Updated: Jun 11
How words impact history and humans.
China changed me.
It broadened my world view. My understanding of history. My awareness of different cultures.
And it forever changed my opinion of walls.
The Great Wall:
My heart still races when I see pictures of the Great Wall of China. Few things in my life will be as memorable as climbing up and down the rugged, jagged, uneven steps of history.
In 1994, I was part of a Fulbright-Hays Study Abroad group to China. Three colleagues and I had been so enamored with The Great Wall at Badaling that we had opted for an additional excursion. At Mutianyu, we hiked for more than an hour, far outdistancing the few other tourists we had seen when we arrived.
Our trek up the wall led us to a dilapidated guardhouse. Confronted by an unsmiling, wrinkled man sporting a red armband, we greased the wheels until he turned away and ignored our careful steps onto the rough stone outcropping.
The vista was breathtaking. Miles and miles of teal-treed hills backed by violet mountains and filtered through a hot, humid, hazy sun.
The “Aha!” Moment
In an epiphany of rocks and steps and miles and miles of stone, I suddenly understood the impact of walls.
The Great Wall, that magnificent structure, still standing and visible from space two thousand years after it was built, was built with slave labor. It was comprised of the blood and lives of million poor men forced to labor for a rich and distant emperor. It was constructed to keep people out and to claim dominion over all within it.
A beautiful relic of a flawed philosophy that stands crumbling and in disrepair.
Because walls, after all, aren’t meant to stand forever.
The Berlin Wall:
Five years before I traveled to China, the Berlin wall fell. At the time, I understood that history was happening, but I didn’t grasp the impact the wall had exerted on the people divided by it.
This last weekend, we celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall thirty years ago. On November 9, 1989, the wall delineating political divide and imposing physical constraints was smashed to bits by people who yearned to soar beyond boundaries. By people who longed for peace instead of strife. By people who wanted freedom.
Ronald Reagan had predicted it:
“…This wall will fall. For it cannot withstand faith; it cannot withstand truth. The wall cannot withstand freedom.”
And even before it tumbled, writers were leaving powerful words on the barrier itself.
And emotions became words and words became power.
The writing’s on the wall, indeed. Writing that matters.
Consider these quotes on the Berlin wall:
“Forget not the tyranny of this wall horrid place / Nor the love of freedom that made it fall — laid waste.“
“When the power of love is greater than the love of power, the world will know peace.”
“I’m ashamed to be alive in the world that built this wall.”
“There is life behind the wall.”
It’s as if the words themselves ate into the wall and caused it to fall.
Ugly concrete partitions and barbed-wire spirals that sneered like teeth of a metallic dragon were gone.
Like a phoenix rising, art and words took over. What’s left of the Berlin wall is now known as a “graffiti mecca” and the world’s longest open-air street art gallery.
And writers and artists everywhere rejoice.
The words painted on the Berlin wall aren’t about politics. They’re about the power of the human spirit.
The most moving quote of all is the one that now resides on the East side of the wall.
“Many small people, who in many small places do many small things, can alter the face of the world.” (African saying.)
Connecting the dots…
All this thinking about walls threw me into contemplation of the metaphysical walls humans put up around themselves.
And I think of the many ways we struggle to keep ourselves separate from others. To wall ourselves up so that we stand alone, powerful and proud in our own space.
And I wonder why barriers are more important than acceptance.
Ronald Reagan and Robert Frost:
The English teacher in me thinks of Robert Frost. I see that he and Ronald Reagan had something in common.
Neither one of them liked walls.
In Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall,” he tells the story of two New England farmers feeling obliged to maintain the stone walls between the farms.
One farmer asserts, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…” He cites how nature itself tries to bring walls down. How hunters tear them up. How it’s difficult to keep spherical stones from falling to one side or the other.
His neighbor is adamant: “Good fences make good neighbors.”
The first man admits:
“Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder If I put a notion in his head: Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it Where there are cows? But here there are no cows. 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 offence.
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That wants it down.”
I’m humming Carly Simon’s song now, “Do the Walls Come Down?” and hoping that writers everywhere will use their words to break down barriers, fight for just causes, question the status quo, and “do many small things to alter the face of the world.”