How do we talk to each other?

How do we consider ideas on their merits, not their sources?

Today, Garrison Keillor tells a story.  But handing the mike first to one of you, who asks that I use his initials only.

J.L. writes:

This winter I’ve started going to a CCC-era stone hut on a hill in Tallman Mountain state park near me.  Something about the place has been attracting me as never before.

A man showed up around 4 PM as I sat by the fire I had built and started talking about the remaining piece of the old Tappan Zee Bridge, about to be blown up on Tuesday morning.  As you know, I tend to ramble and coax subjects in various directions, and after some talk about September 11, I brought up the subject of the wall.

I found I had been talking with someone who believes in the wall.  He said he has friends who work in law enforcement in Arizona and he described a situation that sounds like Trump’s description.

But what amazed me the most: he claimed that the immigrants who come here are so hateful, they are using the lettuce as toilet paper in the fields on purpose to get back at Americans for having more than they do.  He claimed it was a fact and I could look it up if I wanted.

I recognize demonization when I hear it — but he was intelligent and had shown a caring attitude in how he had talked with me earlier, so I did my best to maintain my sense of compassion and my ability to help others expand themselves.  Instead of attacking him, I examined out loud what he said, let him know I would respect his opinion yet not believe it.  I shared the suffering I have been through in my life, how there have been times I needed the safety net, how I believe most people (including him) want to be good at heart and do right by others.  I did my best to plant seeds in his heart and mind in hope that he may someday evolve.

I tried to make the point that people tend to demonize the stranger.  And as I said it, I though of Ancient Greek culture, and how revered the stranger was.  And how “the stranger as guest” still is revered among my Cypriot Greek friends.

I also brought up that even if everything he says about the immigrants pouring over the border were true, the wall is unlikely to work.  Interestingly, he didn’t disagree with that point.

I can’t readily explain the intensity of the experience, which ended as darkness fell so he needed to leave before his car got locked in the park for the night, but I had to share with you my sadness and shock at hearing the toilet paper story.

Where there is hate, I try to sow love without being a fool.  But after he drove off and I started walking home, I was seized with sadness and started to cry.

Garrison Keillor’s posted last month about a time when people knew their neighbors:

The annual marathon ran by our house in St. Paul Sunday morning, a phalanx of flashing lights of police motorcycles, followed by Elisha Barno of Kenya and other African runners, and later the women’s winner, Sinke Biyadgilgn, and a stream of thousands of others, runners, joggers, walkers, limpers. For the sedentary writer standing on the curb, it’s a vision of hard work I am very grateful not to have undertaken. In the time I’d spend training to run 26 miles and 385 yards, I could write a book. When you finish a marathon, all you have to show for it is a pile of damp smelly clothes.

Our house is near the end of the course and so we stand yelling “You’re looking good!” at the runners and “It’s all downhill from here!” but after running 25 miles, most people don’t look so good. They look like refugees hustling to the dock to board the last ship leaving Gomorrah. And as the slower runners pass, it feels rather weird to be a bystander at the suffering of one’s fellow humans. Public whippings have been outlawed in this country for at least a century. It is unbecoming to take pleasure in the suffering of another.

And that was when my neighbors turned their backs on the marathon and started commingling on the sidewalk, which is the true beauty of a marathon.

It has become rare for neighbors in America to know each other. This avenue in St. Paul is a series of cloisters, people locked in small spaces and depending on media for their social awareness, and I am one of them. We work hard, fewer of us attend church, we shop at far-flung markets, and we don’t let our kids roam the neighborhood freely. And so, on Sunday morning, men and women in their skivvies jogging past, neighbors I barely know came over to say hi. This was embarrassing.

I grew up in a tight semi-rural neighborhood back in the Fifties. Families of modest means who bought an acre of cornfield and built a house on it. My family was strict evangelical Christian who believed in the imminence of the Rapture and we had Catholics to the west and an outspoken atheist to the east. He believed that when you die, you go into a hole in the ground and that’s the end of the story. He and my dad had one thing in common — they each built their own home from the ground up — and so they shared tools, consulted each other on construction problems, and when it came time for Dad to raise the roof beam, Ted came over and helped. They did not discuss theology. Dad ignored Ted’s ever-present Pall Mall and the bottle of Grain Belt. Ted avoided bad language around my dad.

We were neighbors, we made accommodations. Our family didn’t have a TV set — too worldly — but Mother adored Lucille Ball and so on Monday nights she found a reason to go next door and stand amid clouds of cigarette smoke and watch “I Love Lucy.” Once or twice, she may have given them a gospel tract, “Where Will You Spend Eternity?” But we got along.

It was the children who bound the neighborhood together. Children roamed freely back then, formed alliances, invented their own fantasy games, rode their bikes around country roads, found abandoned barns and sheds to play in, were invited into the homes of people our parents had never met and maybe didn’t approve of. From the age of seven, I was able to walk out of the house and never be asked, “Where are you going?” I simply went. I saw what I saw, no supervision, no play dates.

All the stories about angry divisiveness in the country — the neighbors standing in my driveway didn’t talk about that. What is of interest to us here are our kids, work, where we’ve been lately, and where to go to find the last of the fresh northern tomatoes. A man promised that if he found some at a roadside market he knows, he’d give me half, which is the sort of divisiveness I like.

We did not talk about how remarkable it is that we have become so distant from people who live so near. It was good for my parents to live next door to an atheist. We need a neighbor-to-neighbor exchange program. Close the streets and commingle. You don’t learn manners from social media.

I did look up “lettuce as toilet paper” and found this. It describes a problem not of hateful immigrants but of McDonald’s not adequately training employees in (at least) one of its U.S. 14,000 restaurants.  The solution is not a 2000-mile wall.

Have a great weekend.  Invite your neighbor for a cup of hot chocolate?



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