Daniel and I spent this past week in Texas visiting Daniel’s parents. The trip was a delight. They’ve retired to a quiet farm and have, I’m certain, the world’s goofiest dog. Here’s Mac with the toy alligator Daniel and I bought him…
The weather was sunny and warm almost the entire time.
Ribs. Cowboy Beans. Chicken Fried Steak. Potato salad. Meatloaf. Open-face Pot Roast Sandwiches. Chorizo Spinach Salad.
We found a place that sold fried pies, and which I’m pretty sure is where the expression “OMG!” came into existence. We also went to a bookstore, a hardware store, a feed store, and a coffee shop. We took drives around the beautiful countryside. They showed us the effects of the drought they’re in and effects of the summer wild fires. We played cards, watched football, and ate dinner with their friends. More pie—this time a delicious combination apple/pecan pie that I think only an inspired southerner could have invented. Daniel and his dad trimmed some trees while his mom and I curled up in the sunshine and read and played games. Life was good.
But for me, the best part is what I learned on this trip.
It wasn’t that many years ago that I wasn’t the biggest fan of Texas. I was 17 when I first visited Texas and the visit was to look at a prospective university. As we began the university tour—at the dormitories—the tour guide said “The girls’ dormitories have a curfew of midnight. The boys’ dormitories have no curfew. We’ve found that the boys don’t really want to stay out late once the girls have to come in.” My immediate, 17-year-old-self hit rage in less than one second. “Severe inequitable treatment of women and men! Arrgh! In this day and age! You have GOT to be kidding me!” I thought. All this must have shown on my face, because I remember looking at my mom and dad and sharing the collective thought: “We just flew all the way to Texas for nothing.” We stood quietly looking at each other as the tour began to move on. I think my dad was the first to speak. He sighed. Then said, “Well. I guess that’s it. Let’s go.”
My next visit to Texas wasn’t smooth either. I was 29 and meeting my boyfriend’s parents for the first time. I don’t remember all of that trip—I’m sure there were good times. However, I remember my fear. I remember being scared to go shopping. I’d heard that malls there were experiencing a lot of vehicle break-ins, because so many people in Texas carry guns under their car seats. I remember being scared to meet women. I’d heard a story that many women in Texas carry guns in their handbags. Guns scare me to death. I also remember several sets of people having momentary existential crises about whether they should give two rooms or one to their 29-year-old son and his girlfriend. I was so completely out of my element that when I called my own family to wish them a happy Thanksgiving, I cried. And that wasn’t the last time I cried on that trip. What in the world was I doing in a place so foreign and dangerous?!
Fast forward to this visit. Here’s a small sample of what I learned on this trip:
- My mother-in-law reads all of my blog posts—even the ridiculously long ones I write primarily for myself and other researchers. I strongly suspect that nobody on my own beloved side of the family could say the same (and I couldn’t blame them—the only person I expect to read every blog post is me). She said to me “It’s so much fun to watch you progress. You’re a person who has moved from seeing just THIS [hands held about a foot a part] to seeing all of THIS! [hands held as far out to her sides as they would go].” This made me feel lucky and special. Um, wow.
- A local sheriff is a woman, as is a local fire chief. The fire chief is seeking to know everyone in her entire district, because she believes it’ll make them all safer from, and safer fighting, fire. So smart, this woman. Go Texas women!
- Their friends have a dog that absolutely refuses to bark—even the time he was accidentally locked in a storage room overnight,
and they thought he’d run away. We have a dog like that. These same friends give help, kindness, and work to a man who spent most of his adult life drunk. Here in our Seattle neighborhood, we do the same.
- There’s a nudist colony in the area where Daniel’s folks live. Nudists. In the Bible belt. I just find that cool.
- Several of Daniel’s parents’ friends have bravely battled back from life-threatening illnesses and beaten the odds to keep living and spending time with their family and friends. When friends and pets pass away, their grief is as deep as mine, and their generosity in helping others through grief appears to exceed my own. I have much to learn.
- In 1937, natural gas leaked at a nearby school, killing many children. Parents and other community members raced from all directions to help and kept on helping in the face of learning they may have lost their own children. I learned that the smell that is added to natural gas in the U.S.—to protect me and my family from similar explosions—came into being thanks to those people in Texas. Twice in my life I’ve lived in homes with old furnaces that started to leak, and we called in professionals immediately because
of that smell. Those people in Texas in the 1930s saved our lives—70+ years later. Thank you brave and persistent people.
This time, I recognized so much of my own South Dakota childhood in the towns we visited. And just like in South Dakota, some small towns are pulling together as communities and restoring their downtowns into warm, welcoming, unique, and beautiful places. Other small towns seem almost to be fading into non-existence, and I felt the sadness of loss as we passed through their crumbling remains. One local diner reminded me of my own family’s former small-town diner, the Dakota Diner. Across our 6-day trip, every time we ventured out I found myself talking to warm, friendly, and curious people who started conversations with a smile, struck up conversations with me (a quiet stranger), and who gave me the benefit of the doubt even though I come from crazy progressive Seattle. People were telling me there life stories in the book store and twice while I stood in the line for the women’s restroom. Most were also funny—weaving jokes and kind teasing of themselves and each other into their stories. I found open people, willing to listen and learn. People frustrated by many of the same things that frustrate me.
If you’re from Texas, you might be asking yourself “Well, what did you expect girl? Texans are known for their welcoming nature and big hearts.” Where I’m from, though, that’s not exactly what Texas is known for anymore, and you Seattleites might even suspect that I’m sugar-coating my recent experience now that I know my mother-in-law will read this. No matter. This is my truth and my story.
There are still many differences between what I believe and what many in Texas believe. But it was also in Texas, not Seattle, where I learned for good how little that matters. It was in Texas that I came to fully trust myself to live in the moment with others. Where I learned to make my judgments (because I’m not the Dali Lama, folks, as an individual I do slip into judging people now and then) not on what we believe but on who we are together, in each others’ presence. Thanks to my community, I’ve experienced the pointlessness of judging others from a distance and how my individual fear really does hurt me the most.
As I sat in the airport, this is what I experienced and recognized:
- Gone is the individual who allowed her own fears to dominate and cloud her experience of different others.
- Gone is the individual willing to make snap judgments (and fly into rage) based on a single spoken sentence and without taking the time to learn the context, the all-important back story, and the differences there may even be in the words we use and what they mean to us.
- Gone is the individual who judged others based on the stories told about them—stories told by distant and fearful others.
- Gone is the person who allowed a single characteristic—such as political party affiliation or gun ownership—to stand in the way of friendship. And my favorite…
- Gone is the person who valued and told other people’s stories instead of her own. My story matters.
My community made this a possiblity for me and my community now includes the state of Texas. I learned that when I show up as community, there really aren’t distant others anymore. When I show up as community, I’m surrounded by the people I love and the people my community is helping me learn to love next. That’s it.
So it really wasn’t Texas that needed to change. It was me.