In this post, Robin Berger reflects on some of the many American voices she has heard while in Texas.”
He was sitting out in the sun on a warming spring day when we walked by. We stopped to talk, as you do when your home is a tiny box set on a concrete pad and the sun finally comes out, throwing open windows and doors; pushing people to stretch and smell and visit with seldom-seen neighbors.
He sat at the iron picnic table, swirling water around in a pan, looking for gold in dirt he’d brought from Alaska. He showed us gold dust he’d found and collected in small glass vials.
Part of the allure, he said, was the contemplative, slow experience of watching water move across a surface
I watched as he flicked his wrists, pan moving in concentric motion, water swirling.
It’s nice, he said. And he didn’t care if he ever hit it big.
He and his wife are from California.
Somewhere later in the conversation he said California should split in half, so “we could get rid of all the liberals.”
The dog was straining at the leash, eager to move on, and so it was days later before I went back to ask about his comment.
It was a bit colder, his granddaughter snuggled on his lap while his wife played a game on her iPad. Another neighbor – I’d met him two years ago – sat in his wheelchair, smoking.
I told them about the blog, and that I was a liberal, told him I thought further separation was about the last thing we needed and asked what he thought.
“I used to be a Democrat,” he replied. “I HATED Trump during the primaries; couldn’t even watch him”
But Hilary pushed “every one of my buttons” He’s now done a complete flip and couldn’t say enough good things about Trump.
All three of them were angry with Democrats who were “blocking everything he (Trump) is trying to do! Give him a chance, why don’t ya?” he said.
I pointed out that this was the Republican tactic during Obama’s presidency. “Are you saying it’s the right thing to do?!?” his wife asked.
(I’ve heard this argument before and it always stops me in my tracks, because I don’t think it’s the right thing to do … except I don’t know how else to respond to a political agenda so abhorant to me.)
Things devolved from there.
His wife said she didn’t want anything to do with liberals, that there was nothing we could agree upon and then commented on everything I said in an inaudible (to me) mutter. I was forced to say, “I’m sorry … what did you say?” again and again.
I didn’t do any better. At one point, I called her “Sweatheart,” as in “Sweetheart, where did YOU come from?!?” when talking about immigration. This sarcastic use of an endearment is something I have never (until that moment), done in conversation with a stranger.
My skin heated and my heart pounded. I felt sick to my stomach.
And it was true, what she said.
At least in that moment, we were unable to find one thing we could agree upon.
I struggled for days with this. With my feelings of anger; with the continuing conversation in my head … that internal conversation where I was able to sound calm and reasonable, mature and level-headed.
In other words, a conversation very unlike the one that happened in real life.
I thought about how instead of shrinking the divide between us, I helped deepen it.
I thought a lot about what Michelle Obama said about going high, and I wondered what going high might look like, after I’d already gone low.
I think it might look like an apology for standing in their space and for being a rude guest, for calling her “sweetheart.” For adding to the weight of animosity and bitterness it seems we all feel.
They packed up and left before I could work up the courage to do what I knew was right.
I’m left with that old adege … nothing changes unless I change.
I’m left with the knowledge that in these times I need a heart big enough to find the wisdom and breath to sit with anger and contempt and just hold hands with it.
The wrist flicks and the water swirls.
And heavier gold settle to the bottom, he says, while dirt rises to the surface to be examined and then thrown out.
When I think of our conversation this way, maybe it means we have to go through some grit before we get to something worthwhile.
And maybe not all piles of dirt will yield flecks of gold.
Perhaps in some cases, the best I can do is avoid adding more dirt to the pile.