Conversation in Aisle 3
You can’t go to the grocery store in my town without planning ahead. I’m not referring to being prepared with a shopping list and coupons. I’m talking about being appropriately dressed and groomed before leaving the house. That’s because the grocery store is the one place where you are guaranteed to run into at least 10 people you know.
Since I usually go to the grocery store on the weekends but also embrace weekends as a time when I don’t have to “people,” this creates a conflict for me. I like my alone time on the weekends for many reasons, but I especially enjoy not taking a shower, putting in my contacts, or wearing anything fancier than yoga pants and a sweatshirt. Unless it’s summer. Then I wear shorts and a t-shirt. In other words, I am not looking my best on weekends unless I am forced to go out and be social. But I do have to eat, so I have had numerous internal debates about when is the best time to make a grocery run: I can go to the store early in the morning or late at night to avoid people or I can take a shower and make an attempt to look like a presentable human being. Usually, the part of me that doesn’t care what people think wins and I don’t choose either option. I just end up going to the store at the most convenient time looking a bit of a mess.
Decades ago, however, I did care. This was at a time in my life when I had a lot less free time to take care of my appearance or to choose when I would make a trip to the grocery store, especially when we had a milk (or rather a lack of milk) emergency. On one particularly evening, we had just such an emergency, and I told my husband I would make a quick milk run. I threw on a pair of work boots, which were sitting at the door and therefore were the most convenient footwear choice, and drove a short distance to the closest grocery store. It was only after I arrived that I realized how ridiculous I looked. The boots didn’t exactly go with the flannel boxer shorts and sweatshirt I was wearing (without a bra of course.) I didn’t worry too much though because I thought “no one is going to be at the store at 8:30 on a cold, Thursday night.”
I was wrong. I ended up having a ten minute conversation with someone I worked with in the community. I stood with my arms crossing my chest the whole time in fear they would notice my lack of appropriate undergarments. They probably thought my body language meant that I didn’t want to be engaged in conversation with them, which was accurate but not for the reasons they probably thought. I simply had no desire to talk to anyone in public without wearing a bra. I haven’t been caught braless in public since that time (unless you count the number of times I’ve walked the dog around my neighborhood without wearing one.)
Thankfully, this week I had a training on Friday which ended earlier than my normal work day. I took the unexpected time as an opportunity to go to the grocery store when I actually looked presentable. I hadn’t made it much farther than the produce section when I heard someone yell “Trina.” I turned around to see a woman I didn’t recognize. “Are you Trina?” she asked. When I answered in the affirmative, she motioned to the end of aisle 2. “That woman in the white t-shirt was yelling for you.” All I could see was the hint of the white t-shirt as the woman in question left aisle 2. Curious, I steered my shopping cart toward Aisle 3 guessing that was where the mystery woman had gone. I was correct.
It was a woman I know through community work but whom I hadn’t seen in several years. After a few pleasantries, she told me, “I applied for your old job when you left, but they never contacted me.” I apologized to her, but she said “Oh, I talked to one of your old co-workers and it was probably for the best.” I started telling her how I had left the position questioning my abilities and my strengths when the conversation took an unexpected turn. I had stopped talking about myself long enough to recognize that she had applied for a job and asked if she was actively looking for new employment. After she said, “not really” she began to explain her employment situation.
I won’t go into details here as it is her story to tell, but it did involve more information than I ever needed to know – including people whom she has slept with and whom other people haven’t slept with. We were having this conversation in Aisle 3. In a popular grocery store. With other people navigating their shopping carts around us. And I didn’t even think it was weird until later when I was telling a friend about it. I guess that’s because I’m used to having weird conversations in weird places with no room for judgement. That’s how my life always goes, and I love it.
Just this week, I posted an image on social media that might seem a bit vapid to some but spoke to my soul. “Imagine if we measured success by the amount of safety that people felt in our presence.” I realized that is what I have always strived for but never understood. While people around me were focused on how much money they made or having an important title, I was seeking something different. My husband calls me a “do-gooder,” but that description has never seemed accurate,. It’s not that I need to “do” good. It’s that I want other people to feel good about themselves.
And here is the thing. I left that conversation in Aisle 3 feeling good about myself (and not because I was dressed appropriately and wearing a bra) because the woman with whom I was talking is seeking the same thing. She turned a conversation about how I felt like I had failed to one that left me smiling, laughing, and confident in my ability to connect with other people.
It also left me recognizing that we all need more conversations like the one in Aisle 3.
Truth and Consequences
When I was twelve years old, these were some of my truths:
- Being a college graduate was not a life goal, it was a life requirement.
- If you were “on welfare,” you were lazy.
- People who never left their hometown were under achievers.
- Getting anything but an A on a test or a report card was a failure.
- A woman who isn’t employed outside the home isn’t living up to her potential
These weren’t really truths at all.
They were assumptions that I had formed based on a variety of circumstances. Both of my parents were college graduates, both had travelled widely before getting married, and both lived thousands of miles from their hometowns. My mom had always worked at least part time, and much of her identity was wrapped up in her job. My parents’ friends were also transplants from all over the country, and very few lived in the same community where they grew up.
They were also inferences based on my limited life experience. If I applied myself and studied, I was always rewarded with an A. My classmates who lived in public housing and came to school unprepared did poorly in school, and my parents always talked about where my brother and I would go to college not if we would.
They were opinions based on conversations I overheard when a group of adults got together. My young brain still thought that adults who were “successful” knew everything.
And so, I entered my adolescence armed with what I thought were life’s truth and with an attitude that anyone could get A’s, graduate from college, and earn a good salary if they just applied themselves.
That’s how I entered adolescence.
I left adolescence a much different person. I had sometimes done my best and failed anyway. I had been exposed people who had different ideas and different backgrounds but whom I respected. And, maybe most importantly, my simplistic ideas about right and wrong had been challenged by people who were smarter and more experienced than I was. My truths hadn’t been rooted in reality but in a warped sense of judgement that people who weren’t like me or my family were in the wrong.
On Wednesday, I was reminded about the importance of not only admitting you have been wrong, misinformed or just plain ignorant but of also being willing to change.
I was having a conversation with an acquaintance whose adult child had recently come out as transgender. We were talking about the challenge of accepting and loving our children while still trying to grasp the reality of who they are. We talked about how, when we were younger, our only exposure to people who were transgender was through pop culture when it was generally used as a device to generate humor. My most vivid memory is of the Bud Light guys who dressed up like women so they could get drink deals during ladies night at the local bar.
What we didn’t talk about was the vitriol, blame, and hate that was currently circulating on social media. Only two days earlier, an individual who was raised as a female and had recently started identifying as a male killed six people at a Christian school in Nashville Tennessee. This fact allowed judgmental, narrow-minded people with a reason to blame the transgender community. “It’s not about guns,” they screamed. “It’s about mental illness and a lack of morals.”
Last time I checked, a lot of very mentally healthy people are transgender. In fact, making the change has greatly improved their mental health. Also, the fact that I was born female and identify as female has absolutely nothing to do with my morals. Morals are about how we treat and provide positive opportunities for other people. That’s it. It’s that simple. And yet, for many people it’s not. They hold on tightly to what they know to be true: transgender people are sick, drag queens are a danger to children, and exposing young students to a statue of a naked man will create lasting damage to their psyche.
I know those aren’t truths at all. They are simply consequences of being misinformed and fearful of something that’s difficult for many to understand. It’s about being resistant to change and growth. It’s about thinking that the way you live and the choices you make are the best way to live rather than just one way to live.
I admit I get angry when I see and hear narrow-minded people making hateful comments about others’ sexual orientation, or gender identity. I struggle at not lashing back and saying “these are real people you are talking about. They are someone’s child, someone’s sibling, someone’s friend. You are the one with something morally wrong.” And then I remember who I used to be and that people can grow, change, and learn to accept our differences.
If I can change, so can others.
It’s a truth I have to hold on to tightly.
I turned 56 yesterday.
I am now closer to 60 than I am to 50 and closer to the end of my life than to the beginning. I’m not trying to be morbid. Its just a fact. Even though my brain still thinks I’m in my thirties, and I certainly don’t feel mature (in any sense), the math doesn’t lie. And yet, the older I get, the more I enjoy my birthdays.
I used to hate my birthdays because I felt they represented all I should have accomplished but hadn’t. Now that I’m older, I don’t necessarily worry about what I have or haven’t accomplished. Instead, I celebrate all I have learned and all of the tough lessons life has taught me not because I was accomplishing something but because I was living, making mistakes, and simply being human.
Several years ago, I celebrated my birthday by listing all of the things I had learned in almost five decades. I haven’t gone back to find that post, but I have once again been thinking about what age and experience has taught me, especially in the past few years when, in the middle of the pandemic, I was also struggling to survive an unhealthy relationship.
Don’t worry – I’m not talking about my marriage. I am fairly certain I married the most patient and tolerant man in the world who, despite all of my faults, is always there for me. I’m talking about an unhealthy work relationship. It wasn’t until a co-worker told me I was in an abusive relationship that I began to recognize it for what it was. (My co-worker made the observation as I stood holding a vase of recently delivered flowers – an apology for being treated horribly the previous day, although the card didn’t say that. It said “I hope you have a better day today.” There was no acknowledgement that the sender was the reason my previous day had been so horrible.) Up to that point, I hadn’t even considered that the cycle of abuse can occur in a work relationship – not just a romantic one.
Now that I am out of that unhealthy relationship, I can look back on it as yet another experience that made me wiser, stronger and more self-aware. I guess the same thing could be said for all of my 56 years. My life has been one long continuing education program that’s provided me with the following nuggets of wisdom (five for each decade plus six for the balance of years):
- Don’t ever, ever, ever let anyone else define who you are. Don’t let their negative words sound louder in your head than your own self talk. No one else spends 24 hours a day with you. No one else knows all of struggles you have overcome or the tough decisions you have been forced to make.
- Sing out loud every single day. Trust me – it always helps. Just last week my co-workers and I broke into a random round of camp songs, and it lifted my spirits for the rest of the day.
- Don’t let someone else’s moral code influence yours. If you feel you are doing the right thing, don’t worry about what other people think. We are all just doing our best.
- Forgive others but hold them accountable. People who are abusive or controlling are reaching for something they can’t seem to obtain. They think that pulling you down will bring them closer to what they want. It won’t.
- Don’t confuse being kind with being a doormat. When people are wrong, call them out even if people say you being unkind. There is a difference between being mean and standing up for what right or what is best.
- Spend time outside every single day. I mean it. Every single day – even if it is really cold or really hot. Walk out the door, look at the sky, breathe deep, and appreciate all God has created.
- Don’t confuse organized religion with spirituality. Organized religion was created by men trying to make sense of a confusing world or, unfortunately, often to control others. Spirituality is about connecting to a higher power and a finding a meaning greater than ourselves in life.
- Learn to laugh at yourelf and forgive yourself. I do stupid things every day, which is why my motto is “the day I don’t make a mistake is the day I’m dead.” I also amuse myself every single day. My thoughts are often ridiculous, and the things I say can be completely goofy. I am a complete klutz and I regularly fall down or trip or break something.
Instead of beating myself up– Wait, strike that, I’m always beating myself up because I’m uncoordinated. Instead of berating myself for my mistakes and misteps, I’ve learned to turn my life into an ongoing, and hopefully, entertaining anecdote.
- Don’t let other people’s desire for power be a reason to let go of yours.
- Surround yourself with people who don’t need anything from you other than your genuine, true self. If you are always trying to prove yourself, hide your negative attributes, cling to an entity or organization for validation, or pretend to be someone or something your aren’t, you will never be truly happy.
- Don’t sell yourself short or compare yourself to others. Don’t think not knowing how to do something is a reason not to learn how to do it. Don’t limit possibilities. And don’t ever, ever think getting older means you should stop dreaming.
I turned 56 yesterday, and I can’t wait to see what I learn next.
How to Shut Up a Man
I was doing one of my least favorite things last week: sitting in a dental chair with a numb mouth with what felt like an interogation light in my eyes while my dentist and his assistant hovered over me with various scary looking implements.
I recently read that people in jobs that involve touching their clients need to create a bond or connection with the person for whom they are providing services. I get that when it comes to the person who does your hair. Sara, my hair dresser, is a better therapist than most therapists I know, but I have absolutely no need to pour out my heart to my dentist.
And yet, here he was, trying to make a crappy moment more chummy by inserting himself into my personal thoughts – or, in this case, the podcast I was trying to listen to in an attempt to tune out my real life situation.
“What are you listening to?” he asked.
Here’s the thing: when someone has their earphones in, that is a signal that they don’t want to engage in conversation. It’s the human version of putting a “do not disturb” sign on the door handle of a hotel room. I can understand if my dentist couldn’t see that I had them in, but I had specifically asked if it was ok to use wireless earphones in the dental chair and was assured they were fine and would not interfere with any equipment.
But even if he couldn’t read that I had absolutely no interest in engaging in small talk, I didn’t want to be rude to someone who had the potential to really hurt me. So I turned off my podcast and told him I was currently obsessed with the Murdaugh Murdaugh trial in South Carolina.
He surprised me with his knowledge of the case. Thankfully, he didn’t expect me, with my numb and drooling mouth, to explain it to his assistance, who said she loved true crime but didn’t know that case. I missed some of what he said as I pondered how anyone would be interested in true crime and NOT know about the Murdaugh saga, But then he drew me back into the conversation, “I can’t believe that in this day and age, there are still good old boys who get away with so much.”
He was looking at me for a response, and without thinking I said, “That’s because you aren’t female.”
He actually seemed shocked as though he thought I should have appreciated the fact that he was calling out the good old boy system. He reacted as though I were saying he was part of it. He even stopped trying to make small talk.
In truth, I really hadn’t made the comment to make him feel bad or call him out on anything. I was simply making an observation that he has never been affected by the good old boy mentality in a way that I, and most women I know, have.
I’ve quit a job because the male CEO never even asked his female employees if they were interested in his position when he retired. Instead, he came to us and said, “I know the perfect person to take over the organization when I leave.” Of course it was a white guy just like him who didn’t have nearly as much relevant experience as the women who already worked at the organization. I have had sit in silence listening to the verbal back slapping and one upmanship of men who have turned to me and asked if I could get them something to drink. I’ve even had to tolerate a community leader who insisted on calling me Mrs. Snyder (my husband’s last name) even though he knew that wasn’t my last name. It was his way of putting me “in my place.”
And none of that even touches on the sexual harrassment and discrimination I’ve endured in a system built by and for white men.
My dentist never followed up on my comment, but if he had, I probably would have said something like this: people in power want to stay in power. Until a few decades ago, doing favors for each other while ignoring wrong doings was how men got what they wanted. That doesn’t change in a few decades, especially in communities where that power generates fear and keeps everyone “in their place.” Even worse, in the past few years, I’ve seen women using the same tactics to gain power and control over others.
I think that is why my immediate reaction to his disbelief that the good old boy network still exists was to tell him that’s because he doesn’t have to see it.
I can only hope that maybe, just maybe, the reason he was so quiet during the rest of my appointment was not because he was upset with me or my reaction but because instead of talking, he was thinking about what I’d said. And hopefully, he also understood just a little bit more than he had before.
Giving Up or Letting Go?
I love podcasts. I seriously don’t know how I once managed to get through walks in the woods with my dog, regular household chores and long car drives without them. They are amazing. I can be productive AND entertained AND informed by just popping in my wireless earphones and going about my business.
I especially like the ones in which I feel like I’m eavesdropping on a conversation with good friends. The hosts don’t pretend they are perfect and sometimes talk about some of the same struggles I often face. These aren’t polished productions with professionals who guarantee they will provide the best advice about how to improve our lives, our budgets, our families, and whatever else self-help gurus talk about. I don’t need anyone telling me my life would be so much better if I just did “this” – whatever the latest, shiniest “this” is.
The podcasts that I prefer don’t have origins in board rooms with the primary purpose being to create productions that ensure shareholders and CEOs get even wealthier. My favorite podcasts started out in basements or at kitchen tables or in living rooms in which the hosts just want to tell stories or talk about something interesting. They don’t need fancy productions or perfectly polished delivery. They just need to be relatable, and relatable they are.
Just this week, the hosts of a podcast I regularly listen to were talking about New Year’s resolutions with a twist: instead of trying to do something new or better you choose something to let go. (This wasn’t the primary content – it was just a conversation the hosts had before they delivered the primary content. Again – I’m not into self-help as entertainment.) They weren’t discussing giving up something – like junk food or drinking alcohol or watching too much television. They were talking about something completely different.
Up until then, I’d never thought about how giving up and letting aren’t the same thing. Giving up can be good (I’m giving up candy) or it can be bad (I’m giving up trying to write the great American novel.) Letting go is about lifting a self-imposed weight that drags you down.
Giving up is about making a sacrifice, like people do during Lent, or about failure. It’s rooted in negativity and requires regular, conscious, decision-making. It’s about trying to maintain control in a chaotic world. Letting go isn’t about sacrifice at all. It’s about choosing to not think or worry about something that generally serves no helpful purpose.
I love this perspective because, like many people, there is so much I need to let go of: automatically feeling like I fall short when I compare myself to others; worrying that I could have done a better job raising my kids; ruminating over past decisions; obsessing about people who have treated me poorly or about people I’ve treated poorly. None of that is helpful to me or anyone else. It serves no purpose other than to create obstacles to appreciating all of the things I do right and enjoying life to its fullest.
In 2023, I’ll do my best to let go because I am at a point in my life that I don’t want to give up things I love (like podcasts). Besides, giving up seems to be more about what you show the outside world you can or can’t do. Letting go is about the stories we tell ourselves. This year, let’s all tell ourselves some great stories.
I absolutely love when a fictional character says something that completely resonates with me to the extent that I’m still thinking about it days, or even years, later. For example, I don’t even remember which Scott Turow novel I was reading or which of his characters made the observation that teenage relationships teach you how to break up not how to stay together. The concept rang so true to me that I still reference it.
More recently, my husband and I were watching Three Pines, the television series based on Louise Penny’s books featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. During one episode, the detective tells another character, “Grief is love that has nowhere to go.” That simple statement captured the essence of grief in such a meaningful way that I know I will remember it forever.
But no quote has ever rang as true as one in the most recent Peter Robinson novel when his character Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks makes the observation that “Superficial people have superficial morals.”
(I’m going to make a brief side note here: Peter Robinson is one of my favorite authors, and I actually got to meet him at the National Book Festival in 2008. Unfortunately, he passed away just a few months ago, and his final novel will be released this spring.)
The statement about superficial people having superficial morals was a reaction to how some people are quick to judge other people’s relationships based on some shallow moral code. No truer statement could have ever been made. Shallow morality is a moral code rooted not in love and compassion but in judgement and fear. Ironically, most people who spout shallow morality don’t think they are superficial. Many think they are spouting a gospel that can not be questioned.
It can, and should, be. In fact, I suggest that everyone ask the following questions before dropping a judgement bomb:
- Do you believe that a relationship can be immoral even if both partners are of age and are not hurting each other? If so, you might have superficial morals.
- Do you use fear and scare tactics as a justification for judging others. For example, do you tell others that trans individuals are stalking potential prey in bathrooms or that gay men are more likely to be pedophiles. If so, you might have superficial morals.
- Do you spout passages from the Bible out of context or without considering that some passages even contradict each other. If so, you might have superficial morals.
- Do you think that you have to be a Christian to be a moral person? If so, you might have superficial morals.
- Do you blindly follow your brand of Christianity, its rituals and its dogma without question or challenge. If so, you might have superficial morals.
- Do you protect your own and circle the wagons to protect others who think like you even if you know they are hurting others? If so, you might have superficial morals.
- Do you make sweeping judgements about other people’s difficult decisions, such as whether to terminate a pregnancy, with no understanding why the decision was made or the consequences of other options. If so you might have superficial morals.
- And finally, do you believe that whole groups of people are less moral than you are and therefore need to be treated differently – whether it’s Muslims or Mexicans or African Americans or refugees or immigrants? If so, you definitely have superficial morals.
The bottom line is that morals should never be used to make us feel superior to other people. In fact, they should instead be used as an opportunity to learn about, care about and love people who are completely different than us. They should make our world and experiences bigger not smaller. They should be based on inclusivity not exclusivity. And most of all, we should recognize that they are subject to change as we have new experiences, meet new people and learn more about the science behind human behavior. To me, superficial morality isn’t moral at all.
I know not everyone will agree with me. I don’t care. As the late, great Leslie Jordan (who like Peter Robinson passed away in 2022) said, “What other people think about me is none of my business.” Thank you Leslie and thank you Peter for your moral guidance.
I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts the other day, and the hosts were bubbling with excitement about having just received their 2022 year in review from Spotify. Since I had just received (and of course shared) my year in review from the language app Duolingo, I realized that these reviews are just another marketing tool to suck us in so we share our results while providing free advertising.
Because they are intended to make us feel good about ourselves, these fluffy, feel good, reports don’t capture a realistic snapshot of what really happened over the course of the past year.
I’m always up for a challenge, so I decided I’d try to create my own (realistic) year in review.
Here’s my best shot with the disclaimer the following may or may not be based on valid data:
Hours I spent listening to true crime podcasts: 836
Hours I spent cleaning my house: 12
Phrase I said the most: “The day I don’t make a mistake is the day I’m dead.”
Phrases I never said, “I’d like to live in Florida.” and “I think Texas would be a good place to live.”
The number of times I went to Google to make a diagnosis based on my symptoms: 18
The number of times I went to a doctor to get a diagnosis based on my symptoms: 0
Pounds I lost trying to get healthier: 8
Pounds I gained from stress eating: 10
The number of times in conversation I said, “I have a story about that:” 422
The number of times in conversation someone said “Trina always has a story:” 421
Minutes I spent doom scrolling the internet: 3,523
Minutes I spent reading serious literature: 0
The number of times I’ve stopped my car in the middle of the street and gotten out just to pet a neighbor’s dog: 43
The number of times I’ve stopped my care in the middle of the street and gotten out to help a neighbor: 0
Tears I shed from dealing with a narcissistic bitch who was gaslighting me: 2,530
Tears I shed from laughing so hard I cried: 3,403
The number of times I’ve said “I feel like I’m a bad mother:” 46
Number of children I have: 2
Number of children who are college graduates: 2
Number of children who have been arrested or gone to jail: 0
Number of children who are gainfully employed: 2
The number of times I’ve fallen down while walking the dog, or going down the stairs, or carrying something heavy: 19
The number of black eyes I had: 1
The number of bruises I had: 1,748
The percentage of words that I uttered that many people would consider inappropriate or swear words: 18%
The percentage of times I regretted not telling someone I loved them: 0.
(If I love you, you will know it – especially if you are a dog.)
This year I’ve learned that sometimes justice isn’t possible, and you just have to walk away from a bad situation even if it means also walking away from unachieved goals and people you care about. I’ve learned that if you are a genuine person who cares about the underdog, you will attract genuine people who care about the underdog. And, most importantly, I continue to learn not to take myself to seriously. I’m the only person who has to spend 100% of their time with me. I might as well enjoy that time.
So here is to 2022 and an even better 2023. Here’s to the people who listened to me cry and rant and to the people who I never want to see again but who have taught me important life lessons. And here is to you. I hope you are your own best friend and that you take care of yourself regardless of what others think. It’s a challenge we can all continue to pursue.
The Place You Belong
I hated feeling like a stranger in my own life.
Thankfully, I rarely experience that feeling anymore, but it used to creep into my psyche like an unwanted encounter with a mean girl from high school. I did my best to present as confident and competent, but I actually felt like a pretender and an invader in the lives of people who really belonged.
I have, after all, spent my entire life living in places where I don’t have a family connection. Or so I thought. Because sometimes, one tiny piece of information can change everything.
For me, that small shift was seeing a headstone at a park where I walk my dog on a regular basis. The last name on the marker is Mowen, which is my great-grandmother’s maiden name. Initially, I just thought this was interesting. After all, I live in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, wedged between Northern Virginia and Maryland. My dad grew up in Massachusetts, my mom grew up in Michigan, and my family moved several times when I was a child. I didn’t grow up around any extended family.
This is probably why I embraced genealogy with a passion and became the family historian. When my grandparents passed away, the treasures I inherited might have had little value for many people, but to me the old photos, ledgers, deeds, and birth certificates are priceless. I’ve done a DNA test, convinced my parents to do a DNA test, and spent hours trying to figure out the puzzle of my family tree. What I never expected was to randomly stumble upon a headstone of a distant relative.
And yet, I did. After logging onto my laptop and doing some simple research, I determined that I was indeed related to the Mr. Earl C. Mowen, who is memorialized by a simple marker on a forest trail in Poor House Farm Park. Granted, the relationship is rather distant as Mr. Mowen and my great-grandmother had the same grandparents.
My great grandmother’s family is actually from Washington County, Maryland, which is only minutes from my house. I have ancestors buried in cemeteries in nearby Hagerstown, and a few geographic locations actually bear the last name of some of my ancestors.
While all of this is fascinating, it shone a light on something even more important: having a family connection to the area where I now live hasn’t affected my feelings about being a stranger in my life. I rarely feel that way anymore not because I have historical ties to this area but because I’ve been able to build my own life. Instead of being a stranger, I’m a main character surrounded by people who accept me, and care about me, and support me even though we don’t share the same DNA or childhood memories. I don’t have to pretend or feel like an invader.
I can create the place where I belong.
What We Didn’t Say
The conversation with the two strangers started with a puppy. It was an adorable, soft, fluffy, three-month old Husky with bright blue eyes that drew me to it like… well… like any dog draws me to it.
In all honesty, it could have been a mangy mutt, and I would still have stopped my bike ride to say hi. I do, after all, always carry dog treats when I am out riding my bike.
The puppy was trying to catch a quick nap while the person on the other end of its leash was engaged in conversation with a woman working in her yard. I interrupted the conversation to first ask if I could pet the puppy and then to ask all of the important questions about the puppy.
Neither the puppy’s owner nor the woman with whom he was speaking seemed to mind. In fact, their interest turned from the puppy to me.
“How far do you ride?”
“Where do you ride?”
“Don’t you think some of those roads are dangerous?”
The last question prompted a discussion about how some people can be complete jerks.
“Someone once threw a whole cup of iced tea out of their car window at me,” I told them. “It hurt because it was hurtling from a moving car, and I know it was sweetened because it was so sticky.”
“Yeah,” the guy said, “People can be real jerks. I was out jogging once, and someone yelled then through a raw egg at me. It hit me right in the chest.”
We were all silent for a moment before he said, “I had to just turn the other way. There’s no point in confronting people like that. It just makes the situation worse.”
We continued to talk about how confronting angry and rude people isn’t worth the effort. What none of us mentioned, or even acknowledged, was that the stakes were different for the the man.
That’s because the other woman and I were white. The man was black.
If the conversation had been with friends or even acquaintances, we would have addressed the issue of race. But when the man mentioned having the egg thrown at him, I didn’t ask if he thought the perpetrators were racist. When he said he didn’t engage with hateful people because he might land in jail if he got in a fight, I just nodded. And when he said that his wife doesn’t want him to let the dog out at night because the neighbors had threatened to call the police if it barked, I joked that all my neighbors have dogs that bark.
I didn’t raise the issue of racism, but I could feel it hanging in the air like a storm cloud full of rain. And even though it was obviously there – heavy and dark -we acted as though it didn’t exist.
I felt as though raising the issue would be akin to handing each of them a “Black Lives Matter” bumper sticker only to be handed an “all lives matter” one in return. I just didn’t have the emotional fortitude.
The issue of race shouldn’t be political because there should only be one view of it: it shouldn’t exist and when it does, we need to acknowledge and address it.
And yet, just like during my conversation with strangers yesterday, we often dance around racism as if ignoring it will make it go away.
I honestly don’t know that actually raising the issue during that particular conversation with strangers would have been appropriate. What I do know is even though no words were said, it WAS part of the conversation.
And here’s the other thing I know. That puppy? The one that brought us all together for a short period it time? That puppy loved getting attention from all of us and had no concept of race.
Maybe that’s why I like dogs so much.
The Difference Between Like and Respect
I was having dinner on a friend’s deck with a group of like-minded women when we got the news: Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died.
We all reacted differently even though I’m certain we were all feeling the same way. One of us burst into tears. Another just sat silent while a third stood up and started clearing dishes. Me? I cussed. I cussed because Notorious RBG was a role model and a heroine. I cussed because I know what is at stake. And I cussed because some people I know will see her death more as an opportunity than a reason to mourn.
The following words are for those people: I may like you, but I can’t respect you.
I like you because we might laugh together or share common interests or talk about our children.
But I can’t respect you because your vision of what our country’s future holds for those children isn’t one of diversity and inclusion and equality.
I can’t respect you because you believe your narrow definition of Christianity is the only legitimate religion.
I can’t respect you because you can’t discern the difference between journalism, opinion pieces and fake news.
I can’t respect you because you share information on social media that validates your opinion even if when the information is a complete lie.
I can’t respect you because you support political candidates and listen to pundits who claim that liberals aren’t real Christians.
I can’t respect you because you are a one-or two-issue voter who makes decisions at the ballot box based on dogma rather than on the scope and impact of a variety of policies on people’s day-to-day lives.
I can’t respect you because no matter how many times someone has tried to explain the difference between “gun control” and “taking away your guns,” you choose to listen to propaganda from the NRA,
I can’t respect you because you are voting for politicians who care about money more than they care about the well-being of people.
I can’t respect you because you think patriotism is marked by saluting a flag rather than by honoring the first amendment.
I can’t respect you because you throw around the word socialism when what you are really saying is that you don’t want your tax dollars being used to provide services for people you have decided are “undeserving.”
And most of all, I can’t respect you because you are supporting politicians who have shown general disrespect and even criminal behavior toward women.
I know these words will offend some of you, and now you probably won’t respect me. I don’t care.
I’m 53 years old, and I’ve fought hard to become a strong, opinionated woman who cares about minorities and immigrants and the poor and people of different faiths.
I’m writing this because even though there are a lot of people I don’t respect right now, I couldn’t respect myself if I left these words unsaid.
Also, I’m fairly confident that Ruth Bader Ginsburg would approve.