Just Listening

This post is part of the blog “Pulling on Trouble’s Braids” by CCC officer Robin Berger. Robin explores issues of race, gender, class and privilege, seeking ways to bridge the many great divides of contemporary American life.

I met him by chance at a Starbucks a few towns over, a tall, thin 70 year old white man.

He loves poetry and sends Facebook friends poems “just because poems touch me, somehow.”

He runs a CAFO and says he’s been a farmer all his life.

He jokingly says now he’s “retired,” he only works 60 hours a week.

I ask him if he gets government subsidies. “Some,” he replies. He waffles a bit here … he’s against subsidies and believes President Johnson’s War On Poverty was a huge mistake. “We gave all those people all that money,” he says, “and there’s no incentive to work.”

But he believes farmers need a bit of help .“Life’s so uncertain, for a farmer,” he says, looking over my shoulder. Voice dropping he asks if I know what it’s like to watch my crops dry up and blow away … I admit I don’t know that one.

We talk of factory farming. He believes it’s unsustainable and adds, “RoundUp is going to kill us all … it’s in everything we eat.”

“Look,” he says, “Organic matter in the soil here used to be about 6%. Now it’s about 2%. Basically the dirt around here just keeps the plants from falling over – we add everything else.”

He doesn’t understand the Black Lives Matter movement or his own white priviledge.

He talks over me when I try to make a point.

He supports Donald Trump as president and believes Trump is a “true American,” who will do as he’s promised and make America great again, if only the Democrats weren’t “so contrary.”

He dismisses Trump’s treatment of women as “just locker room talk,” but then looks horrified when I ask if that’s how he talks about women … his wife or his two daughters.

“No!” he says and then adds that men in this country treat women better than anyplace else.

I share that when I was younger, every woman I knew had been sexually assaulted in some way. He looks disturbed by this, but then says, “How do you think you’d fare in a Muslim country?”

He proudly considers himself an Islama-phobe (his term) and adds, “They’re here to change us all.” I ask who “they” are. “Muslims,” he says.

I wonder where to go with this … how to find shared ground with someone who says Rush Limbaugh is “a reflection of guys like me.”

He jokingly asks if I’ve had my fill “from the far right.”

(“YES!” I want to shout.)

We’re both aware of the divide that separates us, the fracture that’s widening across our country.

I challenge him to watch a half hour of MSNBC or CNN and tell him I’ll watch a half-hour of Fox News.

He looks aghast and asks if he can drink a couple of beers first. “Whatever gets you through,” I respond.

Could be I’m wasting my time. Certainly neither of us walked away with changed minds or opened hearts.

Here’s the last thing he shared before leaving.

On his way home one night, he “pulled over and stopped my truck. Some guy had just cut a bunch of wild carrot with his brush hog.”

He stops and looks away before continuing.

“The smells … wild bergemont, clover, wild carrot. I just sat there with the windows down. Somewhere along the way I realized I didn’t have the radio on, I wasn’t on my cell phone, and the noise … the insects. A few birds but mostly insects and frogs; they were so loud. I just sat there till after 10:30 … just listening.”

Funny thing … turns out we know a lot of the same people. Probably I’ll see him again at a party or something.

Could be we’ll talk about our experience watching other news sources. Maybe we’ll talk about midwestern summer nights.

Will it change the direction our country is heading?

I have no idea.

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