The Writing on the Wall by Jamie Kirkpatrick


In Chapter 5 of the Book of Daniel—so the story goes—Belshazzar, last ruler of the Babylonian Empire, throws a great feast to celebrate his victory over the Israelites and his army’s destruction of the First Temple. During the feast, he drinks from vessels looted from that temple and as he sips, a mysterious hand appears, writing these words on a wall of Belshazzar’s palace: “Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin.” For those of you who don’t happen to speak Aramaic, that translates to “Numbered, numbered, weighed, divided,” a phrase interpreted by the prophet Daniel to mean that God has judged Belshazzar and doomed his empire. As a result, ever since that ghostly hand appeared, the phrase “the writing on the wall” has always prophesied failure, doom, and destruction.

Fast forward to our time and another wall—one immortalized by the poet Robert Frost. One of his most beloved poems, “Mending Wall,” begins with these words: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” In simple blank verse, Frost recounts the annual task of two neighbors rebuilding an old stone wall that has always separated their property. At one time, the wall may have served a useful purpose by keeping the neighbor’s cows out of Frost’s orchard. Those cows are long gone (“He is all pine and I am apple orchard”) so to Frost, the old divide is no longer necessary. But his neighbor believes differently; to him, it’s a simple equation, an adage inherited from his father: “Good fences make good neighbors.” As a result, on a chilly morning every spring, on they go: two aging neighbors, limping along, stacking stones to repair an old wall that no longer serves any real purpose. To Frost, the old wall is nothing more than a neighborly habitual task—a crumbling remnant of a bygone era, a waste of time, an old-fashioned folly. But to the man across the wall, it still serves a useful purpose if only because “good fences make good neighbors.”

Frost knew that any wall is an imperfect barrier. Every spring, he and his neighbor would meet on the appointed day to repair what winter and hunters had undone. Nature conspired against the wall by causing frozen ground-swells to topple boulders, making gaps “where even two can pass abreast;” as for those pesky hunters, they did even more of the dirty work, rooting out rabbits and removing stones “to please the yelping dogs.” Frost knew in his bones that this annual chore—lifting and restacking stones to rebuild an old and useless wall—was a Sisyphean task, but every year, he did it anyway. Why? I guess only to please a neighbor who remained stuck in that deep old rut that stubbornly clung to the tired hand-me-down that “good fences make good neighbors.”

So what should we make of the wall that everyone is currently talking about; the one that shut down our government for more than a month; the one that is needed to resolve a supposed “national emergency” that apparently never needed to happen in the first place? I wonder if there will there be any prophetic writing on that wall. I wonder if perhaps we shouldn’t be asking ourselves the same question that Frost poetically pondered to himself: “Before I built a wall, I’d ask to know/What I was walling in or walling out.”

“Mending Wall” concludes with two clean lines: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall/That wants it down.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin.

I’ll be right back.

Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer with homes in Chestertown and Bethesda. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy magazine. “A Place to Stand,” a book of photographs and essays about Landon School, was published by the Chester River Press in 2015.  A collection of his essays titled “Musing Right Along” was published in May 2017; a second volume of Musings entitled “I’ll Be Right Back” was released in June 2018.  Jamie’s website is

Letters to Editor

  1. Linda Hamilton says

    Build That Wall

    I continue to be surprised when reading articles about “the wall” by people who live on the east coast. They wax philosophical about Robert Frost’s poetry and argue that the wall will serve no good purpose. None, however, have ever said they lived on the west coast for any length of time. We lived in California for 40 years. It was beautiful. Cool breezes, 74 degrees year round, no humidity, no mosquitos, lots of restaurants and cultural events. We lived in a lovely home, with breakfast on the patio every morning. So, why did we leave? It wasn’t one thing. It was just about everything. Our car insurance was almost triple what it is here. Why? Because the other party that hit me had no insurance, or even a license. I called the police and was told to collect whatever information I could, then go to the nearest station and fill out a report. Me too versions of this story were oft repeated around the water cooler. On the other hand, if I had hit one of their automobiles, they had an 1-800-lawyer number to call on their behalf.

    If I fell and broke my arm during the weekend, or even during the week, my only recourse was Urgent Care. There are no open ERs, save for County General; and you don’t want to go there. The ERs all closed years ago because the illegals were using them as their doctors for all their ailments, big or small. The hospitals soon were operating in the red, so they shut down the ERs. That meant that if we had an immediate medical problem, we could visit the local Urgent Care center. Cash upfront, get a receipt, hand that in to the insurer and hope for the best.

    With each new governor came the promise to fix the public schools. Every time, that promise quietly died. Joel Stein, in Time magazine, wrote about finding a preschool for his child, only to learn that 91% of white children in LA county were in either private or parochial schools. The public schools are basically day care centers, not to mention petri dishes. As this letter is being read, there is an outbreak of typhus in LA. Typhus! Inoculations? Anyone? No one. Diseases that we thought were history are coming back to life.

    Corporations are leaving, or have left, California. Better taxes, better employees elsewhere. We said good-bye to the likes of Bank of America, Nestle International and even now Amazon is looking for a “second” headquarters outside the state as are other lingering corporations who have now downsized their California offices. Oh, and a friend’s daughter, who graduated last year with a BA in Business Administration, can’t find a job. One of the first questions she is asked? Are you bilingual? Because she is not bilingual, she’s leaving the state too, as is her mother.

    And don’t get me started on the crime: in today’s LA Times an article appeared about the over 30% increase in burglaries. The alarm and surveillance companies are doing very well. The rest of the population, not so much. The gangs are increasing, and are more violent. The Crips and the Bloods are small time thugs compared to the Mara Salvatrucha, popularly known as MS-13. Child trafficking, pornography, murders, rapes, all on the upswing. Our friends who live in west LA (and are soon moving to Henderson NV) have had their condo units burgled twice; the last reporting cop said she couldn’t wait to retire because the burglars get early release so what was the point.

    We lived in a white bubble, along the coastline, in which case we drove the Santa Monica freeway to our Century City or downtown offices. Inland, the white bubble of Pasadena or Glendale rode the same named freeways. All else was dangerous territory to travel. Even our bubble, though, would cause us to wake up at night to the sound of someone going through our trash. We placed three full size trash cans on the curb each week: one for greens clippings, one for recyclables and one for trash. Oftentimes, we were woken by the sound of someone going through the recycling can looking for tin. Tin cans were light so a large number could be placed in the stolen shopping cart and trotted off to the recycling center for cash. Legally, we could do nothing because trash is public property, but we always made sure that the parked car cab was empty.

    To be fair, this country was built by immigrants. So many of us are the first, second or third generation of people who went through Ellis Island, Angel Island or New Orleans but they came here legally, went through the legal process, and assimilated. More than ever, we need that legal process now.

    I realize that I am on the uncomfortable wrong end of the current political agenda and around here on the eastern shore there are only a few illegals, so what is the big deal, you say. Which is what we thought in California back in the day, until it was a big deal.

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