It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…
So begins Dickens A Tale of Two Cities. Its modern title could be called “A Tale of Two Countries” for this is what America feels like now; not one country but two. Two coasts and everything inbetween. It feels like the seasons Dickens describes so well.
What will connect the coasts and the heartland and plains and desert and southern regions? Certainly not the war of words fought in the media. For the media is another example of the parallel but non-intersecting universe the coasts and the middle of the country occupy. And each “side” has built the other up out of fear and anger and lack of real experience of the other.
One of the gifts of being in Montana for 7 years was the people I encountered and interacted with that I never would have otherwise. Because my friend Judy Fjell was born there, she would take me to places that I would never have ventured because of my East Coast born and bred stereotypes. I ended up in tiny taverns in the middle of nowhere that were filled with animal heads and mining instruments hung all over the walls. And some of the best burgers I have ever eaten. Judy would usually know one of the folks working there because she grew up with them and they would carry on in conversation while I kept my mouth shut.
I was also offered fresh venison, antelope, and elk from the parishioners I served. As a resolute and judgmental vegetarian, I refused their offerings for the first 5 and a half years. I learned that not all hunting was trophy hunting but a way to provide for and feed a family. My friend Steve told me that hunting in his teen years, putting wild game on the table was a way for him to contribute to the family. Yes, I became a born-again carnivore. But more importantly, I came to understand a way of life that had been caricatured rather than accurately portrayed. If I had remained in Montana, I would have learned to hunt my own meat sources. And I came to appreciate ranch life with all of its difficulties and challenges. How it was a way of life. Guns have a place in that life but I can’t see them having a place almost anywhere else. I mourned the raping of the land of Montana by the mining industry. Fracking had just started when I left. My 7 years there were soul changing and thought expanding.
I have been accused of being someone who occupies “either or” but no middle ground. Quick to judge and form an opinion. I am less so after those 7 years in Montana. As was said to me out there, “We like it subtle here.” As a New Yorker, that took some getting used to. I learned some of the cultural nuances and even came to appreciate some of them. So I consider myself lucky because for 7 short years, I got to inhabit somewhere other than the two coasts that formed me. And consequently, I cannot write off “those people” and call them “stupid uneducated, or ignorant.”
If we are going to be a tale of one rather than two countries, we are all going to have to take up residence in the lives, minds, and hearts of those who do not look like, think like, or live like we do. We are going to have to listen rather than pontificate. I am not suggesting that we compromise our values. I am suggesting that ours are not the only ones. We need to learn how those who we see as “other” were shaped, how their values were formed. Some of that can come from scholarly research. But the bulk of it, the meat of it, the heart of it, will come from one on one personal interaction. The coasts are going to have to make the “journey” to the middle of this country. We will have to be curious, inquisitive, open, and non-judgmental. We are going to have to discover what each of us wants and needs and find a way that is acceptable to all of us to get those wants and needs met. This is not work best left to politicians anymore. It is the work of the people. Us.
Get curious. Listen. Make the journey to the “heartland.” It is the only way to “have everything before us…”