I was talking with a friend of mine about how people relate—or don’t relate—in our world today.My friend said, “I heard a story about an 80-year-old lady, Miss Jessie Parker, who used to talk about the way things were, how people had more time for each other and would sit and chat in the evenings on their porches. But people don’t do that so much anymore, so the woman telling the story asked Miss Jessie when things started to change. You’d think she’d answer that it was when TV was in everyone’s homes, or when people started using electronics, but it wasn’t.”“Really?” I was surprised. TV and electronics almost always get blamed for how distant people are these days. I tried to guess. “Fast food? Families having more than one car?”“No,” my friend replied. “She said it was privacy fences.”“Privacy fences?”“Yes, privacy fences. Can you believe it?”Fascinating. And I felt terrible.Because we have a privacy fence.I’m sure that the problem of people growing distant and disconnected is more complex than that—that it’s about more than privacy fences. For that matter, we could fault garage door openers for allowing us to slip right into the garage without even pausing, let alone getting out to chat.But I can see what she means. With a big privacy fence surrounding our yard, we might hear our neighbors puttering around, but to actually start a conversation would require more effort. Enclosed with our view blocked, interaction doesn’t happen as frequently or naturally.I decided to track down that little devotional story and hear it myself. It was at the Daily Audio Bible page with a red box that says “Daily Audio Bible 2010” (April 10, 2010). To bypass that day’s Scripture reading and go straight to the story, I clicked on the red box, scrolled to April 10, and then moved the cursor to about 23 minutes. The story about Miss Jessie Parker goes until about 29 minutes.I liked it so much, I transcribed it. And here’s that section, edited ever-so-slightly:
I’m friends with little 82-year-old Miss Jessie Parker, who came from the deep southern parts of Georgia, complete with a southern-fried accent and a heart of gold. And this woman simply amazed me. She did her own gardening, she still drove, she became very computer savvy…We would have many, many conversations in the middle of the day, in the middle of the yard, sometimes on the back porch and on occasion, over a nice little café for lunch … I learned a lot from talking with Miss Jessie Parker… she taught me that the early years of her life were very, very simple and uncomplicated. And she was completely fine with that simple way of life. She didn’t ask anybody to come along and add all this technology and all this crazy business of trying to make our lives easier. This easier way of life for us, so it seems, has really kind of messed up her world. And she would say things to me like:“Jill, when I was a young mother, we had time to carry the children down to the park in the buggy. We washed their diapers out, sterilized and boiled their glass bottles and somehow still managed to come home and make dinner and have it on the table in time for our husbands when they came home…”Thinking about this simpler life, I said, “Miss Jessie, where do you think it all … where did it all become unraveled for you?” And she didn’t even have to think about it … She knew exactly the answer and she said, “Jill, we used to have land for miles and miles. We didn’t have television and we didn’t have a radio, and so after supper, after the dishes were done, we would go out, and we would visit with the neighbors … for the rest of the evening until the lightning bugs would come out.”And she said the minute these privacy fences went up, we all stopped wanting to get together at night and chat and visit. Suddenly everybody wanted to be by themselves and be alone and be private. She couldn’t understand it.
You’ll note that Miss Jessie did mention the absence of TV and radio opening up time for visiting. But she emphasized the advent of the privacy fence as a turning point. I have to admit that we’ve loved the privacy fence. It keeps our big dog contained. Our kids can play in the yard without wandering off, which mattered a lot when our youngest was little. I can enjoy long quiet times on the back porch uninterrupted. I can examine the garden in my jammies.But I don’t talk as much with our neighbors.Thanks to Miss Jessie Parker, I plan to spend some time sitting on the front porch swing with some sweet tea, more visible and accessible. She’s reminded me how important it is to take a walk with the kids and wave at whoever is out doing yard work, in case they can visit for a few minutes.I can enjoy the privacy, bit it’s more important to have relationships.Yesterday afternoon, we were working inside the privacy fence in the garden, putting in our tomato plants. One of the neighbors walked right in through the gate without hesitating and asked to borrow the extension cord so he could finish trimming his bushes. We gladly loaned him ours, and I was relieved that the privacy fence didn’t hold him back. Maybe our privacy fence isn’t so isolating and private after all?Given that, I think I’ll don a robe before heading out to check the garden tomorrow morning.
Great post and very timely for me! Our nearest neighbors are in the process of putting up a privacy fence. They haven’t said a word since they started, so my guess is they (the adults) are purposely constructing a barrier between us. And since we both have detached garages, I can understand some of the impetus–not liking an audience for all our comings and goings.
Our neighbors on the other side have a wooden fence already and we hardly see or talk to them. I agree that tall fences really do require a big effort to start a conversation. An older neighbor openly mentioned that he doesn’t like privacy fences for that reason. He and we still have chain link.
Julia, I sure hope my neighbors didn’t feel like our privacy fence was intended as a barrier! Also, your older neighbor mentioning the privacy fences reinforces the analysis offered by Miss Jessie in the story. They know life before privacy fences; they seem to have enjoyed something we’re missing out on today.
Sad truth. It takes effort to cultivate imaginary paths to gates in the fence.
I think the privacy fences are here until they rot away, so you’re right: we just need to make that effort
I grew up in a tiny town of about 500 people. The entire town was like a front porch – everyone knew everyone, and all their business 🙂 Growing up, I hated that it was like having 500 parents watching out for me. And telling on me, lol. But now I miss it. I miss the community, and I wish that I had that many other sets of eyes watching out for my kids.
We have a privacy fence for the dog and for the kids, when they were little. I wanted to keep them in, but I never thought about how we were keeping others out of our lives with the privacy fence. One of the most fun nights of the year is the 4th of July, when the neighbors park their lawn chairs in their driveways and we all watch the fireworks. Maybe we need to move those chairs out front permantly. Great post!
I love your small town story, Sheri. And your 4th of July sounds quite sociable!
People do walk around the neighborhood quite a bit, so if we would sit out front more often, we’d be visiting with folks. I don’t think this is a lost cause, as long as we stay aware of the problem and reach out. Do you?
Stef @ Layton Family Joy says
this is great – I grew up practically with our neighbors! And I always thought it’d be the same thing when I grew up. But we’re not even “close” with anyone on our street. Let alone everyone being so “busy” in Orlando to get together. It breaks my heart and I crave that authentic community.
thanks for posting –
I wonder if people would think you’re weird if you tried to host a little something you’d set up in your yard? Like a smoothie or ice cream party where people bring over fruit or toppings to contribute? I’ve been thinking about this for our immediate neighbors, asking if they’d like to do a cookout or something this summer. All these years we’ve lived here, and never have we attempted something like that.
Lisa at Stretch Mark Mama hosted a successful smoothie party:
Jane Anne says
This is a very timely post considering the weather is changing (please, please let it be changing- I’m in the rainy NW). We always marvel at how neighbors come out of the woodwork in the summer. I guess they really do come out of the woodwork: if you consider the wood privacy fences. Thanks for encouraging me to be less private and more relational.
I don’t know if you think of yourself as an introvert, but I am. So I do really appreciate privacy and it takes effort for me to reach out. But I saw your gratitude experiment over at Gravity of Motion–that’ll get you more social, expressing yourself to strangers.
Love your “out of the woodwork” play on words!
Over the last month I decided to participate in a “car free challenge.” In reality it is a “car light venture” due to work restraints and obligations. I now for the most part, commute to work on my bike. My neighbor approached me as I was leaving for work… asked if I had gone on an extended vacation as they hadn’t seen the car move.
I always thought biking was a fairly solitary activity. I am finding that biking does not lend itself to the social barriers that perhaps all that enclosure of a car engenders. I find people more willing to stop you to chat, or wave. Yes there are a few random vulgarities and curses by disgruntled drivers, but overall I see that perhaps I am more approachable on the bike. By my waving or preparing to mount or dismount in a less harried fashion compared to rushing to and fro from the car–it just lends itself for more of a social interaction. I never really considered that before. I thought it was more privacy fences in neighborhoods that thawarted conversation. Maybe cars do too. I suppose it one of many ways that we can make ourselves less approachable.
Your above post– insightful. Thanks!
This is fascinating, Gretchen. How cars isolate and insulate us. I’ve often thought that about garage door openers–how we don’t even have to get out of the vehicle to shut ourselves inside and avoid conversation.
But because we’re enclosed in those vehicles, we’re shutting out the world before the garage door ever rumbles and rises.
There’s a sense of vulnerability on the bike–I, too, thought of it at the safety level, but didn’t think about it at the social level. I’m going to pay more attention to this next time I’m out on my bike.
Pickett fences have a warm appeal… in some ways “welcoming.”. Privacy fences take on a harsher tone. I tend to be fairly reserved. Just as I was becoming a little regretful of some of the privacy fences in my personal life (ways in which I may be less approachable), I encountered the next door neighbor whose house is adjacent to our parking lot. Ours is a professional office, yet we try to be neighborly.
I was taking my bike, baggage and the pouchie into the office as I was coming in for paperwork this weekend. This young woman was riding her bike at a good clip. She called out asking if I was the office manager which I responded, I was not. As she rode past me she yelled out…”When are you going to get that fence… I like to tan in the nude… and I’m going to…..” She continued to say more but had gone far past the building. I could not hear the rest of her ranting. I finished taking my own bike and pet trailer inside and then sat down speechless. I shook my head , and not just once!
You see, I tend to be a people pleaser. I would normally let it go –but I did go over to her house and heard an even further more colorful discourse.
Really, I do believe that at times privacy fences need to be erected and even perhaps maintained. I know for a fact, there is no plans for a fence soon. I guess we will live with whatever we shall see!
As far as my personal landscape—still some privacy fences. I think there are fallows for which we are not intentionally aloof or unfriended but which our individual time is valued.
You have a thoughtful post. Please feel free to read and delete. It was just a surprising aftermath to your post.