watch the world and am a part of it, but I have a ring of security, too. Compassion and love are always welcome at my door and they don't have to work hard to find it either. I think I'll paint my wall with stripes of turquoise and purple as a further invitation to the wonderfully weird and eccentric passing by.

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