I live in an area crowded with old brownstones from the ’50s, low-rises with big windows, balconies, and narrow streets between them. The illusion of it being an intimate neighbourhood is exceedingly well done.
For all its lack of imposing, stacked up against the major metropolitan downtown that’s only a few kilometres from here, it’s amazing how little I’ve met the people I’ve lived around for a decade. Maybe a third of those in my alleyway have lived here for the decade I have. Of them, I know perhaps five.
For three months now, I’ve wondered where one of them, the neighbour I overlook from my kitchen, was. I assumed some big trip around the world, since more than a few people around here have turned out to be travellers.
But then I saw her Friday for the first time in three months — more than 100 pounds heavier, looking 15 years older, tired, worn, and just about to quit — life, not just her job. My heart went through the floor. Has she been really, really sick? Obviously. Away at hospital? What’s wrong with her? This is why her blinds have never opened or moved? Now it looks like she has friends helping her to move — they’re all too cheerful but head-down-and-diligent, as if this is an event that needs to happen but bodes badly for times to come. She’s not staying at home as that work is completed, either.
Across the other way is another apartment I’ve also become invested in this summer — where Hippy Man lived with his cool wife and very, very hot two 18-20-year-old sons. Hippy Man cut his hair all off about four months ago, maybe longer. By then, they’d begun buying new furniture to replace their secondhand crap, and repainting — new leather couch, barbecue, nice table set. But now Hippy Man and Older Hottie Son have been gone since before summer kicked in. She’s cut her hair and dyed it, bought a puppy, has started attending church on Sundays (because where else is she going, dressed up on Sundays, at 10am?), and has started an interest in photography with a shiny new SLR.
Have they separated? Did he die? Is he working somewhere far away? I don’t know.
Why? Because there are walls. A lot of them. Everywhere. We all have them. People see snippets of our lives and reach conclusions as to where we’re at. When the windows are open and curtains pulled back, we behave a little differently, because “they” might be watching, and those boundaries drop when walls and blinds appear.
It’s like that line in the Breakfast Club opening voiceover — “You see us how you want to see us.” If we let you.
We look at others and we assume because we’ve had a casual conversation or see them in passing that we’re anywhere in the know about what they’re going through. We forget that so much of our world is about surfacing and appearances, and secrets and lies. When we ask how others are doing, the truth is, we’d rather hear “Fine”, because anything else but means Things Are Gonna Get Complicated. And, sure, we care, but who has time? Right?
That receptionist’s quickened pace, the head down, the curt nod and furtive smile, it’s not shyness. It’s the end of a five-year relationship with little inkling it was coming, and the intellectual fall-out that comes with. The haircut and new wardrobe on the coffee shop girl you see every morning might not be a whimsy change of pace but rather a desperate search for self after being emotionally adrift at sea during a tough time, a physical turning of tides. But we might never know, because all we see is what they want us to see, or merely what we wish to see of them.
So thank god for the walls. The walls we all hide behind sometimes, the walls that give us existential freedoms that are the emotional and mental equivalent of going pants-free or seizing a pajamas-only-weekend with blinds drawn.
I sometimes wonder if marriages don’t fail more because of the lack of walls. Some people are good at tearing them all down. Some people are good at lowering them. But I suspect most of us would rather remain the secret hoarders of a wall or two. Like Grandma Death says in Donnie Darko, “In the end, every living creature dies alone.” No matter how much we share with others, we’ll always have those dark and insecure thoughts we never, ever plan to share.
I’m a fan of my own walls sometimes. I keep mine patched — shored up, strong, and permanent.
But then, when I see a neighbour like the one I saw this weekend, suddenly sick, suddenly drastically different and obviously needing help, I wish walls would come down more easily, be less impervious, because I know how hard asking for help can be when it turns out you really finally need it.
It’s an important reminder that we each have bigger issues going on. It’s not just about you and your tough week; you’ve no idea the adversities others are tackling behind their walls — money, domestic violence, disease, changing fortunes… we’ve no idea.
If only we’d remember that more often as we went about our days, and instead of getting angry at someone who’s distracted or appears inconsiderate, maybe a little benefit of the doubt can be extended.
It’s a walled, walled world.
*The photo is by me, shot near my home, and one that I think kind of speaks to how what things appear to be aren’t always what the reality is. You’d think you’d never see a beautiful sunset in that industrial wasteland area near my house… and thanks to the abundant rainfall and sunset after, you’d be wrong. Somehow, that reassures me about the world a little.