Heart To Heart
I was planning to write about winter squash but right now it feels more important to talk about making and healing community. For me, my community is the anchor that keeps me from drifting. It’s my port in the storm of crazy politics and an important source of satisfaction and contentment. One of the worst transgressions the current regime has perpetrated is the deliberate destruction of America’s communities. We are being torn apart and set at each other’s throats simply because it makes political and corporate takeover tactics easier to put in place. United we stand, divided we fall. November is coming, yes, but can we really put the brakes on?
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been feeling like my world is in freefall for the past two years. Even longer, if I’m honest; the Obama years were awesome in some respects (those coherent thoughts and complete sentences!) but many ugly policies were already in place then; Native American rights, the rights of people of color, women’s rights, queer people’s rights were all too often overlooked or denied. Too many immigrant children were separated from their parents, if not locked in cages, and some were adopted out before parents could reclaim them. Our government sanctioned the use of torture. Climate change got little attention. Gun safety regulations got little or no traction. And on and on and on…
Making The Community We Need
When our community life is threatened, it’s up to us to nurture it back to health. If our community can’t or doesn’t support us, maybe it’s time to create one that does. Few people can change a whole town or city, but any of us can weave a safety net. We may have to start small, but the sooner we start, the sooner that community can nurture us in turn. How? Well, when my oldest came out to me as transgender a few years ago, I found myself exploring a new world of ideas I’d never deeply considered and terms I’d never heard. For the most part, I was relieved to learn that instead of contemplating suicide my new daughter was feeling hopeful for the first time in decades. It was impossible not to feel that as a parent I must have missed some pretty important signals, overt or covert. It was frightening to discover that my daughter would almost certainly be faced with dangers that I had unconsciously considered side issues before. I clearly had a lot of learning to do, so I looked for a peer group; in all kinds of challenging situations, the company of people with shared experiences has been hugely helpful and comforting to me. Sadly, there wasn’t such a group nearby. Happily, I was able to invite one into being.
The immense relief of being able to speak plainly and honestly about my own worries and wonderings is huge. It’s beyond helpful to share experiences and resources with other mothers (and a few dads). True, our kids’ lives and needs and issues are all unique, yet there’s so much common ground that we can truly understand each other’s situations and decisions, even when they aren’t the ones we might make. We sometimes offer parent panels for faith groups open to learning more about transgender people. We talk a lot about what being transgender involves, and we talk a bit about our kids (with permission and respecting their privacy), but we also talk honestly about our own experiences as parents of transgender people. For some folks, that openness is a key to acceptance and understanding. Their relatives may not belong to the queer community (though a surprising number do), but as parents, they relate to a lot in our stories. Indeed, sometimes when people who fear or categorically dislike transgender people hear us, the shared filter of parenthood can change their hearts.
Longing To Belong
If we hope to resisting the deliberately polarizing influences in our culture today, we have to find common ground. Belonging is such a deep, essential human need; we all long to belong to family, to community, to our country. When differences are always presented as dangerous, it’s easy to trick fearful people into black-and-white thinking. That’s a prime goal for political and corporate interests who want us to fear and dislike people who disagree with us. We’re good, they’re bad; boom! Even in these divisive times, however, we can find tools for community building. One of the most important is using respectful language. Another is respectful listening, especially listening for ideas and beliefs we hold in common.
Since the Parkland massacre on Valentine’s Day, student activists have been changing hearts by respectfully speaking their truths. All summer, student-led March For our Lives groups toured the country, talking with advocates and opponents of gun control reforms. What I find most moving about this movement the courage and honesty of these young people, and their willingness to engage in meaningful conversations with people who disagree with them. Over and over, students meet with counter-protesters person-to-person. Each time, the students find that even angry NRA members can acknowledge that they share some common goals.
Words Of Power and Peace
Naturally, any conversation is influenced not just by our attitudes and postures but by the flavor of the words we use. This seems obvious yet the use of loaded language is so commonplace as to be almost unnoticeable. Conversations about heated issues tend to be explosive and often involve catch phrases that immediately trigger reflexive, reactive language in return. The March For Our Lives activists have learned to use clear, moderate, accurate language. They’ve also learned what many adults have forgotten; listening is as important to a conversation as speaking. That’s transforming angry counter-protests into true meetings of hearts and minds. One student, Daphne Frias, thinks these conversations are largely successful because students are seen as young and powerless. Where adult-to-adult conversations may come loaded with preconceptions and power plays, adult conversations with youth tend to be more open minded, especially when the kids listen well.
Since I’m passionate about community building, I was recently invited to help organize a dinner that partners progressive and conservative people. Dinner is prepared and enjoyed together and topics are respectfully discussed over the delicious meal. I was taken aback to find that I couldn’t immediately think of anyone to invite who I would disagree with on important topics. True, I live in a very progressive community, yet conservative people live here too. As I pondered this, I realized that of course I know people whose opinions very likely differ from mine; we just don’t talk about the disagreements. We do talk about the dozen or hundred or thousand things we both care about or have in common. Are we missing an opportunity to connect more deeply? Are we avoiding difficult conversations out of fear?
Unity In Community
I don’t know but I don’t think so. My gut/heart feeling is that not creating opportunities to disagree keeps us fully human to each other. Nobody is “othered” and we recognize how well we are connected by the community ties we both hold dear. Though we may and do disagree about some very important issues, we can meet in the great overlap of commonality. I imagine it like a giant Venn diagram, with overlapping circles that remain individual but share a lot in common. It feels more healing to focus on the overlap than to remind each other painfully of our differences.
After all, whose goal is for everyone to march in lockstep? Maintaining a healthy diversity is important in pretty much every aspect of life, from people to critters to plants to politics. As a community, our health and strength lie in our respect for each other as humans, including respect for those very important differences. Having grown up in a contentious historic period, I’ve experienced a lot of political strife and personal struggle. I’m not nostalgic for the 50’s of my childhood or the 60’s of my teen years, or really any other time; this is the time we have and it’s ours to create. Let’s summon up our inner Mr. Rogers and welcome each other to the neighborhood.
And maybe next week I’ll get around to talking about winter squash…