Boundaries

I was part of a storytelling event last weekend and had to write something with the theme, “Boundaries.” It was fun, in part because I think it’s the first time in a decade or more that I’ve written someone based on someone else’s directions. Now that it’s done, I’m not sure what to do with it, so here you are.

When I finished the first draft of this, I told my wife I was worried that I was coming off as both arrogant and whiny.  I read it to her, and she said, “Yeah.”   

Just a heads-up. 

Some of you probably remember how when people first started going into space, one of the common reactions from astronauts was, in space you see the world as a single entity, no borders of any kind. 

That’s kind of sweet, but the truth is, even without barbed wire or concrete, barriers and boundaries exist everywhere.  And, a further truth, like sheep in a pen staying within boundaries is comfortable and safe.  Many of us are trained from birth to recognize and respect them. 

Some of us leap a fence every now and then.  Years ago, my wife and I were visiting an old farmer and catching him up on local news.  I told him, “By the way, Martha’s boy had a breakdown, but now he’s taking the cure and he’s doing really well.” 

An hour or so later we ran into a friend, and I told him, “Oh, just so you know, Bob’s family did an intervention and he’s in rehab now.” 

When we got back in the car my wife looked at me and said, “Oh my Gosh, you’re bilingual.” 

French or Chinese would have been more useful, but I guess I’m glad I’m fluent in Old Farmer. 

It’s not all my fault – my father spent most of his life as a hog farmer on the prairie, one who read Hemingway and Kipling to me instead of Dr. Seuss.  My mother, when I was little, was a stay-at-home mom who raised chickens to provide bread and roses, but who when she was a teenager attended a Farmer’s Union Encampment for Citizenship where Eleanor Roosevelt cooked hot dogs for her, and she met a black man from Mississippi who dreamed of being an orchestra conductor. He explained to her that in his world that was impossible, he was going to play in a jazz band instead.  She never forgot that, and I think the memory served her well when it came time for her to cross her far less inflexible boundary. As soon as I was safely in the school system she went back to college, at a time and place where that was not common.   The chickens ended up in stews and she became a much-loved Special Ed teacher.  It’s a lesson – you don’t need to get stuck behind your boundary, even when you come from a very small place in a very quiet time.  Robert Bly would be the same age as my parents and grew up only about twenty miles away. He enjoyed his title as world-famous poet, but his first title was the worst farmer in Lac Qui Parle County. I think most of the people in here can appreciate him stepping over his boundary.  

It took me a while to recognize the boundaries around me.  I was the kid who read the whole English literature book the first week of school, who loved science fiction and mythology.  In a Hollywood movie or a young adult novel I'd have been bullied, but I also rode a motorcycle and was the nose guard on the football team. 

As a writer with a million published words who in his heart of hearts is always going to be a pig farmer on the prairie, I finally started seeing the boundaries around me.  After a reading at the Hungry Mind in St. Paul I was at a reception a block off Summit Avenue.  The people were eager to meet me, and thought it was cute that I was a writer with a country estate.  They hoped my writing would prosper so I could afford to move to the city.  When they found out I was an actual farmer who wrote to make enough money, so I didn’t have to move to the city, the atmosphere changed.   

“Oh my gosh,” one person said, “Do you actually go out there and gather the crops and things?” 

Another woman asked my wife, “Are you just completely isolated, or are there places where you can buy food and see people?” 

I’m sorry, but even Ma Ingalls had a social life other than Pa. 

Here’s the thing.  If someone who lives on West 57th or a block off the Champs Elysees wants to be patronizing toward me, I’ll take it.  But someone from a town whose name used to be Pig’s Eye Landing?  Not so much. 

If I’m just a sheep I’m sure having a problem finding the right pen. 

I’ve been a keynote speaker at the College Theological Society Convocation in Portland AND the Saskatchewan Pork Producers Convention in Saskatoon. I was equally uncomfortable at both. 

I remember once I was speaking in a college philosophy class.  The professor, a perfectly pleasant woman, mentioned that she was a pacifist. 

I said, “I’m not sure that’s an ethically defensible choice.” 

I don’t know why I said that.  Really. She’d invited me over the fence into her pen and here I was, trampling down the hay. It made me think of a religious debate with a bishop that led to a pastor putting his hand on my shoulder and saying, “When Daniel went into the lion’s den, it was enough for him to just be there, he didn’t pull their tails, too.” 

But her position is something I think about.  I have an issue with delegating hard choices, and I have ever since I read the George Orwell quote, “People sleep soundly in their beds only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”  I hate to think that’s a true statement, but in my life, I haven’t seen evidence that it isn’t.  The hard stuff shouldn’t be limited to the people who grow up in the less privileged pen.  

I don’t even think you should be allowed to eat meat unless at some point in your life you’ve butchered a chicken. 

That’s a thing with boundaries – you can look across the fence and think what happens there isn’t your problem.  Only about 7% of Americans have ever served in the military.  Add in all the Peace Corps and Americorp folks and it barely moves the needle.  Include all volunteers of all sorts, even the ones where you can stay firmly in your own pen, and you hit 25%. Say what you will about universal service or the draft, there is something profoundly useful about a kid from Manhattan New York sharing a room with a kid from Manhattan, Kansas, both doing something in a cause larger than themselves.  We don’t need to hop the fence, break down all boundaries. But every now and then we can peek across. 

I hate telling people what to do so at one point in my life I called myself a libertarian.  But at some point, the definition seemed to morph into someone who doesn’t feel the need to help anyone else, someone who can look at what happens in the next pen with indifference.  

That doesn’t make sense to me.  I guess now I’d call myself a bleeding-heart liberal who can balance a budget. 

We’re a rare breed. 

Back to my professor.  She gave me a look and I said, “Suppose you’re at home and a burglar breaks in.  If you call the police, aren’t you just delegating the danger to them?” 

She said, “I wouldn’t call the police, for fear of the violence that might occur.  I’d just stay in a locked room until the robbers left.” 

“But what if due to your inaction they went next door and killed your neighbors?” 

She replied, “I’d like to think that wouldn’t happen.” 

I can’t remember what I said after that, but I know I was never invited back. 

I guess there are some boundaries that just aren’t going to be crossed. 

I’ve used up my time.  This wasn’t so much a story as a rant.  But whether you call them barriers, boundaries, fences or silos, we’re surrounded by artificial constructs that hem us in.  I realize that fences keep the sheep safe and the wolves away.  But here’s my final thought. 

We aren’t meant to be sheep.