Summer, barefoot. Just after dawn I listen to the whiz-snap of the screen door closing behind me to take in the fresh new day, the first day in our new yard. Full and thick viburnum and arborvitae bushes crowd the boundaries of the suburban lot and a pear tree with tiny fruit stands in the middle, gold in the brightening sun. In my five-year-old mind the very idea that real pears can be picked in your very own yard is thrilling. In the faint breeze I smell the chlorine in the neighbor’s built-in pool and hear the hum of the filter.
“We are a little land. And little lands on the borders of a great empire were always hateful to the lords of the great empire. He longs to blot them out, gobble them up.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Horse and His Boy
It seems to me now that I stood there all morning taking in the activities of the adults moving in furniture while talking in that nervous way with the new neighbors, hoping to make good impressions while slightly annoyed at their curiosity. When we lived in the cottage by the river, I used to call to a blind girl who lived down the street asking her to come play, but because of her disability, it was too dangerous for her to cross the road.
As the crickets sing and the birds nap in the other big tree of the yard, curiosity seeking children like their parents begin to congregate in the shade. My sister and I gawk at the kids wearing delighted smiles at the prospect of new blood in the neighborhood.
A girl about my age suddenly enters my awareness. I hadn’t noticed her arrival. As if too downtrodden to stand, the girl sits, eyes downcast into her folded hands, in the lap of a curly-haired and beaded teenaged girl in bell-bottomed jeans. She wears feathered earrings that brush against the sad girl’s frowsy brown hair.
Boys pedal over on their plastic Big Wheels vying for attention while a group of girls whisper amongst themselves, glancing occasionally the sad girl’s way. Finally, the girls come beside me.
“You can’t be friends with her,” one says. “She’s corroded.”
I have no idea what that means, but I don’t like their tone and what it suggests though at the time I don’t know if I understood anything about warfare and propaganda.
I walk up to the forbidden girl and stand there staring down at her, looking for defects. I glance back once at the others. The hippie teenager speaks first. “This is Monique. Can she be your friend?”
I take Monique’s hand and pull her to her feet. Our friendship is instant and lasting.
I found out soon after, that Monique was the victim of being from the wrong family. The edict against her came not from the other kids but from their parents’ sick form of justice and sense of territorial rights. Many of the neighbors were related, but Monique’s family was not. Our family had gained instant access because my father was a police officer and the patriarch of the main family on the block owned a bar that sometimes caused him trouble. My father was good at de-escalating fights and also amused the old man. Monique’s brother had played at wrestling with one of the many cousins and by mistake cut off the boy’s air for a few seconds until the boy had passed out.
It was as if Monique’s brother John was a murderer and the entire family responsible for his depravity. From then on Monique wasn’t allowed in people’s pools or yards even. My mother found this so disgusting that she forced my father to buy us a cheap above-ground pool so that Monique could swim with the rest of us, despite the fact that my parents were afraid of water.
“The history of interactions among disparate peoples is what shaped the modern world through conquest, epidemics and genocide. Those collisions created reverberations that have still not died down after many centuries, and that are actively continuing in some of the world’s most troubled areas.”
― Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies
Monique and I were both creative and spent hours and days painting, drawing, building, and exploring the world together. We were inseparable. Yet in so much of our play there was friction and the idea of conquest. We built forts down by a polluted stream. Usually, she and I were on the same side, but occasionally we were on opposing teams. We’d fight like mad for supremacy — which meant owning both sides of the water. When swimming the kids played shark, chasing each other around in the water. Once Monique got so into the game mentally that she jumped from the pool in terror and fell from the deck in a heap on the mud.
On a recliner in the living room, we’d play fight for hours, trying to throw the other person off until a parent yelled for us to shut up and stop rough housing. Once Monique got so mad at my bullying that we had an actual blood-letting fight. The other kids, who by now had broken ranks with their parents and played with Monique, cheered us on — mostly cheering for Monique because I was truly being a bully that day. We fought with kids from other streets. We ran away from the teenagers who smoked down by the stream sitting astride a big drainage pipe. They were fearsome enemies. We never dared go near their part of the stream when they were around and would scatter if we saw them coming.
The neighbors used to walk across our front lawn to visit with their cousins. This really got on my mother’s nerves because she was trying to grow grass on the sandy soil. They were no respecter of boundaries, and my mother wasn’t any good at setting boundaries. My father kept weird hours and often worked the night shift. He’d come home, eat breakfast and play records at deafening volumes. My mother, drinking her coffee and smoking her cigarettes, hated the noise but enjoyed it just a bit as payback for the neighbors infringing on her peace.
Despite all of this, our neighborhood was relatively peaceful. I wonder what makes conflict go hot. I wonder why even as children we fight so hard over territory. When we played Barbie dolls my grandmother thoughtlessly gave us my aunt’s Barbie collection and all of the handmade and insanely intricate furniture my grandfather had made for her. The lights on the end tables worked, the furniture was upholstered and there was so much of it all.
You would think this might have made us careful, but it did the opposite. We came up with rules for engagement. We’d pile the entire treasure before us and count to three. At three we would lunge in like hordes of barbarians, grabbing what we could, wrestling chairs and lampshades free from the grimy hands of our foes until within about six months everything was broken or lost.
Greater in battle
than the man who would conquer
a thousand-thousand men,
is he who would conquer
just one —
My parents both had hearts for the underdog and a strong belief in redemption. They set pretty good examples, but they could not eradicate warfare in us or anyone else for that matter. We sat around at my uncle’s Irish wake watching adults fight over property. Students are taught that Native Americans were robbed of their land. But taking a deeper look we discover that they robbed from their neighbors, too. Conquest, though horrifying, is part of our makeup. Maybe it’s because in our personal lives we are so off balance, so fallen and so blind to where our meanness takes us.
I used to fear the Bible and religion because I thought God was wrathful for no good reason. Now I stand in awe that he could love us at all. I can’t control the world of conflict we live in, but with blinders off I can sometimes remember to extend a hand to the friendless or forgive another person’s lack of boundaries knowing that I am no better than the least of these.
“The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize at the center of the universe dwells the Great Spirit, and that its center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.”
― Black Elk