Pop quiz. What do the TV show Madame Secretary, my neighborhood trumpet player, and some classroom karaoke have in common?
Stumped? Let me try and explain.
As you may have heard once, or one hundred thousand billion, times recently—our country is experiencing a level of division and antagonism on levels not previously experienced in all of our collective memory banks. In fact, more often than not, the entire planet is weighing in on the current state of discourse in our nation. None of which is tempering down, what with a new Supreme Court nomination on the table and the much anticipated 2018 midterm elections around the corner, and well— Helsinki.
Most everyone is standing their sacred ground to the (hopefully, not actually, bloody or bitter), end. And when I say “everyone” please know I’m addressing myself at the top of that list. I am not immune to the pull of a passionate response, because as much disdain as the word itself can garner, “politics” do in fact affect our lives in intensely powerful and personal ways. It is right, then, to use our democratically empowered voices and make crystal clear the things that matter to us; to all those we’ve voted into power over us. I’m not writing this column to suggest we do one thing less on that score. I writing this column to suggest we all do a few things more.
Hence, my riddle.
One of my favorite shows to catch up on in the summer is Madame Secretary. This season she has a fierce adversary in Congress that could not be more opposite her in character, personality, or policy and the tension between the two is painful to watch. For the Christmas episode however; a plot twist. Turns out there is a real and present danger to the nation and securing the information needed to save us all requires the Secretary and her nemesis to work together for a brief time. No one else. Just the two of them can do this particular task. Of course. And they do, and they do it well, the nation is saved for another week and they part with the season’s first sincere adieu either of them have sputtered at the other. To which her onlooking and agog daughter says, “Tell me you are not friends with him now.”
“Friends? No. But he is more complex than I thought…”
More complex than I thought. Yes, that sounds about right. If you are reading this, that is a true statement about you. If you are reading this, that is a true statement about me as well. It is true whether we are dear friends or if the mere mention of my name makes you shudder in revulsion. It is true that the complexity that is us, largely guides the campaign sign planted in our yards. Rather than a form of attack, those signs, or social posts, or letters to the editor, are an extension of the complexities we don’t know about each other.
Which brings me to my neighborhood’s role in this riddle. It’s a quiet and off the beaten path area to live in, and most of us like that. I assume anyway. Since we live there. You see, we don’t actually talk to each other much. In any case, we know each other to wave. Sometimes. Names are a complete mystery, and even to recognize a face outside of these few blocks would be a true challenge. And while I long for a closer community feel, I haven’t done much to foster it myself.
I also get that we are busy and people move and life is full and, and, and…
And—then something wonderful happened. We acquired a trumpet player. And so this summer on hot Saturday mornings and weekend afternoons, I can be pulling weeds in my garden and hear some truly beautiful, live, trumpet music riding the summer breeze from house to house to house along my street. When it first happened, I stepped outside to see where it was coming from and noticed that within moments, many of my neighbors were as well. Searching the sky for the tracer back to the sound, we made eye contact, we smiled, we listened, we waved, and we grew closer. And because the strains of music touched each of us in turn, it felt like a connecting cord was woven from person to person, as well.
Now then, classroom karaoke. On the last day of school, the 8th graders get a fun all-day field trip to celebrate their accomplishment, and then off to summer vacation they go! This year, we returned from the field trip with about 20 minutes to spare before the buses came, so we broke the kids into groups for separate classroom activities. Mine was the karaoke room, and it was PACKED. Which was a total surprise to me. I sat in awe as these self-conscious and awkward middle-schoolers sang their hearts out to everything from Elvis, to Metalica, to Alan Jackson, to Broadway show tunes, to Frank Sinatra, and Lyle Lovett. Cheering for each other no matter the song or quality of performance. Sincerely smiling through songs they personally might not ever have heard before and patting packs and high-fiveing across cliques in celebration the entire time. These were groups of kids who are all lovely independently but don’t, as a rule, seek each other out to play together, though you’d never know that by looking around my classroom that day. I’m smiling from ear to ear as I type this, so joy-filled is that memory for me.
So what do my Netflix summer bingeing habits, a talented trumpeter, and earnest tween singers have in common?
The breath-stealing beauty of connecting with strangers.
The word, “cliques” is often used to describe the painful separation of lunch tables during our awkward and long-limbed teenage years. But I would suggest that the cliquing up of human groups doesn’t end with the acne. There is a veil that exists between strangers, or simple acquaintances, that shrouds each of us in an invisible ‘otherness’ and keeps the camps delineated and the belief systems entrenched. A veil that for a few precious moments, lifted, as I watched a redemptive narrative, swayed to shared music, and sang with dozens of kids songs I don’t actually know. I’m willing to bet that you’ve experienced a similar lifting experience; funny faces with a toddler at the store, a shared smile in a long post office line, or a race to provide help for firefighters and mudslide victims.
This sharing of being human with others, not in our close circle, is heart-swelling in a way few things are. So plant the yard sign, write the editor, and march for your causes. Then, pause. Pause and peek behind the veil at the other side. I will be trying to do the same. I suspect, we might all be surprised just what we find there.