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Walls as Boundaries, Walls as Inspiration

THE estate across the street from my childhood home filled a whole city block. A large squatting stone home sat in a corner of the block, directly across from our house and close to the street that we shared. There was a carriage house behind the main house. Besides that, there was little else on that block but trees.

The main house was massive and had been built for a former world lightweight boxing champion by the same man who designed the Illinois state capitol building. When I first learned that bit of information it made sense: The house had the imposing rock-solid look that one associates with capitol buildings. By the time my family moved onto the street, the boxer's widow was elderly. I only saw her once. When she died and there was a huge auction, I tried but failed to buy her old typewriter.

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Going to the auction was the first and last time I was ever on that property, even though I walked by it daily on the way home from school and made up many stories about it. I cut across almost every other lawn in the neighborhood at least once in a while, but I never walked through the estate. It was surrounded by an elegant but firm wrought-iron fence that said ``Stay Out!,'' and I did.

I never saw any of the neighborhood children violate that fence. It was dark and spiked and designed to prevent climbing. It worked. The owner had a private world, and the trees kept growing without any young climbers.

But in the morning and the evening, I could look out of my second-story bedroom windows and see the panorama of that whole city block surrounded by its spiked iron. I would look over that fence at that house and into those woods and send their way the stories I made up about the people who lived there. That spiked fence only stimulated my already active imagination, encouraging thoughts about an immigrant Irish boxer, his wife, and what it might have taken in 1917 to create a perfectly enclosed world for themselves in the middle of a small city in Illinois.

I imagined many prizefights and the final moment of triumph when, as world champion, the boxer handed to his young bride the money to build the great pile of rooms that faced my own. Who knew what really happened or how the house got built? All I knew was that the iron barrier along the sidewalk was no barrier to my musings.

Two weeks ago I moved into a four-room cottage behind a large Spanish-style home on a street of other such lavish homes near the Intra-Coastal Waterway in West Palm Beach, Fla. Many of the homes have large garages with apartments above for rental to people who come here for the winter. But my cottage is a separate little house, entered through the swinging gate of a high wrought-iron entrance and a pathway shaded with bougainvillea. The place is like something out of a story book. Except for the wall.

I ENTER the house through the kitchen area. This flows into the living room and from there into a bedroom and, finally, into a den. On the far side of the den are sliding-glass doors. They open to a tiny patio and a huge cracked wall. A week ago the patio floor was covered with dirt, some potted plants, and a rusting iron chaise. I moved the plants and the chaise, then hosed off and swept the patio floor.

When I got the chair in decent shape, I sat down and looked around. With everything out of the way and the floor swept, the 10-foot wall separating me from the imposing house next door began to feel less imposing. I may never get beyond that wall. But the flowering bushes in the yard next door are growing fast and sending their shoots over the wall to make a ceiling of dangling red flowers for my patio. And the more I look at the wall itself, the more I like it and look forward to my next look.

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It is stuccoed and was once painted green and then, later, white. Weathering brings the green out from under the white, and the cracks in the wall indicate the geography of its aging. As is my habit from childhood, I am already creating and enjoying the stories that come to mind as I look at that wall.

A fence can say, ``Keep out!''; I learned that early. And at the boundary of my new home I have come smack dab against a wall that says, ``No further.'' I can accept those boundaries and whatever reasons others have erected them. But it is the way of the heart, even as it accepts bounded places, to transfigure them through imagination and memory into wide-open story places.

As a child I needed to imagine the prizefighter winning a beautiful world for his bride. A fence began that legend. And now I have a place to contemplate the weathered beauty of a wall whose first colors will reassert themselves under every effort at whitewash, a wall that stands with the dignity of its cracks intact and unhidden.

I know people like this, and parts of myself are like this. My wall, therefore, will be full of stories that reveal the hunger in my heart: stories I would not recall or create if that wall weren't there, limiting my movement and drawing my mind to a familiar and self-sustaining kind of attention.

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