November Perspective

Quiet Sunday, as most of them are these days. No rushing off to church and choir practice or drum corps rehearsal. A lot to process as we trim back bushes and shrubs and clean up pots of fading annuals which have given it their all since May. As the hibiscus and mandevilla continue to push out a few token blooms in the seventy-degree weather, it’s hard to believe we’ll be hanging Christmas lights in a few short weeks.

Recent days brought stress and shock and relief and joy all co-mingled together and sometimes changing by the minute. A sleepless night glued to the television watching election results. Constant worry about the impact of this raging virus. Talking with a friend who is dealing with her elderly father’s illness from 800 miles away, after burying her mother in June. Feeling grateful for another year of normal mammogram results, over which the shadow of my mother’s death from breast cancer always looms large. Cautious optimism that there will be different and better paths ahead for our country.

When the news broke on Saturday, I was sitting with two former teaching colleagues enjoying an outdoor lunch. One of us, someone I have known and respected for many years, said truly terrible things about the election. He spoke as calmly as if he were talking about the weather, I suppose assuming that we were all on the same page. The cruelty of his words took my breath away. I wanted to get up and leave or make a scene and shout back at him, “How could you be an educated person and caring teacher and say things like that?” His remarks went way beyond disappointment that his candidate didn’t win or that his side of the issues may not be supported. His words cut deeply, making ugly and false generalizations about entire groups of people.

I immediately changed the subject and we talked about music during Covid and dealing with aging parents and, to be honest, I don’t even remember a lot of the conversation because I was in such shock. It is one thing to experience hatred on our screens but quite another when it comes at us from across the table when we least expect it. I don’t know if not engaging was the right thing to do. Looking back, I wish I would have told him how much his words hurt me personally. He needed to know that. This business of justifying any twisting of the truth along with the blanket disparagement of anyone who does not agree with us as a means to an end is not the way to heal and grow as a country. Or as human beings.  

I’m writing on the porch the way I sometimes do in the spring and summer, except it’s November. Despite the balmy weather, winter birds cluster at the feeder and the goldfinches have exchanged their bright yellow plumage for drab gray-brown. The vegetable garden is bare except for a few cauliflower plants and a stalk or two of brussels sprouts. Colorful leaves still remain on some of the trees but the majority cling to our shoes as we traipse into the house. I am glad to see this year of illness, political rhetoric, tragic loss and violence, and blatant racism creep inexorably to its end. I cling to the hope that by the time spring returns again, we will have found a better way to be with each other. We must.

A Tale of Two Shoppers

Yesterday, for the first time in months, I was in a retail clothing store and that was only because I had to return items purchased online. The store was following all the protocols—limiting capacity, masks required, hand sanitizer everywhere. I noticed a woman loaded down with clothes approach the dressing rooms. One of the sales associates gently reminded her that she needed to wait to be assigned a dressing room. They were keeping every other cubicle vacant and wiping down surfaces after each customer. The woman replied, with a condescending sneer on her face, “Yes, I know. I don’t agree with it, but I know.”

I wanted to haul off and smack her. I thought to myself, “How dare you?” Here we are privileged enough to be out shopping on a Friday afternoon in a store that’s doing everything possible to keep us safe, and you cop an attitude because you have to wait five minutes for a sanitized dressing room. I admit, these days I find it increasingly difficult to keep my anger on a short leash. This never-ending parade of daily atrocities is just pushing me to my limit. When I got up to the counter, I muttered something about having to deal with rude customers, and the woman at the register looked up and said, “Every. Single. Day.”

But there was another customer in the store yesterday afternoon. She was a petite elderly lady, with beautiful white hair and wearing neatly pressed capris and a stylish sailor top. While I waited for a dressing room, she was engaging the associate managing that area in a lengthy conversation about the recent death of her husband, The associate listened with patience and compassion. I suspect this was the first time this woman purchased clothes her husband would never see her wear. The clerk gave me an apologetic look over the woman’s head, and I indicated I was in no hurry. Later the employee at the register explained to the woman how she could pay her bill online or bring a payment into the store. Apparently, her husband had always paid the bills, and she was worried about doing that by herself.

I crave these moments of kindness and decency. So many are trying so hard to do what’s right under circumstances that none of us have ever had to deal with before. There are going to be mistakes and there are going to be challenges and frustrations and can’t we just suck it up a little? Can’t we take a breath and pause before we lash out with a snarky comment or post a rant on social media?

I have never felt such anxiety, and anger about a future I cannot control except through my vote, which I hope and pray will be fairly counted. But sometimes what worries me most is how this me-first mentality manifests itself. It has become a badge of honor with some, including those who hold positions of leadership at all levels. Would we have survived World War II and 9/11 with this kind of behavior and reaction to decisions, that for right or wrong, are being made to protect us?  Have we lost all sense of what it means to sacrifice for the good of all, even pushing back against something as minor as wearing a mask or waiting a few minutes for a dressing room?

I’m grateful for the employees in that store and the thousands of others putting themselves out there and taking risks, so that we can live in some semblance of normalcy. And I’m grateful for the opportunity to hear that elderly shopper tell her story, reminding me of what really matters.

Find a Way In

I made a chocolate cake last weekend because my husband’s aunt was coming for dinner, and I thought she’d enjoy dessert. The cake wasn’t anything special—just a mix jacked up with a cooked homemade frosting. I froze most of it because we don’t need that much cake and put the remainder in the refrigerator. When I sliced off a piece today and tasted that ridge of cold icing, I was reminded of the Sarah Lee cakes my grandmother used to bring home from the Acme. She and I would peel off the cardboard top from the little foil pan and cut a slug of chocolate cake, (or occasionally orange with buttercream frosting) and eat it while it was still frozen, right out of the grocery bag, giggling at the audacity of 11 AM cake. Eating that cold chocolate cake today took me right back to my grandmother’s kitchen with the Formica-topped table and the little window cut in the wall where we moved food in and out for meals on the porch.

I’m currently reading a book about memoir writing where the author suggests using small experiences and tiny details to “find a way in” to your story, to get to some of the hard places. To let the taste of cake or smell of pipe smoke or a crinkled newspaper clipping open the gates and allow the memories and connections to flow.

Maybe we need to find a way in with each other right now. For the first time in my life, politics are impacting relationships, forcing me to make difficult and in some cases, heart-breaking decisions.  I feel constantly on my guard, afraid I’ll say something that may offend, and yet frustrated because I believe I have a right to speak my truth, especially when lives are at stake. I tiptoe because so many choose to stomp with steel-toed boots. I’m trying my best to go high and still stand up for what I believe is right and kind and decent. It’s not easy, and some days I’m afraid I’m going to lose it.

Driving back from the park today where I walk (I know, there’s irony in that), I noticed a number of homes had political signs supporting the same person. Several homes had signs supporting another candidate but, sadly, those signs were defaced with the names obliterated by spray paint. The owners of those homes where the signs were defaced chose to leave them up, perhaps as a symbol of where we are right now as a country.

Politics has always been a sordid business but never like this. It didn’t tear us apart and incite violence and hatred. When I was growing up, my parents used to get together with the neighbors on Friday nights to drink a few beers and shoot the breeze. They were on opposite sides of the political spectrum, and there was much shouting and laughter, especially when my mother got going. But no one ever left those Friday night get-togethers angry. Both families would have done anything for each other, and that was far more important than anyone’s political stance.

We need to find our way back into reasonable conversations and healthy arguments even if they’re fueled by beer and pizza. We need to be able to put a sign in our yard or a bumper sticker on our car without fear of vandalism. We need to find the tiny details, the shared human experiences, and the memories of who we used to be that will re-connect us and get us past this terrible and ever-widening chasm of anger. Before it’s too late.

Examining Our Prejudice

I sat in a meeting recently where a consultant told us to “examine our own prejudices,” before interviewing candidates for a job opening. That how each of us personally feels about an individual’s age, gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity could affect our perception of his or her ability to do the job. No matter how vehemently we deny it or how politically correct we see ourselves, we all harbor prejudice of some kind. It’s part of the human condition. The tough part is knowing when prejudice is whispering in our ear, trying to exert undue influence in our decision-making.

I grew up in a middle-class, blue-collar small town. There were certain black classmates I could invite to my birthday parties and others I could not, because they lived on Front Street and didn’t always dress well or smell good.  My grandmother was educated in the south in the early 1900’s. If there was almost-spoiled food in the refrigerator or clothing that was no longer wearable she would say, “Give it to Marian.” Marian was a kindly black woman who served for years as my grandparents’ housekeeper.  No one questioned giving something to her that we wouldn’t eat or wear ourselves. The unspoken implication was that Marian was poor and would be happy to accept our cast-offs.

My parents often referred to a highly successful local businessman as being “light in the loafers” because he was gay, a statement usually accompanied by raised eyebrows and knowing looks. My family members were not terrible people, and I don’t think they saw themselves as prejudiced. Their behavior reflected the social norms of the day in a conservative small town.  I look back on that era now with horror and amazement.  

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My life has been blessed and enriched by people I’ve met along the way who are different from me. I can point to the individuals and situations that have vastly changed my perspective over the years and I am so grateful for those God-given opportunities.  But I still have work to do. I freely admit prejudice against those who choose not to be educated, who close their minds, who refuse to give something new a chance. Who judge based on appearance or lifestyle. Who bully those they perceive as inferior to them. Who indirectly condone the murder of school children because they’re afraid someone will take away their hunting rifle. Who blame others for choices they themselves have made. Who blaspheme Christianity by using it as a defense for acts of political or ethnic hatred.

Sadly, we live in a time where those 1960’s attitudes are once again not only prevalent but encouraged by some. The sentiments that used to be whispered in the board room or the roadside bar are now not only plastered on our car bumpers but promoted all over social media, where the poison spreads even faster than it did in the last century. The unspoken message is “It’s ok to be cruel and trample others as long as you come out ahead.” Abhorrent rhetoric from the leader of our country has re-ignited racism and prejudice in unprecedented and truly frightening ways.

So, where does that leave the rest of us who are trying to do the right thing, to live as God intended? Does blatant and publicly acceptable racism force us to take a harder look at our own attitude? Yes, we’re shocked and appalled when police are called to remove black women from a local golf course for no apparent reason. But is there a tiny part of us that is angry and frustrated and under the right circumstances, may be forced to confront some racism and prejudice of our own? Is what we say on the surface reflective of what we’d do in a given situation or are we just giving lip service to maintain our appearance of political correctness?

 Examining our own prejudice is a tall and painful order. I’m working on it before those interviews start.

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