Like most of us the horrors of Baghdad and Nice and Turkey have left me feeling unsettled, unnerved. We settle between each incident back into something that feels within our control, something that feels familiar. And then the ground is yanked from under us again. It’s been an unsettling few weeks for other reasons too – two falls reminding me of my limitations, yet another cancer diagnosis in the family, and then one day I woke up to discover that my most recently moved in neighbour was erecting a 6 foot tall fence between us where before had been a low wall between our small gardens. We are now fully blocked off from each other. A small inconvenience in the scheme of things, especially against the back drop of the nightly horrors on the news, and yet I have been feeling unusually upset by it.
When we first saw this house nearly 10 years ago (I was shocked to realise when thinking back to that first sighting) what we loved more than anything was our funny little open back gardens. We have always lived in flats or shared houses with a friendly, neighbourly, community feel. When we found this terraced row with its back lane serving all the houses and the lovely but narrow little gardens, it felt like we had the perfect combination of privacy and community. I look forward all winter to the spring when we all appear in our gardens again and the sense of daily familiarity and quiet companionability, light but definitely there, re-appears. It’s part of the rhythm of the year – as Wordsworth wrote we are “Roll’d round in earth’s diurnal course; with rocks and stones and trees”. When I have been ill that garden has been my recovery place; a special, precious space for me. I could sit out there and watch the neighbours coming and going, gaze across at the others’ gardens and enjoy them, and generally feel safe as life went on around me.
I grew up in hotels – their own kind of community. Then I lived in shared flats and houses and then in a series of tenement flats. As a young woman I lived for a short time alone (the only time I have lived alone) in the colonies in Edinburgh – rows of workers cottages not unlike the place I know live, though smaller. My name had landed me a lower colony flat when a woman from Uist heard me as I sat in a rental agency trying to find a room as I was about to be homeless. She walked over and told me I could have her place for the rent I would have paid for a room anywhere else. I was struggling for money in those days, often with not quite enough to eat. The elderly couple next door would give me a plate of food on Sunday night in return for me tidying their garden and putting out the bins. The artists across the street would feed me on a Wednesday night in return for sitting for them. I didn’t like living alone but I loved that street.
I remember when our second son was born. My partner went into labour very quickly at home in the tiny little Leith tenement flat we had just bought. I realised that the ambulance wouldn’t get there so I ran out into the stair shouting for help and then ran back. Within seconds my upstairs neighbour was there, calling for help and guiding the ambulance crew up the stairs as I sat in shock having just delivered our baby. A couple of hours later, sitting around in the flat with other neighbours popping in and out, bringing food and curiosity, I heard our lovely old lady downstairs – notorious as the source of all local news – bawling down the street to a friend that the baby had been born and all was fine.
More recently here we paired up with our neighbours on the other side to remodel our two gardens together, digging out tonnes of rocks and soil by hand, us four adults and two kids, creating decks with raised gardens above, building fences (small enough to stand over chatting). We still chat over our fence, but when I turn in the other direction now I see only a wall. Of course as I contemplate my new reality as ever there is a silver lining. Now I know what I loved about this house, because it has gone. I had no walls.
For me at least, this world is tough and lonely enough as it is without walls between us. I have always loved coming back here to my friendly little community without walls. But till this point I had not really understood that fact, or that this was how I have almost always lived. As I contemplate my reaction to this new wall in my life I realise suddenly that it is just trying to tell me something. I know now what I want to find – a place full of people who want fewer and not more walls between them. A place where people agree upfront, commit happily, work hard, to keep the walls down, to make community. And it asks me to contemplate the other ways that I put up walls and commit myself to start tearing those down. We don’t need walls, we need each other. We are each others’ walls. I can’t hide from the bad stuff. I can’t build a wall to keep the bad stuff away. I can’t run away from the bad stuff. When it’s my time, it will find me no matter what I do. There are no walls that can keep it from me. I can only be ready for it. I can only prepare. I can only connect.