I was mending fences at the weekend; quite literally. In the UK, we had some heavy winds over the holiday and new year period, which finally put an end to fencing that was on borrowed time.
Events can do this to relationships too.
And while I was doing it, it struck me that the expression, ‘mending fences’ is a particularly potent metaphor. I found the stages in my real, literal task mapped well onto the metaphorical process of resolving a breakdown in neighbourly relations.
The reason I had to mend my fence was because so much of what was there was rotten. The first step was to remove the rot. Some of this was easy, old wood crumbling in my hands. Some was distinctly difficult. The last remnants of strength that the wood had were clinging, tenaciously, to the nearly rusted screws that had just enough thread left to be a real nuisance.
By the end, I had a pile of useless wood that I could finally dispose of. Very satisfying.
In relationships too, when things go bad, you have to start by throwing out whatever is rotten.
The process of clearing out the decaying timber disturbed a lot of unpleasant wildlife: mostly spiders and tiny crawly things. Whilst in the UK, there was nothing feeding of the decaying wood, and living in the cracks between bricks,and among the weeds that had taken root, which could harm me; I imagine this won’t be so in all parts of the world. In some places, the spiders and creepy-crawly things you might disturb, could pack a real sting, if not handled with caution.
However, in deference to potential hazards, like bites, splinters, or scratches from rusty screws, I took the precaution of wearing work gloves. Thus protected, I came to no harm.
In relationships too, starting the job of sorting out the problems can uncover all sorts of nasties, which have become an unwanted part of the relationship. Take care.
Standard panel sizes fitted well between most posts. But there’s always one, isn’t there? The last panel was smaller by around 30cm, than the standard size. One size did not fit all gaps between the posts, probably because eighteenth century English boundaries were never metric. Life is like that, to get a neat fit, you need to cut you materials to size.
And these fence panels are not simple uniform sheets of timber. Cutting down the length meant some carpentry to ensure that the new end looks the same as the old. I had to create neat joints an fix them strongly.
In relationships, the obvious solutions are not always right, and the task of finding an agreement that fits properly can be complicated, time-consuming and difficult.
Any fencing has to look good from both sides, or a new dispute will ensue. In my case, the neighbours had not complained, but the fence was clearly mine to mend, and I wanted to get it right before bad feelings grew. There is also the matter of pride: I don’t want a fence that is run-down and rotten. Even if the neighbour is not bothered, I would be. I don’t want to see decay when I get home.
Inevitably, the job also meant clearing some plant life from the boundary: on both sides. I took great care to prune my neighbours plants by the absolute minimum needed to fit the new fence, respecting their property as if it were my own.
In relationships, any agreement needs to be good for both parties. In forming that agreement, start and maintain an attitude of total respect for the other person.
The final task is to fit the new panels into place. The original fixing method was not suitable, so I needed to devise a new one. It had to be neat but strong. Lifting the new panels into place and fixing them to the posts created the visible and tangible outcome of all the works so far. The care with which I did this will dictate whether I need to do any further maintenance during the life of the fence panels.
I made a mental note to check how the fixings have settled in, towards the end of the summer, before the autumn winds come on. If I need to, I can tighten things up once they have settled, to avoid problems.
Making the newly re-built relationship work and bedding it in takes special attention at the outset. And you need to keep monitoring and, if necessary, adjusting the way you relate to one another.
A pile of old, rotten wood, tools and ladders arrayed around the boundary, a discarded jumper, and a couple of tea mugs. I am a fairly tidy worker, but the job isn’t done until you clear up after yourself.
Instead of seeing it as a chore, I like the tidying up bit: it is almost meditative, cleaning tools and putting everything back where it belongs…
… for next time.
Take time to reflect on what you have done, and to tidy up any loose ends.
Both of these books describes Mike’s “Breakdown Process” for mending breakdowns in important relationship.
Sometimes mending fences is a necessary part of life.