Sunday, February 25, 2007

Broken Fences

Submitted by David Bellefuille-Rice and published in Vol 1 No 3 of the Canaanite's Call.

My wife, two young children, and I live in a poorer neighborhood of a small, prosperous city. Our often pleasant neighborhood shelters and interesting mix. Many neighbors, apparently stable economically and socially, live so quietly (too quietly) that we rarely see them. Others, recent immigrants or students or young workers, seem on the way to such stability. Still others, for whatever reason, must struggle to keep from sliding “lower”, into jail, mental institutions, or sleeping in their cars.

Perhaps feelings run hotter in neighborhoods like ours. Maybe the socializing forces grow weak here, too weak to keep occasional junk cars out of front yards or to completely hide abuse, drunkenness, and blaring music that stayed hidden in the wealthier neighborhood where I grew up. I know people are as good here as they were on my childhood street, but knowing this doesn’t calm me much when trouble hits. When neighbors spill their trash into my front yard and their obscenities into my open window, I hate it. Any love I bear for them then is strictly deliberate, done with teeth clenched.

Specifics: Our landlords/partners bought our lot, long vacant and overgrown, two years ago. It was a flood of grace. Together, we had moved to the lot our brave old house, given away by its owners to make way for a parking lot. Our immediate neighbor, an old woman still shaky from her husband’s death years before, received us kindly as we labored for months to make our new home habitable.

Living with our neighbor were the costars of this tale – her grandson John, John’s wife Mary, and their two small children. John and Mary based their firewood cutting business in the yard and slept in a small trailer parked on our mutual property line. They later started sleeping in a different, unheated trailer on their land outside town, but our neighbor’s house and yard remained their workyard and daytime home.

Long before our coming, John and Mary had spread woodcutting equipment and old car parts across what would become our lot. Our arrival forced them to move it all, but they did so cheerfully enough. John later offered to haul lumber for me in his truck when he saw me trying to carry some on by bicycle.

John and Mary did continue their habits of yelling streams of obscenities at each other and their children, keeping barking dogs, and racing old truck motors and chainsaws at early hours. We cringed through days of this but worked to admire their industriousness. We sometimes prayed in fear even as we said hello over the hedge. My wife marveled at how one four-letter word beginning with an “F” could be used so often, expressing both anger and joy.

War began 18 months ago when one of John and Mary’s unconfined dogs, unprovoked, bit my six-year-old daughter. Another neighbor happened to see this and immediately called the pound, which took the dog. The dog catcher said the dog had bitten several other children and would be killed. Seeing this as necessary but still feeling awkward about it, we went later that day to Mary, saying we were sorry she had to lose her dog.

Mary shocked us. Bitterly, she blamed our daughter for getting bitten. We contradicted her. She complained that the neighbors should settle grievances personally instead of calling the cops. John and Mary began ignoring all but our most determined greetings when we happened to see them.

John and Mary saved that dog. They struck a deal with the pound and the court, agreeing to keep the dog confined on their property outside town. Reflecting, I decided Mary had a good point about neighbors settling grievances face to face and resolved to do that in the future. In this spirit, I challenged John one day when I found the dog back in town and running loose. We saw little of the dog for months after that. Our relations improved slightly.

Then relations nosedived. John and Mary had left some firewood trailers on our side of the mutual property line. John said that he’d move them when we need him to, and we gave him six months. During that six months, we learned from our neighbor, John’s grandmother, that our mutual boundary line was several feet closer to her house than we all had thought. John would have to move his trailers even farther into his already crowded work area. We fretted.

Well, after the six month deadline, John and Mary had moved nothing and demanded we survey the property line. John’s grandmother couldn’t cope. We began to work with her grown children, reasonable people, including John’s father. We got along fine with them, agreeing on the exact boundary location and getting their permission to move the trailers ourselves four feet to their side of the line. We picked them up and moved them.

John and Mary, discovering this, appeared at our door shouting and making veiled threats. I shouted back, my heart pounding. Afterwards, I called John’s aunt, who said she would calm them down. Weeks passed.

Yesterday, the latest chapter opened when I spotted that same biting dog roaming unattended near our unfenced yard. My wife had said she had seen the dog a few times before, but fleeing confrontation and fearing John, I had ignored her. Having seen the dog with my own eyes, though, I felt I had to act.

This past evening, knowing that John and Mary sat inside our neighbor’s house, I stood alone in my dark yard for half an hour, rehearsing over and over what to go and say to them. I coached myself to speak plainly but without arguments or threats. Fear and contempt burrowed into me. I prayed, just a bit, and tried to steel myself to go knock on that door.

Abruptly, I realized that John and Mary had left the house and were getting into their car to leave for the night. Another day’s wait would prolong this agony. I made myself approach. I said I needed them to live by their agreement and keep the dog away.

Instantly shouting, they said they were tired of my butting into their lives. If I spoke up again, John said he would beat me up. If John didn’t beat me up, Mary said she would. Remembering something I’d heard about nonviolence, I said they could go ahead and do that but I still needed them to live up to their agreement.

John stormed out of their car, stomped over to me, and spit words in my face. “I told you to get that property line surveyed, boy!” I made no move to fight, defend against a blow, or run. After a long moment, he returned to the car.

Then I drew my line in the sand. A mistake? I still don’t know. If I saw the dog again, I said I would call the pound. Mary said the pound supervisor doesn’t like me and would ignore me. They drove off. I went home shaking, but I also felt a strange euphoria, and I stayed that way well into this night.

Mary and John must have returned later for some reason. About midnight, I heard Mary yelling from a departing car, “You treat me like a piece of crap!” At first I thought she was yelling at me, but soon I realized she had more than one person to rage at in this world.

I have prayed, with some calm resulting but no answers. I have resolved to pray blessings for John and Mary regularly. In the morning, I will call our county’s dispute resolution center for advice. I hop to avoid getting a broken jaw.

Since the confrontation, I’ve felt intensely alive, which reminds me of what some have said about men’s feeling most alive while at war. I thought I had handled things very well until I began questioning my threat to call the pound. My hate for John and Mary had eased, as if what I had really hated was my own sense of helplessness. Fear had boiled over and drained away, mostly, leaving a small stock of courage.

I feel prepared to act again if needed. Will that readiness, freedom from hate, and courage remain, though, when this battle blows over and, without warning, a new threat looms? Probably not. Faced with conflict, I aspire to act without violence; I also aspire to win. Most of all, I want to be left alone.

People in Palestine, parts of some inner cities, abusive families, and too many other battle zones live with brutal histories stretching back generations. Our small experience, that has hit us so hard, pales before it. What violence those histories must do to their hearts! Closed minds and bitter revenge in such places seem tragically logical. Standing there for universal compassion and justice, without violence, must take huge courage and incomprehensible grace.

As for the future of my neighborly conflict, there is no telling.

David Bellefuille-Rice is a member of St. Michael's Parish and is now a trained mediator for the Dispute Resolution Center. This article was written about twenty years ago.

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