My 7-year-old self walks along the edge of the couch, trying to balance, arms outstretched the tiniest bit, looking down at my feet as I teeter across with one foot in front of the other.
Out of the corner of my eye I see my Zaidie — who is visiting from New Haven with my Bubby — coming down the stairs to the family room. I quickly scramble onto the couch cushions, anticipating a scolding for climbing on the furniture.
No such scolding arrives.
My Zaidie looks at me and he says, “No, you’re not doing it right.”
He takes my hand as I climb back onto the edge of the couch, and tells me that instead of looking at my feet, I need to look straight ahead and focus on a single point in front of me. Don’t look down, he tells me. With your arms slightly out, one foot slowly in front of the other, look straight ahead at that single spot.
I try it his way, and it works. No more teetering back and forth. No more losing my balance. For the most part, anyway. It will take some time to learn, but with practice I’ll get it right. Straight ahead, he tells me. Look not at my feet but straight ahead.
I was thinking about this small, frozen moment in time during the early hours of February 17, as we made our way to my Zaidie’s funeral in New Haven that Friday morning. My Zaidie, Herb Croog, z’l, passed away the night before, just a few weeks after his 102nd birthday. One hundred and two, and in mostly good health until the last couple of years. We should all be so lucky to live a full, meaningful life with children and grandchildren and great grandchildren continuing the family legacy.
I highly doubt my Zaidie meant for that balancing act to serve as a metaphor, a deep, wisdom-filled life lesson, but from time to time I chose to read it that way. Times when I was downtrodden. Times when it was hard to look up, hard to balance, hard to move forward. I would imagine his words:
No no, not that way. Straight ahead. Focus straight ahead.
Before my Zaidie died, I was planning to write a column about walls, which I have been thinking about often as of late. The walls between us, the walls that divide us, whether they be political or religious in nature, or something else altogether. Certainly political, in these times, applies the most. I’ve been thinking about walls and of the divisiveness not just in this country as a whole but in our Jewish community and micro-communities, as well.
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” writes Robert Frost in one of his most well-known poems, “Mending Wall.”
Literary critics note that Frost’s poem is metaphoric yet ambiguous, as it includes one of the greatest paradoxes of his times — and as it turns out, our time as well — particularly as it pertains to national walls. On the one hand is the belief, as with an old-fashioned farmer, that such walls should be made stronger, for our own protection. An alternate interpretation, as voiced by the new-fashioned speaker of the poem, insinuates that the walls should be taken down, since they hinder progress toward understanding and its resulting brotherhood.
On the one side is the voice of restraint, insisting that we must uphold conventions and build them up continually, as a matter of principle:
“Good fences make good neighbours,” says the old-fashioned farmer. Good fences make good neighbors.
And on the other side is the speaker, the more progressive of the two, challenging tradition in the spirit of revolt: “Why do they make good neighbours?” he wonders.
“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.”
Yes, in these past months, I have been thinking a lot about walls, about that “something” that doesn’t love them, that wants them down. Do walls only divide us? Physical walls, metaphoric walls. Can those right-wing conservatives and leftist liberals (whatever those blanket labels really mean) truly come to any sort of understanding or agreement when all they seem to be doing, amongst all the shouting — coincidentally, quite a lot on Facebook walls — is banging their heads against these walls? Are we that divided as a nation that as we shout our beliefs at each other, we don’t even see or hear the other side?
It seems the more we kick and shout, the higher ascends the wall. How does this do us any good?
And then I think back to my Zaidie, who, at the wise young age of 72, told me to keep my balance as I walked the line, to reach out my arms ever so slightly, to place one foot in front of the other, to look straight ahead at a single point.
Here, again, I extend the metaphor, as it pertains to me and as it pertains to all of us today.
There is a wall that divides us. We can’t dispute that fact any more than the wall between neighbors in Frost’s poem. The wall exists, and yet I wonder if it is possible to find a way — even if only as a start — to learn how to mend it.
Maybe the point isn’t to stand on one side of the wall, banging at it with our fists only to find ourselves with bloody knuckles. Maybe the point, instead, is to balance on top of the wall, to walk forward in between, to hear each side—not just one or the other, the old-fashioned neighbor or the more progressive speaker. Maybe we can learn to hear one another if we would only stand on higher ground.
And, by extension, let us not look down at our own feet, at our own preconceptions and inherited beliefs, lest we teeter and fall onto this side or that. No, let us create a dialogue — one that some may argue already exists, but in reality, no, it does not exist.
How wonderful it would be if we could each walk with hands outstretched, hearing the voices on both sides, and even if not agreeing, at least coming to an understanding. How wonderful it would be if we could each, instead of looking at our own feet as we walk upon that wall, balance ourselves correctly, the right way, by looking straight ahead.
It wasn’t supposed to be a metaphor. Surely it was not. But what lies ahead, that single point that we can all agree upon as we travel the road to our futures, is our children. And their children. And still, theirs.
My Zaidie, may he rest in peace, left a legacy, a map of his past and the trail from which he came. And he left it with his eyes focusing straight ahead, for his children, and for his grandchildren, and for his great grandchildren, and for whomever continued the family lineage thereafter.
What my Zaidie taught me, even if unintentionally and yet still with the same result, was that it doesn’t matter upon which side of the couch you fall. The point is not to fall. The point is to balance, to walk forward, and to focus on a single purpose straight ahead.
I know I’m being metaphoric. You can call me naïve if you must. But wouldn’t it be nice, the wall existing as it is, to at least agree on something?
Maybe then, one day in the future, our goals ultimately the same, it won’t be about whether or not we can mend the wall. It will be about whether that wall can mend us.