Last week when I ran into a friend at the Farmer’s Market, she said “Wow, I haven’t seen you in such a long time. Where’ve you been? Some other country?” I said I had just returned from visiting family in Wisconsin. We spent 10 days in a small town along Lake Michigan rated in June by Business Insider the most conservative town in the state. If you know anything about Arcata or Humboldt County, Calif., then you just might think Wisconsin is, indeed, another country.
It’s a lovely setting; the cottage at the end of the wooded gravel road sitting just a few steps from the beach, the lake’s vast horizon, the endless color changes and the perpetual gentle shushing of the water on the shore. Summertime family dinners on the screen porch are the norm, often with at least ten of us at most meals from grandchildren to grandparents along with any neighbor wandering by. The conversation commonly includes the latest news of friends, the varying health ailments at the table, the on-going efforts to maintain some semblance of a beachfront in the face of unstoppable natural forces, and always and eventually circling around to politics, tenderly avoiding the galaxy-sized black holes between our views.
During dinner on the day of our arrival, my mother-in-law, sitting at the head of the table, made a very matter-of-fact comment about “Skin-Heads” in Idaho. And I, in-turn, said I thought there were also a lot of Libertarians in Idaho. And without skipping a beat, my father-in-law reared back from the opposite end of the table and said “Hey! Wait a minute! I’m a Libertarian. So you think I’m a Skin-Head?” Oops. “That’s it!” said my mother-in-law in her incisive let’s-keep-the-peace voice, instantly putting a stop to the conversation. And that really was the end of it, until about five days later.
It was a perfectly lovely morning walk along the paved cattail-lined path, ponds on either side, and in the distance the biggest American flag imaginable waving high above everything; each stripe alone was 13 feet wide. I’d never seen anything like it. My father-in-law was talking with my husband about the growing Muslim population around the community, Islamic laws and customs, and the general culture of fear spreading far and wide. I decided to keep my mouth shut, enjoy the scenery and just listen. I saw it as an opportunity for a little walking meditation. Just walk and listen, I thought, walk and listen.
After a while, and I will admit feeling proud of myself for keeping quiet, my father-in-law turned to me and said “And you called me a Skin-Head the other day.” In a heartbeat, I felt myself take a breath, feel my feet on the ground, and step into the morass. I started by apologizing for giving him the wrong impression with my own leap from Skin-Head to Libertarian and assured him that I in no way think of him as a White Supremacist hate-monger. I was relieved when he accepted my apology with a tip of his head and slight smile, and then asked me if I knew that Webster’s defines him as a heathen – as someone who does not believe in God. I said maybe he didn’t have to believe in Webster’s. Now I got a bigger smile.
As we walked and he talked more about Libertarianism, the Constitution, lobbing some challenges to other ways of thinking, it was clear that neither one of us really wanted to cross the great divide onto the other’s side of the galaxy. But this is my husband’s father, my children’s grandfather, a man I’ve known for 30 years, and I love him. So I stopped, looked him in the eye and said “You know, we’re so loyal to our opinions. How would it be if we suspend our loyalties long enough to ask ‘Would you be willing to tell me what you mean by that?’ Can we talk with each other with curiosity and let our knee-jerk assumptions go for the moment?’” He said that of course he and I can do that, but the rest of the world can’t. Well, I said, let’s just you and I try. And in that moment, something between us shifted, leaving both of us feeling a little triumphant.
For the rest of the visit we didn’t really talk politics or about anything else too controversial. On the quiet early morning of our departure as we said good-bye, this lovely man of 82 looked at me, gave me hug and said “We did good, didn’t we?”