One of my most vivid childhood memories involves an animal, a coward, a hollow man, and a young girl in a blue checkered dress with a voice that made angels cry. And red, red, red ruby slippers.
In my memory, there is a woman dressed in black who is killed when the house falls on her. She was evil — pure evil — with a pointed black hat and a shrill scratchy voice. At other times she rode a bicycle — an old falling-apart bicycle with a picnic basket strapped onto the back. Inside the picnic basket was — well you know what she had inside her basket. “Innocence” is what she carried inside that basket, and it was clear what her intentions were.
They were the same intentions that another dressed-in-black woman from a different story had for her captives — in this case, black and white puppies sequestered in a basement.
Childhood fairy tales were so dark. I don’t know why. And they were always full of symbols and symbolism too — just like real life.
Hmmm, maybe I do have an idea why.
“Fear” is one thing both those stories had in common. So often, the childhood stories I remember dealt with captured innocence controlled by the powerful and always overflowing with intent to harm.
Symbolism abounded. Obscurity and shadows were juxtaposed against clarity and illumination. Sparkling, sequined gowns and magic wands (powered by love and goodness) were in stark contrast to dark actors and threatening elements from nature — evil witches and tormenting tornadoes erupting from black, chaotic skies. Light versus darkness, morning versus night, tragic endings and new beginnings were reoccurring themes — always, good versus evil.
I have said so many times that most of the important things I know I have learned from my children or books from my children.
I wonder what people in a hundred or two hundred years from now will think about this time that we are living today. One thought that has crossed my mind is that they may talk about a time of conflict and reckoning — a time they might label as one of walls and fences versus one of bridges — walls and fences, bridges.
In real life, physical walls and fences control. They stop those in flight, those fleeing darkness, those seeking shelter from harm, those fleeing in panic, those trying to escape something.
Some kinds of walls remind me of giant schools of tuna thrashing the water while being gaffed by dark figures towering over the net that encircles them, a net that grows tighter and smaller and eventually closes off all routes of escape.
At other times, walls remind me of debilitating darkness, of hardened steel rail tracks and box cars packed with people — people who have been forced from their homes and shipped like cattle to places with names like Buchenwald, Dachau, and Auschwitz.
Walls take on so many forms. Power and control are just two. We know about walls. We have always known about them. The artists try to warn us. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” the poet warned. The “destroyer of worlds” said the prophet and the physicist.
Nothing good comes from walls — walls the symbols, the allegorical, or the physical walls. They are usually a bad idea and in the long run almost never work.
The physical walls designed to keep people out never do, no matter how long they are, how tall they are, how fortified they are — or how much they cost. They never did — not in 20th century Berlin, not in second century China, and not in pre-World War II France when the German blitzkrieg cut through the French Maginot Line like a hot knife through soft butter. The French reliance on and tragic sense of security from their wall cost the country dearly; it cost them their liberty.
Ask Mr. Gorbachev how long his iron curtain endured or how effective it was, or what its impact was on his Soviet Union.
Flight and fear holds walls together. It is the brick and it is the mortar. However, those are temporal; they don’t endure against the strength and the power of the human will.
Behind a curtain. a monstrous voice roars out. Lightning strikes and the noise of thunder fills the air. Fear permeates every pore.
Into the room, the little girl in the blue-checkered dress silently steps, hesitantly. She is terrified. Her pallid skin and our memory of her voice evoke an image — and a feeling — no one ever forgets. Because behind the curtain, behind the wall — the real one and the symbolic one — is the wizard, the darkness that strikes fear into us all.
Bravely, her small hand pulls the curtain aside and reveals the human face of a wall that is a fraud. She stares at the bulbous head of a pompous, weak and impotent bully who pulls the levers that imitate real power and evoke a coward’s ploy. And his wall starts to crack and then shift and then fails.
The little girl triumphs over the wizard tyrant. Good defeats evil.
Walls are band aids, temporary solutions to long-term problems. They often provide a false sense of security and more frequently than not, are simply tools of manipulation.
Wall builders frame our story — the narrative they wish to control. Their wall requires our fear and our consent — and without both, they cannot succeed.
Ultimately, walls lead to the downfall of the wall builders who believe themselves safe and secure behind them. When their walls fail, they become prisoners inside the rubble. Their walls block all roads of escape.
Walls initiate beginnings of ends.
In contrast, bridges create passages into the future. One limits, the other expands. One controls and restrains. The other frees and enables.
Walls are symbols — symbols of power, control, privilege and fear. They are also signs of weakness and are red flags of danger. Beware. Beware of wall builders.