Editor’s Note: this is the piece that was read at the Festival of Giving on September 8. Many thanks to Victoria Woolley for sharing this story.
When I moved into my Seward neighborhood home there was an old but serviceable cedar fence on the north side of my back yard. After some years it became wobbly–the poles were rotting–and one Thanksgiving day I returned home to find that a storm had blown one end of it clear down to the ground. Oh well. Within hours my next door neighbor, with whom I had an innocuous superficial relationship, came over seeming pretty excited and asked to come in and talk. Now, Max is a great big man, prone to para-military dress. I never had a clear idea what he did in life, all he ever told me was he had a collection of exotic turtles and reptiles in his basement, and that he traded in antique kitchen appliances. Now I love turtles and lizards, but when I showed interest in seeing them he demurred and I never did get a tour. The neighbor on the far side of Max told me she didn’t think he had any turtles in his basement at all and was suspicious of what else he might have down there. But Max wasn’t bothering me none and I was into minding my own business because I don’t like drama.
Okay, so Max comes over. I was sitting with my son and some friends in my living room and Max filled up the room with his size.
“Did ya notice that your fence blew down?”
“Yeah, I did.”
“Don’t build a new fence!!”
“Well, I haven’t even had time to think about it yet. What’s up?”
“Don’t build a new fence!! I’m going to build a fence! It’s going to be a really nice fence! You’ll like it! It’s going to go all around my whole yard.”
“Well, that’s great. What kind of fence are you planning to put up?”
“Cedar. Just like yours. You’ll like it.”
“Well, I’d love to not have the expense of a new fence, so if you’re going to put one up I’ll hold off.”
And off he went. Two years later there was still no fence. I never asked Max about it because over time I realized I felt kind of intimidated by this guy. He had a sort of unpredictable vibe about him, and I just never really felt like asking about the fence. I don’t like drama and I don’t like conflict.
Then one day I notice that Max and his girlfriend are moving things out of their house into a van and I’m wondering what’s going on, so I went out and asked and Max was kind of vague, saying, yeah they were leaving, lost the house, mortgage crisis ya know. I asked if they knew what was going to happen to the house, was it going on the market, going to a bank…? Max told me the guy he’d bought it with was now the owner. It was all a little vague, but hey it was none of my business anyway. I didn’t ask him about the fence because he was leaving.
So, a couple more years go by and lots of changes on the block. The Seward Coop moved right up the street and their expansion bought out and demolished two houses on the other side of Max’s house, which was a good thing because one of those houses was full of drug users and dealers who kept pit bulls in the back yard and frequently spilled out into the street arguing loudly at all hours. And the other one was a neighbor who had gone nearly mad from dealing with those people. It had been a nasty episode and it was nice to see and end to it. Like I said I don’t like drama and conflict.
Meanwhile Max had gone and his house was empty and quiet. But I still didn’t have a fence and I was getting really tired of having a clear view across Max’s yard to the alley, the coop parking lot and past that to Franklin Avenue and the Shell Station. I decided it was time to bite the bullet and build a fence. I hired a handy man who asked me if I wanted to do a property line assessment, which would cost some hundreds of dollars. Well, no, not really. I told him to put the fence exactly where the last one had been because there had never been a problem with that one and why would there be a problem now. Besides, there wasn’t even anyone living on that side now, so why go to the expense, eh? So. No property line assessment. The fence went up and I was pleased as punch. I finally had privacy instead of a view of Franklin Avenue and the big green coop. Not that I don’t love the big green coop. I do and I’m there all the time, but it is very big and very very green from where I view it. I liked my fence. Peace and serenity abounded.
A couple more years went by and one day I noticed a orange painted stick in the ground at the back corner of my property, and another on the street end…on Max’s side. I went immediately into denial and ignored the orange sticks for about two weeks, when one day I saw Max in his yard, except that it wasn’t his yard any more. What would he be doing here? He lost the house, right? I went out. Max walked up to me, all six foot something of him, looked down and said, “You have to take your fence down.”
“It’s on my property.”
“I thought you’d moved and sold this house.” “I did move, but I still own this house.”
So, I’m thinking, okay, he told me he lost the house, and now he says he owns the house. This is confusing and I don’t trust this guy to tell me the real deal. So, I say, “Well I’ll have to look into this. Give me your number so I can get back to you.”
And Max says, “I’ll call you.”
A couple of months go by, I don’t hear from Max, and I’m trying real hard to keep my denial in charge of this situation, but when I got an envelope with a lawyer’s return address on it I realized I was going to be facing some kind of music.
Someone I’d never heard of, who did own the house, had hired a lawyer and was suing me to take down my beautiful new cedar fence. I went for a legal consultation and found out that at no time had Max ever been on the deed to that house, that another guy and his wife were the owners. Interesting. I was told it would cost me $300 to $500 to do my own property assessment, and the lawyers needed $500 to do a minimum amount of looking into the situation. They thought I had a right to my fence based on eminent domain because my old fence had been in the same place for a long time and had been there when the neighbors bought their house. They also thought my property insurance might be willing to help me with this, which wouldn’t cost me legal fees, but neither my lawyers nor I could get anyone at the property insurance company to even respond to a call. I really didn’t want to spend as much on lawyers as I had spent on the fence. I didn’t even want to counter-sue. I just didn’t want to have to take down my fence. I offered to give Max my fence for free. It was on his property by three inches at one end and seven inches at the other, according to his property assessment figures, so if eminent domain wasn’t going to count I figured what a good deal for him! He could spend that much less money building his fence by absorbing mine into his. Yay!
Not interested. All negotiations were happening via lawyers by now. They flatly refused the free fence offer and a couple of other similar ideas. They wanted my fence removed. Period. For the life of me I couldn’t understand their motivation. Other than the placement of my fence–which seemed to me an innocent mistake, an easily-solved misunderstanding–I had never done anything to Max or to their property. I was furious, dismayed, heart-broken about the fence and totally mystified at why this had to be such a big deal and a conflict. But clearly that was out of my hands at this point. Legally I was at fault. I was in a position to have to prove my innocence and that was going to cost me more than money. It was going to cost me sanity: I’d have to willingly engage in…yes, drama and conflict.
I stewed. I fretted. I solicited empathetic stewing and fretting from my friends. The idea that this intimidating mean-spirited man was going to screw me over for no reason that I could see was more than I could accept. Meanwhile, while the issue was still unsettled, Max built a very solid cedar privacy fence around the entire perimeter of his property except for the stretch where my fence was. His fence looked exactly like mine, minus a couple of simple embellishments, but the posts didn’t sync up with where mine were and he had the fence company put in about four feet of chain link bridging a gap between his fence and mine. I went out and asked the workers if they knew what the plan was. Why the chain link? They said they’d put in a lot of fences for this guy and he was kind of weird and picky. They said the plan was to take the chain link down after I’d removed my fence and then they would complete his fence. Well, that was a big hint to me: Max’s plan to get my fence out of there was immutable. At that point I began to let go of any idea that I was going to save my fence, and focus on a way to emotionally resolve the loss. I’m not competitive but I don’t like being screwed. My stomach was in a knot.
And then one day I spotted my spiritual solution. I was driving up 27th Avenue past Common Ground, where I attend Sunday gatherings regularly, and I saw some cedar fence posts in the ground. I realized they were putting in a much-needed fence and instantly my heart was at peace. I would donate my fence to Common Ground! Yes! But I needed to figure out how to get that sucker dismantled. Now, I weigh in at 125 pounds of pure couch potato and I am not a handy woman. I learned long ago that home ownership for me means hiring people who know what they are doing and can lift heavy stuff. But…not only am I not handy, I also don’t like asking for help. But I’m already running at a loss on this situation and I’m thinking maybe Common Ground would be willing to help me take down the fence in exchange for the wood. Maybe.
I contacted Mark. He was interested. He said something about dhana and how it works. Now I’d heard about dhana before, but I understood it as meaning that if I was getting something then I should be sure and reciprocate; I should do my share. But Mark was describing something a little different, and I really tried to understand, but the idea that something might not be an even exchange–that was a tough concept for me. I like to do service for others, but the idea that I might be indebted to someone else leaves me uneasy. Nonetheless, I was in a pickle here and Mark said he was pretty sure he could get a few people to take down the fence, which I heard as, “…to help you take down the fence.” We exchanged a few emails and picked a date. On that date I raced home from work and put on my jeans. I was nervous. I located a hammer and pliers and prayed I’d be able to do this thing without harming myself or anyone else. I hoped someone who showed up would know more than I about dismantling a fence.
At 5:30 men with tool boxes began to arrive in my back yard…and they kept coming. There were eight or ten guys in my yard. I couldn’t count them because they kept moving around. I was utterly amazed. I was putting effort into trying not to be pathetically dependent on others. I asked someone what I should do, but I was reduced to bringing a couple of shovels out of the garage and providing ice water. They didn’t even want lemonade!! I never touched a tool. Not only did they dismantle 70 feet of fencing, they also dug up ten posts and most of the concrete they’d been set it. They stacked it all up tidily, and carted it away. I have a neighbor friend who needed some of the materials, and they happily dropped her batch off at her house. The only thing left in my yard was a very tidy pile of concrete rubble. A fellow named John returned the next day and helped me load it and get it over to the city disposal site.
While it is easy for me to describe all these events, it is not easy for me to explain the effect they had one me and the lesson I learned about dhana.
Turns out Max, who had never owned the house, had also never been named Max. That was an alias. His real name is David (last name withheld). He is now under arrest, along with some other people who were running a large marijuana-growing business across the metro area. The turtles and reptiles were an alibi for the high electricity use caused by grow lights. The house itself was one of eight that were raided the night of Max’s arrest. The purchasing and selling of fixer-uppers was another cover for a nomadic drug-growing operation and frequent personal relocations. The house next door was no longer housing pot plants at the time of the raid, but police did remove a good deal of growing equipment. As for the fence. It turns out someone I know had committed a drunken juvenile crime, breaking into Max’s house and stealing several whole marijuana plants. The security system in the house told Max knew who’d ripped him off. I learned much later that there had been a confrontation over the theft, but apparently Max hadn’t fully sated his need for retribution, so he landed on my fence as a way to assert his dominance. Hurt Victoria, hurt the person who stole my pot, seemed to be the logic. Such is justice among criminals. Interesting. It has been a study in human nature and particularly in the momentum of anger and revenge. How enduring and self- fueling a grudge can be! The lesson for me has been to find a way to not reside in grudge-dom myself. Sharing in dhana with the Common Ground community, and having the deep satisfaction of seeing a very fine fence around the meditation center grounds, has brought my awareness of giving and receiving into a new light. When the fence was newer I could tell which boards were from my old fence. They were silvered and the new boards were still honey-colored. Now the fence is growing into it’s fence nature and I am happy to see the reminders of the drama fading into simple reminders of the connection of sangha and the spirit of dhana.