The Wall2Wall Project
UP AND OVER ON STEVENSON’S SWING
Since early childhood, I’ve been preoccupied with walls.
Imprinted in my earliest memory is an illustration of a boy on a swing peering over a wall. The picture sits alongside a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson aptly named “The Swing.” My mother, seated beside me on our nubby green couch, is reading aloud from A Children’s Garden of Verses. A trumpet player in a prior life, my mother tongues the words of the second stanza with soft precision.
Up in the air and over the wall,
Till I can see so wide,
Rivers and trees and cattle and all
Over the Countryside—
When I was four, we had a metal swing set that sat alongside a six-foot high fence. Hard as I tried, I could never pump high enough in the air to see over to the other side. This drove me nuts as I really did want to see Stevenson’s promised cattle.
Though I eventually gave up on the cattle—and the swing set—my early wonderment about the people and places hidden by walls and fences stayed with me, through adolescence and into adulthood.
As a journalist, essayist, and now fiction writer, I can’t look at a fence or wall without pausing to wonder what or who it is protecting or hiding or representing.
By design, walls and fences and borders limit what we see of the world and of one another.
Good fences make good neighbors—isn’t that how the saying goes?
But as I write this, I can’t help but wonder at the good, the bad, and the in-between of walls—over time, place, and history.
Walls are everywhere—on land and sea. For all I know, they may even be in outer space. Some walls are natural; others man-made.
And then there are walls that can’t be seen, but only felt along the quiet boundaries that exist inside our hearts and heads.
Given the pervasive nature of walls, one could argue, and many do, that walls are necessary to human order and even survival.
China’s Great Wall protected its empire from foreign invaders for centuries. The seawall that protected New Orleans earlier this month held back a surge from Hurricane Ida that could have drowned the city—again.
But seawalls, like terrestrial walls, are not without their unintended consequences, so all the more reason to know—and understand—that from which we are being separated.
As Robert Frost noted in his poem the Mending Wall:
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 offense.
What I like about this poem is the way it invites inquiry—and consideration but leaves judgement alone. It’s the same approach I plan to take with the Wall2Wall Project—an eyehole in a wall made so you and I can peer through and see through—that’s the point here.
WALLS AS STORIES
It wasn’t until I started researching my novel What Birds Know, set in the former East Germany, that I came to fully appreciate the degree to which a wall’s form can shape not only the landscape but also our understanding of one another.
I remember sitting in a lovely garden on the outskirts of Jena, a German city once part of the Soviet-controlled Eastern bloc. This was 2011 when I was struggling through the first draft of my manuscript. I was seated between one German from the West and one German from the former East. Though the two men had been friends for years, it was clear, when they began to talk about their respective lives prior to German reunification, how little they really knew about one another.
On each side of a wall is a story waiting to be heard. That’s what I took away from my afternoon in Jena.
Seeing both sides of a wall isn’t always easy or possible as I discovered in places like Bethlehem, and the Korean DMZ, and also the former West Berlin. Though disappointed by the limited view, once in a while I’d get lucky and find an actual hole in the wall as was the case in Steinstücken (the subject of my next blog) in 1987.
And so I persist because the alternative—not knowing﹘—just doesn’t sit right with me. If there aren’t cows and rivers and trees next door, then I want to know what is so I’m not imagining the wrong thing.
You get my point.
UP AND OVER, UNDER AND BACKWARD
In the spirit of Stevenson’s swing, I plan to spend the next year seeing over and beyond the wall—searching out walls well-known or little-known, man-made or hewn from nature—to better understand the myriad ways these structures give shape to our lives and our thinking.
Look for periodic blog posts here along with regular updates on Instagram. I’ve got a long list of walls to tackle; some I’ve seen before, others that will be new to me. In the process, I’m sure to meet people worth knowing—on both sides and all around. With any luck, we can meet these people together.
In the interim, I want to hear from you. Tell me, what was the last time you looked at a wall, not knowing what or who lay on the other side? What visions did you conjure? Did you ever wonder how much of what you imagined was true—or fair?
There’s room on the swing.
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