The Path Taken Together

Photo 2

“We are now arriving in Rugby.  Rugby, North Dakota,” announced the conductor over the loudspeaker.  “For those of you who don’t already know, Rugby is the geographical center of North America.”  My two adult dinner companions and I looked at each other and smiled as the youngest of our party, six-year-old Thing2, absorbed the information.  It was the first time he had been silent since we had been seated with the Boy Scout troop leader and den mother.  

The train may not have reached the geographical center of North America at its appointed hour, but the dining car staff was a model of down-to-the-minute efficiency.  Feeding 400 people in two hours required military precision and, as in our case, sometimes seating strangers together to ensure every booth was used to its fullest potential.  

I had seen the Boy Scout troop board the train earlier in the day.  We had just reached the border of North Dakota when the uniformed flotilla of teenagers marched past us and then forgotten about them – a tribute to their chaperones’ ability to keep a dozen boys in line for hours on end – until the seating hostess put me and Thing2 together with their leaders.  

Twelve years of living in a very small town has not undone my urban-cultivated and media-nurtured policy  of never talking to strangers.  However, for Thing2′ – born and bred in the country – strangers don’t exist.  As soon as we sat down he began chattering with our companions, asking about their badges and where they were going.  

Sociability had been his hallmark for the past two days of our cross country train trip, and it kept him happily busy as he played with other children and introduced himself to friendly passengers in the observation car.  He showed neighboring passengers the pictures he was taking and cooed at babies.  He chatted with a friendly Amish woman about her dress (which he found beautiful).   And, as he got to know people from all walks of life, so did I. 

Now, as we sat with our companions from the midwest, I thought of the pundits and pollsters who love to claim that Americans are completely at odds with each other – divided by region and class.  Listening to the troop leader talk about changes in North Dakota topography and things that were high in the minds of his neighbors, I was reminded that there were probably more shared values on that train than insurmountable, opposing ideologies.

We may have had different boarding points and destinations, but we were on the same journey.

A Moment on the Soapbox

I spend Inauguration Morning 2013 trying to write and thinking about inaugurating another diet for the umpteenth time.  (There have been multiple first diet days since the first of this year.)  It seems an strange day to be dwelling on something so mundane.  It’s MLK-day after all.  Our country’s first African-American president is getting worn in for the second time.   And yet, somehow, letting the mundane absorb the three members of our family who got to stay home for the holiday is oddly appropriate.

I’ve lived on two other continents in two different hemispheres.  Thanks to my parents’ wanderlust, I had the opportunity – at a young age – to see how bad it can be but also how the good we have isn’t necessarily isolated.  We got to plenty of countries where elections happened peacefully and where political debates are lively.

As youngsters, however, my sister and I also had the chance to travel and live in South America at a time when election results were often in dispute and transfer of power wasn’t always peaceful. Widespread poverty (and depending on the year, dangerous conditions) was a common symptom of the political instability, and I have memories of walking with my mother in Lima, Peru and noticing many beggars parked between street vendors.  My parents still maintain the friendships they made there, and I remember hearing occasionally of one friend or another having to leave the country quickly even after a relatively peaceful election.  It was anything but mundane.

I thought of that today as I took the kids to Bob’s Diner in Manchester Vermont for a treat.  Always hopping, it was a mob scene on this holiday morning.  The bulk of the dining population was of the tourist variety, but – as always- there was variety.

There were well-heeled flatlanders in perfectly coordinated ski pants and jackets sitting shoulder to shoulder with burly plow drivers in their customized jackets.  There were Obama stickers on pickup trucks and Ron Paul and Romney stickers on slick new SUV’s from ‘down south’.  There were T-shirts with slogans ranging from the peaceful to the political to the profane, and it was just another Monday at Bob’s.  Even after an election season completely characterized by cynicism and bitterness, even in the face of an increasingly strident debate on gun rights (and privacy and religious rights), this confluence of humanity – with its politics on its sleeve in some cases – was not only civil, but jovial.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote that the Tree of Liberty would need to be refreshed with the bloom of patriots.  I don’t question his courage or passion for his country, and I know he and his suffered to sow the seeds of our liberty.  I also don’t think those words were written without an understanding of their potential consequences.  But Jefferson did come of age in an era when duels at twenty paces were still considered a reasonable way to settle a dispute.

Now, when I look at events around the world and see the human consequences of refreshing each country’s soul by pitting citizen against citizen, I know there has to be a better way.  And, listening to one of Bob’s cheeky waitresses cheerfully debate the issues of the day with a hot-headed regular, hearing their banter rise above the clattering of dishes and cries of ‘Order up!’, I realize that we have it, and it starts with hotcakes and coffee and a side of home fries.  It may be mundane, but there’s something to be said for that too.