I can’t recall now if this is a rhetorical device from a canonical work of literature or a scrap of dialog from a mediocre movie, but “What did we learn today?” is a flexible, quizzical way to appreciate a big moment or roll my eyes at annoying series of events. The answer is sometimes, “To never do that again….” But the question can also extract a stomach-filling breath and a head full of appreciation and revelations.
These are some of the things I learned and observed and appreciated during my weeks of driving across the country and dipping into my friends’ lives:
- Kindness and generosity -- not only extended to me, a random long-lost friend looking for a couch to crash on, but effortlessly given to strangers and friends alike. While people were still reeling from the news of Charlottesville, I observed a casual conversation in an Illinois gas station between a biker in head-to-toe leather, and cashier wearing a Sikh turban. My first glance at them imprinted my own assumptions on their interaction: the biker is an aggressive, menace, and cashier is a minority who needs backup. But then I heard easy laughter and lighthearted voices from both of them – the biker had visited the cashier’s home town, he knew where the big Sikh temple was there... how long are you on the road for? how did you move there from here? ... Two guys who on the surface seemed pretty different, but who noticed what they had in common. Breezy small talk, nice to meet you, best wishes. It takes effort to be divisive and cruel, and kindness comes easy.
- I told my friends with kids, just fold me into whatever your family would be doing anyway! I joined them on the sidelines at soccer practice, and at pickup on the last day of pre-school, and in relaxing on the back deck, and in one ferocious Trivial Pursuit game (during which my nine-year-old teammate urgently asked me, “You’re going to be good at this right?!”). My friends are patient, loving, tired, and amused parents, and their kids are full-tilt energy, quirky comics, thoughtful conversationalists and genuinely charming, interesting people.
- Surprising to me, the topic of disability cropped up several times and in wildly diverse ways. In talking about the experience of disability and in observing how my friends navigate it, I was struck repeatedly by the idea that disability is both difficult and normal, both remarkable and not needing to be remarked on. The candor, matter of factness and mettle with they approach their lives normalizes their experience; and to call it “normalizing” undermines it – people have different abilities and ranges, and we use what we’ve got in the best ways we can, and we work around the things that get in the way. There is no pity here, but there is room for empathy and advocacy for what our friends need to live their best lives.
- Local knowledge is awesome. Travelers and tourists know this on a transactional level, we seek local advice on all kinds of things to make a trip more interesting. But a recurring joy in these last weeks has been to hear my friends describe where they live, what they love and loathe about it, and what memories are attached to specific places. They told me about the history of the cowboy wars in eastern Wyoming, and their conflicted feelings about gentrification, and how the geology of a certain place set its destiny once European settlers arrived there, and why a tiny town that most people would drive by or fly over is actually a really special place.
- We are all trying to figure it out. Every one of us is in different circumstances of life, with varying responsibilities and joys, everyone making choices and calculations about the best path forward. To move or stay, to look for a new job, to preserve relationships or let them go. So many of the reunions throughout this trip pretty quickly led to ‘what are we doing with our lives?” conversations, and it was incredibly reassuring and inspiring to hear my friends articulate, here’s what I‘ve decided is important, and here’s what I can live with because I have to, and here’s what I want to do next. None of it is perfect, some of it is messy, a lot of it is joyful. Despite how different our lives are, we’re all in a similar, familiar place.
So those are some of things I learned today, or at least, recently. Here's another quote:
“What it comes down to is, if you’re curious then you cannot stay home.” These words were spoken to me over breakfast by the inimitable Mr. Jim Taff, my friend and former high school teacher. His peripatetic explorations of the world and rambunctious accounts of stories he’s collected could roust the most steadfast homebody into a road trip, and his enthusiasm gave me a welcome cheery endorsement of my adventures still come.