In the early mornings, I take my dogs for their walk on the Baxter Preserve in North Salem, New York. We dog owners are permitted to let our dogs run off leash before 9 a.m., before the horses and their riders take precedence over the dogs. My dogs love romping and running with their friends; they benefit from socialization and exercise, and I start my day with an invigorating walk. These are pensive moments, and even though I often run into fellow walkers, it is a time of reflection and solitude. I am grateful for this, for the time to slow down and contemplate.
The Preserve, also known as the ‘Racetrack’ because horses used to race there decades ago, is a large expanse of donated land with open fields and endless trails. It is beautiful in the morning when you can witness, at the same time, the sun rising from the east and the moon setting to the west. You can walk for miles and miles along the trails, passing by black cherry, cottonwood, maple, apple, walnut and oak trees. A great pond is in the center of the old racetrack, and nearby is the grandstand where people used to watch the races. There are ancient rock walls everywhere, still standing, constructed by former landowners hundreds of years ago, sectioning off squares and rectangles of property.
I think of Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall” as I pass by and over these ancient rock structures, and I find myself reciting, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” I imagine the farmers rebuilding their walls each spring, reforming the boundaries between each other, a wall high enough and solid enough to define what each considers his, but not so high that it completely blocks out the other. It is a wall that protects the neighbors but also leaves them open. It is a wall that continually needs maintenance because the earth shifts, weather beats down, an animal skitters across, knocking down a boulder or two. There is something to be learned about constructing such a wall.
Lately, I have been considering the idea of walls and boundaries. I was talking with a friend once, and she asked, “and how is that working for you?” I couldn’t answer. For me, the question was perplexing because most often I don’t know. It is difficult to judge when something is working for me or not, on any level. I haven’t known when to say yes and when to say no, and I tend to be more worried about how my actions and choices will affect another. Now, when I reflect on relationships I have had with friends, bosses, co-workers, boyfriends, and family members, I can see how my inability to understand personal boundaries has negatively impacted these relationships to the point of permanent damage. I do believe that most of us struggle with boundaries to some extent. We want to be pleasing; we want to be loved.
For almost a decade of my life – most of my twenties – I was involved in a destructive, religious cult where I was not permitted to have any sense of self. Destructive cults negate a person’s individuality; members’ personal boundaries are seriously and deliberately stripped away. Members are programmed to ignore their own wants and needs but instead are told what to do, how to do it and when to do it. There was no point in asking if something ‘worked for us’ or not. We – ‘I’ – didn’t matter, and it was considered selfish – even sinful – to consider our own wants or needs. It takes tremendous work to recognize and repair the trauma brought on by cult involvement; there are layers of damage. I, personally, have suffered serious consequences because of not understanding the simple concept of personal boundaries. I’ve believed people when I should not have, even when it’s been proven that they are not to be believed, and I’ve been extremely sacrificial about my own needs while putting others’ needs first. This has left me depleted in every possible way. I have assumed that those for whom I have sacrificed would do the same for me, and I have been wrong. This is a dangerous assumption. People will accept what we offer, but nobody really loves the sacrificial lamb.
As I have slowed and my life has become less frantic, I am learning to pay attention to what works for me and what doesn’t. In this way, I am becoming more creative, energetic, healthy and happy. I am learning to say, “I don’t care if he/she likes it or not. This is what works for me.” I am reading and working through Sarri Gilman’s book, “Transform Your Boundaries.” Sarri tells us that boundaries are about yeses and noes, and that “no is life saving.” I believe this to be true. I said a resounding “no” a long time ago when the cult leaders insisted I send my oldest daughter away to school. I was not going to send my daughter away; I had seen too many bad things happen to the children in the schools. I said “no” to protect my daughter and my children, and thankfully, that “no” ultimately helped me to leave the cult. Now, my work is to find the “no” that works for me, that protects me in my daily life.
In “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost playfully questions his neighbor about the need for walls, and his neighbor answers, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Despite his questioning though, it is Frost who calls on his neighbor when it is time to rebuild their walls, to make sure the rocks are in place, to “set the wall between us.” I like the idea of a mending wall, and I am building my own boundaries, slowly and carefully. My wall formations may be a little awkward and crooked, but I have drawn a line, and I am strong enough to pick up the fallen boulders and place them back where they belong when they do fall.