I live in the country where it seems that nothing happens. I confess that I have fallen prey to the art of generalizing. You know – the people here, the places here, they’re so “country.” I long for the crisp sidewalks of the urban terrain. I long for the crisp ideas that pop off dirty streets and dark alleys. Yet, I must admit that when I take a three-mile walk in Poughkeepsie often in the company of Christina Aguilera, Sting or Marvin Gaye – I am at peace. So much so, that I turn off my music to hear the rustle of the orange, yellow and green leaves. I am at home, here too, in my open space and in my dreams.
I walk with my daughter to a near by park. Not sure if the pleasure is more hers than mine. Her chatter reminds me of innocence and better days. I am awed by a child’s grace. At the park, a neighbor comes by with his wife and children. He wears blue denim overalls and ruddy cheeks over light peach flesh, blue eyes, I think. His wife petite and brown, I learn later she is from Cambodia. Their small child greets me first. He is four. He wears dingy pajamas with a hole on the knee. He is one of the most beautiful children I have ever seen. After showing me his boo-boo carefully wrapped with a band-aid, his father starts to speak to me.
I learned that his pension had been threatened and that at a recent meeting he found out that they could only guarantee 38 cents per dollar, that after twenty-five years of service in construction, he was worried that he would end up with less than what his family needs. He spends his time between the political affairs section at Barnes and Nobles and home with his three kids since he is unemployed as a result of a leg injury. He is outraged that while his government proudly spends a billion dollars on a military helicopter to hover over a country over seas, the supermarket clerk treats him with disdain every time he shuffles through his wallet in search of his food stamps. He asks me sarcastically, “Am I to blame?” He sites the names of notable political theorists and makes significant and insightful connections between his daily life and the economy, politics and history. He wonders how the media spends so much time demonizing an intelligent Harvard grad with new ideas when “all of us are represented in that fellow’s DNA!” Who in American ain’t an immigrant?” he exclaims. “Isn’t it enough that he’s got a plan to change?”
After forty minutes of pushing swings and swapping stories, information and resources that run the spectrum from Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein and Michael Moore to fights on the phone with cablevision reps and credit card reps to explaining the relationship between Cambodia and American history and what that means in 2008… I say, I have to go now, it was a pleasure meeting you. He replies when my back has already turned, Thanks – Hey! Thanks for sharing.
All the way home, I couldn’t help feel two things. First I felt shame. Shame that at first glance, I’d think this neighbor was just another country blue collar red-neck that had little to offer me in terms of progressive thinking. (gotta go, gotta go home back to the hustle and bustle of the urban streets.) And two, I felt deep gratitude and humility. That while the flaws of my ego were clear to me, to him; he was able to feel my higher spirit. And I guessed, that perhaps, just perhaps, I had honored my search for truth long enough, worked for love long enough, that while still very human, I was afforded the honor to connect and expand myself through the life of another human being different on the outside from me.
I don’t know my neighbor and my neighbor does not know me. Sometimes I step out of my safety and I get scared at what I see. It is so easy for me to dodge the dialogue on diversity because listening to our loved one and our friends and our neighbors can be so disappointing, alarming. Yet, every time I think I have got to stop and run away, I meet a Tom or a Daisy or Fernando that reminds me that we are all struggling within our own limitations to be free.
During this election season, when politics and religion so urgently divide, find the courage and strength to explore your light and dark side. Participate, debate, and make your best and sincere choice for the benefit and honor of all of us.