Traveling Walls: From our 20th Anniversary Anthology Retrospective

This spring, we have had the joy of revisiting writing published over our 20 years and reconnecting with past writers. We created a special anthology retrospective featuring a writer from every year since 1999.  And last week, we had the privilege of hearing some of those writers read their pieces at our anniversary celebration.

W. T. Smith, pictured above, read his piece “Traveling Walls,” originally published in our 2002 summer anthology Where the Mirror Explodes. Photo credit: Ron Kirsch

Traveling Walls
by W. T. Smith

The first time my feelings were hurt I built a wall.
     The first time I was scared…
     The first time I was beat up…
     The first time my heart was broken…I built a wall.
     Building walls has been my full-time, lifetime avocation. My walls are my way of coping with the pain of a brutal, cruel and unjust world. I carried my walls everywhere. They comforted me and protected me. They traveled with me.
     As a child I built walls of clay. These first walls were not very strong. As I grew, my walls grew with experience. The choice of materials for my walls changed with time and they became stronger.
     Each time I felt fear, grief or pain, I scrambled to patch the hole in my walls. There must be a weak spot here somewhere! I frantically searched for new materials. I thought I would someday protect my heart from the pain. But as the walls grew heavier, the scars in my heart grew deeper.
     These walls were with me day and night, during work and play. These walls traveled right along with me in everything I did. My choice of materials for building these walls were anger, aggression and—most damaging—ambivalence. The defenses I built didn’t always hurt someone directly, but indifference created the biggest void for the most people.
     During a newscast, I saw a downscale replica of the Vietnam Memorial called the Traveling Wall. This memorial was en route to Portland. I had some names to look for on the wall, so I made plans to attend the memorial. I walked the full length of the wall once, turned to retrace my steps and began to weep. Why? Where were my walls? What could I use to patch this hole? What caused the hole that let through so much pain and grief without warning? Why were my traveling walls no match for this wall?
     I finally understood. I had faced that wall from the outside. It was not a wall I could hide behind. Every name engraved on the wall shimmered against that polished black stone, and my reflection peered back at me from behind those names, symbolic of so much pain engraved in my walls, scarring my heart, turning me to stone.
     Now I work to tear down my walls. I’d built them strong, deep and wide. It will be a long time before I can come completely out from behind them. Life is better now. It’s wonderful, it’s a blessing, but it’s frightening being on the outside looking in. Each brick I remove from my walls makes me more human, more compassionate, more loving.
     I am slowly becoming the person I’ve always wanted to be. But first, the walls that travel with me….

From the summer 2002 anthology
Where the Mirror Explodes [volume 4, number 2]