when we live inside the worlds of our own making…
I am rocked by the thought of all the opportunities I have missed or muddled, simply because I thought I knew what was what. Earlier today, the godess of irony decided to smack me around a bit, and presented a life lesson that I thought I already knew: when it comes to people, I really should not assume that I know what is what … or much of anything.
This past week, I took the opportunity elsewhere to rant about racism and bigotry. Bigotry is the height of stupidity, of course, and I rail against it whenever the opportunity presents itself (up close and personal, when necessary). However, at the root of that trait which I so despise, there lies “assumption.” Stereotyping is only possible if you allow yourself to make assumptions about other people. I could weep when I think about how many times a day I surely do that very thing without even realizing it.
So, today, I went to the farm stand where I like to buy my plants and fresh produce. The older gentleman who is usually running the cash register was there. We’ve had a couple of dozen encounters over the course of several planting and growing seasons. We usually follow the same script. He talks with what I call a “Lincoln County accent.” He calls me “young lady,” tells me about the plants I’ve picked out, compliments me on my choices. I smile and “aw shucks” with him for a spell. Once, he asked me, as I had my head bowed over the check I was writing, “Who put dem stripes in yore hair?’ I looked up, met his twinkling eyes and answered, “Would you believe me if I said the good Lord?” He immediately answered, with a smile, “Yes ma’am.” I always thought the man was clever, and funny, but I never thought about who he is, much beyond what was revealed by our surface banter. Today, the script started out the same way, but one comment knocked one of my little worlds out of orbit: He told me I looked like …
a certain public figure I really dislike (as a public figure). The startled look on my face must have intrigued him, because he began a “real” conversation. He told me what he thought. He asked me what I thought. I told him. We agreed with each other on some things, not on others, and as in all worthwhile conversations, one thing led to another and the next thing I knew, our talk was going places I never expected it to go. In that brief few minutes, I learned that this man previously had been a vice-president in a large corporation that each of you has heard of. I learned that he has been many places that I’ve never been. I learned that he is more than polite – he is gracious. He reminded me that differences of opinion aren’t automatically differences of “extremes,” and that subtle differences of opinion are the most interesting. I learned that he can still recite the Prologue of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – which he did for me – something he learned in high school years ago. He enjoys quoting Shakespeare, specifically MacBeth, which, again, he did for me. To return the favor, I mumbled “Out, out damned spot” – a misquote – but I hoped he would still be impressed by the Clint Eastwood quotation I had laid on him earlier in the discussion.
So, he surprised me. He awakened me to my wrong assumptions. I am embarrassed to admit that I had previously thought I knew the range of things he and I had in common, as well as the range of things he and I might be mutually interested in discussing. I only hope, in our unscripted exchange, that I surprised him a little too. Maybe he would no longer assume that I’m some empty-headed priss pot who believes him when he jokes that I should be in Hollywood, or who has never dug for her own fishin’ worms, for instance. Or is that just me again making assumptions … about his assumptions about me? I am so thankful for the gift of those few minutes today!
Another thing: I have not heard Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales spoken in years, and never in a “Lincoln County accent” that thick. And it was, by God, beautiful. I am reminded of this poem of mine that originally appeared in the anthology, Southern Mist (from Old Mountain Press). I hope you like it, and thanks for reading.
A Day Late …
Suzanne Baldwin Leitner
I saw him on the t.v.
an ol’ Carolina farmer
talkin’ about Kelvinator
refrigerators, cows and such.
He had a slow easy speech
punctuated with sharp short
laughs or just ’eahp.
He was the yin to my Tennessee mammaw’s
yang, her male cosmic counterpart:
of people, of past with present.
Andy Griffith didn’t make it up.
He just took it on the road.
I listened to the farmer,
breathed with him, knew what he would say
before he said it
yet was still surprised, delighted
by his telling of it.
I could almost smell the khaki
and denim of his life
the cold grass and cattle,
the stench of manure mixing
with something sweeter,
some offering from early spring
and I recalled digging for fishing worms
under “cow pies,” wearing Mammaw’s gardening
gloves so I wouldn’t get lockjaw, she said.
And I finally realized what I want to be.
But who’d believe my down home
cagey aw shucks country cookin’ now,
after a law degree and all my city-slickin’?