I had been chalking up my growing contempt for a certain group of people to the fact that I’ve turned 50.
I am absolutely convinced that scientific evidence will soon prove that 50 is the maximum number of years the average human can tolerate difficult people.
I’m not talking about people with personalities or self-serving behavior. They’ve always rubbed me the wrong way, and I learned to deal with them decades ago – even when that made my life more difficult.
I’ve never been particularly good at being deferential to people whose primary goal is to feel important, powerful, or special at the expense of others.
I’ve written about people who use religion as an excuse for intolerance and discrimination.
I’ve called out business owners who believe excessive personal profits are more important than ensuring their employees earn enough to pay their essential bills or can easily be fired when profits are down.
And I’ve never hesitated to point out how many people use the privilege of voting and the political system to pursue personal gain rather than the common good.
But I’ve come to realize that such individuals are simply doing what other people allow them to do.
And I can’t stand it any longer.
For 50 years, they almost had me convinced that there was something wrong with me – that, in my own way, I too was intolerant and, like they, should:
- Understand that the southern guy who displays the confederate flag just has a different perspective;
- Realize that employers aren’t in business to take care of people but to make as much money as they can;
- Expect the old white guy to be clueless about how his words and attitude are offensive.
- Know that some people must cling to the belief that their religion is THE religion because that’s what they’ve been taught.
And then I turned 50, and I realized that there is absolutely nothing wrong with my intolerance of such beliefs and behaviors. Calling out people who is exhibit them is important, but calling out the people who stay silent in such matters is the only way the world will change
I turned 50, and I won’t let people let me think I’m not tolerant about their desire not to “get involved.” Instead, I’m going to let them know that if they aren’t part of the solution, they are part of the problem.
I turned 50, and I decided that no one’s opinion about how I choose to address problematic people matters.
I turned 50… and then I just didn’t care.
I noticed the shoe just after dawn. It was lying on the gravel in a weedy, deserted parking area.
It certainly wasn’t the only single, abandoned shoe I’ve ever noticed. Over the decades, I’ve seen more lonely shoes in random places than I can possibly remember.
But this shoe caught my attention because it triggered a memory about something that happened in almost that exact same location last summer.
In both cases, I was peddling my bike down a straight stretch of road after conquering a particularly long and steep hill.
But that time, I wasn’t alone on the road. Instead, three bedraggled teenagers with two suitcases and an extremely, unenthusiastic dog were trudging along the shoulder. As I rode by, the boy yelled at me to stop.
My curiosity outweighed any concerns I should have had, so I obeyed.
“Hey, is this the way to Oregon?” the boy asked. In one hand, he was holding a rope that was tied loosely around his poor dog’s neck. One of the suitcases sat at his feet.
“Where?” I asked. We were currently standing on a rural road in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. People with no motor vehicle generally don’t ask directions to a state that is 2,500 miles away.
“Oregon,” he repeated.
“The state?” I asked.
One of the girls gave me a look I knew well. It’s the one every teenager gives a clueless adult.
“Yes,” she said. “We are going to the state of Oregon.”
When I asked why, I was rewarded with the same look again. “Because we want to,” she replied.
“Oh,” I said. “Well, that’s a really long way to walk.”
“We’ve already come all the way from Hagerstown,” the boy announced proudly. “Are we going in the right direction?”
Since Hagerstown was only 20 miles away, his efforts to impress me weren’t very successful. At the same time, they were heading northwest. So that’s what I told them.
They seemed satisfied with my answer, thanked me, and continued their walk down the road. On my return about 20 minutes later, they were still trudging along. I waved, and they waved back.
Shortly after I passed them, I noticed one of their suitcases on the side of the road. My first thought was that it must have gotten quite heavy. My second thought was relief that at least they hadn’t abandoned the dog. And my third thought was to wonder how much more they would abandon before they simply abandoned hope of getting to Oregon.
Or maybe, against all odds, they actually did get there.
I’ll never know.
For a few a days after our encounter, I paid attention to the news in case there were any reports of three missing or runaway teens. There weren’t any.
And so, I forgot about them. At least, I forgot about them until the sight of that shoe last Monday morning reminded me of the discarded suitcase, those kids, and of impossible dreams.
For years, I’ve considered single, lost shoes – or other personal items – on the side of the road as a mystery. I’ve never understood how a person could just lose one shoe or why they wouldn’t go back to get it.
Maybe what I’ve been missing is that, to the owners, the shoe wasn’t important. It was an item that could be replaced. For them, going back for one thing wasn’t nearly as important as moving forward down the road of life – wherever it may go and toward whatever dreams they were following.
Personally, I’ve spent too much time looking for things I’ve lost only to lose sight of where I wanted to go.
But this past week, the sight of just one shoe served as a reminder that getting where we want to go sometimes requires letting go of what we already have.
So yeah. First Lady Melania Trump wore a really expensive jacket during her visit to Italy last week. The Dolce & Gabbana she sported in Sicily basically cost as much as I make during an entire year.
Stop right there.
I hope you didn’t start calculating my salary along with my education and my years of experience and then judge me based on my earnings.
But if you did, I understand. That’s what most Americans do.
We tend to equate the size of a person’s salary or bank account with success. If someone makes a lot of money, that must mean they’ve done something right… they’ve applied themselves and persevered. And if they are poor? They obviously need to try harder.
In reality, that’s completely ridiculous. I’m not rich for a lot of different reasons: I wasn’t born into a wealthy family and having a high paying job was never my priority. I wanted to do work that I found satisfying and meaningful, which is how I landed in social work. I will never garner a big salary, but I’m actually a very hard worker.
On the flip side, Melania Trump became a model and then she married a super rich guy. Those were her choices, and I shouldn’t judge her for them just as I hope people don’t judge me for mine. If she weren’t married to the President of the United States, the cost of her jacket certainly wouldn’t be making headlines nor would people be citing her expensive choices as reprehensible in light of her husband’s proposed budget and stance on social benefit programs.
Don’t get me wrong.
I understand the outcry. I too am completely appalled by Trump and his proposed budget. And yes, I admit that I can’t help but believe that Trump has no sympathy for the poor partly because he can’t relate to their situation.
But equating the size of the Trumps’ bank accounts to his proposed budget is as irrelevant as claiming our social and budget problems are the fault of poor people who don’t try hard enough. President John Kennedy and Senator Jay Rockefeller also came from wealth, yet they always took into consideration the least among us.
Being wealthy and being able to pay $51,500 for one article of clothing have nothing to do with a commitment to help our less fortunate neighbor.
Being a person of wealth doesn’t mean you lack compassion for the poor any more than living in poverty means you expect society to support you. Of course there are rich people who only think about themselves just as there are poor people who want to “live off the system.”
But stereotyping and making assumptions does no one any good.
Money doesn’t define us. The way we treat our fellow human beings does.
Our role in life is to support each other and to call out those who don’t. It’s that simple.
Some of us can help because we have plenty of money to meet our own needs and enough to help others. Others can give our time and our God-given talents to mentor, teach, or guide those who need extra assistance. And all of us can raise our voices in support of those who need us most.
It’s just not about the money.
It should never be about the money, and none of us should care how much anyone else spends for clothes.
With that said, I have to admit that even if I had $51,500 to spend on one jacket, it would look absolutely nothing like Melania’s, which I think is ugly and obnoxious.
But there is nothing wrong with judging an item of clothing.
It’s the people who wear the clothes who shouldn’t be evaluated based on appearances alone.
Amid the multitude of facts, opinions and news stories whirling around Donald Trump’s latest bizarre, unprecedented and seemingly self-serving action (that would be the firing of FBI Director James Comey if you aren’t even sure to which of his latest actions I am referring), one piece of the story has lingered with me.
I just can’t shake the image of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer hiding in the bushes to avoid a direct confrontation with reporters seeking more information.
I have no doubt my obsession is linked to a memory from my childhood and my need to uncover the truth.
My story begins when my parents purchased our house in a rural, Central Oregon town As part of the transaction, they had gotten a history from the seller, whose family had been the original owners. According to my mom, the seller’s father had “died in the bushes.”
I was six years old at the time, and the line of ornamental bushes that spanned the front of the house ran directly under my bedroom window. For months I was obsessed with the fact that a man had died in those bushes.
I would crawl under them trying to find any sign of either a dead body or, at least, some indication that a man had spent his last moments there. Even though I got nothing, I kept searching in hopes that some clue as to the man’s fate would emerge.
Then one day, my mom found me in the bushes and asked what I was doing.
“You said the man who used to live here died in the bushes,” I told her with all of the solemness that first-grade me could muster.
She had no idea what I was talking about. Only later did I discover that she had used the term “in the bushes” as a euphemism for alcoholism.
I’m now fifty years old, and I’ve never heard anyone else use that term in that way. But that doesn’t matter.
What does matter is that the term “in the bushes” has stuck with me for 44 years because it represents my passion for always pursuing the truth.
Which is why Sean Spicer ducking into the bushes to avoid facing reporters is not only completely ironic, it is more revealing than any lie Donald Trump could ever tell.
People in the public eye want to tell their side of the story. They want to share their opinions and the opinions of those they represent. They want to show evidence of what happened in the bushes and why it happened.
Unless, of course, the bushes are just a way of hiding the truth… be it the ugly truth of an addict who succumbed to a disease or that of an unqualified businessman who bedazzled voters with his wealth, his double speak, and his complete disregard for the truth.
But here’s the thing: when six-year-old me finally got the real facts from my mom, I stopped wasting my time under bushes and decided to devote more time to climbing trees.
Because when you climb trees, your perspective is so much better than the one you get crawling under (or hiding in) a bush.
And not only can you see what is actually occurring around you, you are also putting yourself out in the open for everyone else to see.
And that is what truth is all about.
Like many Americans, I had a visceral reaction to photos of Sarah Palin’s visit to the White House last week. (See Washington Post article.)
But my reaction wasn’t about how she, Ted Nugent and Kid Rock were disrespectful as they posed in front of the picture of Hillary Clinton as first lady. It wasn’t even about how hateful Ted Nugent is or how incredibly clueless Sarah Palin is (as evidenced by the flippant comment she made that she invited the musicians to dinner because Jesus wasn’t available.)
Instead my reaction was rooted in something I’ve carried with me since childhood. As an eight-year old girl, I wondered why boys who could barely read but acted tough were the ones all the other kids flocked to on the playground. In middle school, I suffered the wrath of mean girls, girls who were considered “popular,” because I was smart and actually cared about my education. And in high school, I rolled my eyes as class elections were always based less on which candidate was more capable and more on which candidate was the most fun.
Then I went to college and entered a reality in which the social pecking order had little place in a world where people wanted to broaden their horizons. Being smart counted. Being educated counted. Discussing ideas instead of other people counted. Understanding abstract concepts, diverse opinions and multiple possibilities counted. Most importantly, living a non-superficial life counted.
Or so I thought.
Between college and graduate school, I witnessed women purposely marry men for money and status. But I still appreciated my own independence and ideals, and I presumed other people respected me for it. After I had children, I endured social circles that centered around who could afford the best pre-schools and expensive houses in elite neighborhoods. But, I surrounded myself with people who realized that happiness doesn’t come from what we have but from what we create. And even as I watched my peers climb a corporate ladder, I knew that the work I did in social service agencies mattered. If nothing else, it had helped me value programs, services and policies that didn’t necessarily benefit me but did help individuals who hadn’t had the same opportunities.
I was well-educated, intelligent, and hard-working, and I assumed those qualities were widely respected.
Then John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate in the 2008 presidential election, and I felt as though I was right back on that elementary school playground. When a colleague asked, “Don’t you want our leaders and politicians to be smarter than you?” I realized many Americans didn’t. They just wanted to hear someone spout rhetoric that made them feel good about their own beliefs.
But, when McCain lost and the Obama administration spent eight years implementing policies and programs often intended to help our most vulnerable citizens and resources, I forgot about my disappointment.
Then Trump happened.
Shortly after he was elected, the pundits began to talk about how so many Americans were fed up with the “liberal elite,” and I realized that some people considered me to be one of those individuals.
I may be liberal and many of political beliefs may be rooted in my education, but I’m certainly not elite or an elitist. I’ve spent most of my adult life fighting for people to have the same opportunities I did. And yet, so many people who didn’t have those opportunities, especially those who fought and succeeded in building a good life, are voting to ensure that few others are given the opportunities. They even complain that they “gasp” have to pay taxes that benefit other people. The attitude almost seems to be one of “as long as I get what I want or need, I have no obligation to help others. They need to help themselves.”
Which brings me back to Thursday and Sarah Palin’s now well-publicized visit to the White House. As the photos started making the rounds on social media, so did the nasty comments. I saw several that made reference to “white trash,” a pejorative term usually used to describe white southerners of low social class. And even though I didn’t think these comments were necessarily appropriate, I totally understood where they were coming from.
They were coming from all of us who were picked last for teams during elementary school gym class because the boys who didn’t care about books were the captains. They were coming from those of us who actually studied for the test and then allowed the popular kid who sat behind us to cheat from our paper because we knew the consequences if we didn’t. They were coming from those of us who knew we would never get a job because of how we looked. They were coming from those of us who don’t hate people because of their religion, the color of their skin or their gender, who don’t believe more guns make us stronger and who don’t think that belittling others should make us popular.
They were coming from those of us who are disgusted that our country is now being controlled by the school yard bullies, the mean girls, and the people who think material possessions are a measure of personal value. They were coming from those of us who believe accomplishments and respect, not self-indulgent behavior and mean-spirited rhetoric, should be the ticket to a White House dinner.
So even though using the words “white trash” is not necessarily kind or even appropriate, it is accurate in describing the rude, white people who had dinner with President Trump on Thursday.
In fact, those two words are certainly more fair than almost everything else happening in the White House these days.
Here are a few of my favorite things:
- Riding my bike
- Taking time to enjoy the awesome beauty of nature
- Having a good story to tell
Here’s what I’m known for:
- Having random weird stuff happen to me on a regular basis
Thankfully, that random weird stuff often involves animals that I encounter as I’m riding my bike while enjoying nature. Those events, in turn, generally make for a good story.
Take, for example, what happened Wednesday night as I neared the end of an otherwise uneventful 16-mile bike ride. I was zipping along a flat, straight stretch of road that runs parallel to a large cow pasture when something unusual happened.
I’ve ridden by that pasture hundreds of time, and the cows have never demonstrated the least bit of interest in me. Even when I’ve belted out Rodgers and Hammerstein tunes such as “Oklahoma”and “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin” they have remained unimpressed while they chewed their cud.
But not on Wednesday.
On Wednesday I didn’t even have to sing to grab their attention. In fact, I wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary. I was just peddling along when a big white cow with black spots started chasing me.
I’ve never seen a cow move that fast, and I wanted to know why.
And so, I stopped to ask.
But the cow didn’t provide any explanation as to why she felt the need to stalk me.
When I went up to the fence to question her, she didn’t udder (pun intended) a sound. Instead, she started licking me.
She licked my hands. She licked my stomach (or at least my shirt over my stomach). She licked my leg (or at least the pants over my leg). She licked my shoes then she licked my ankle (she really licked my ankle – not just my sock).
She even tried to chase away the other cows who, like me, had become curious as to her motives.
But, after I scolded her for not playing well with others, she allowed the other cows to join us at the fence.
I literally had a whole herd of cows at my fingertips when I finally realized I needed photos to document my whole “cow whisperer” experience.
Taking pictures on my phone with a herd of cows jostling around wasn’t exactly easy, but I got a few.
Not until I got home and was looking at those pictures did I realized two things.
First, not one photo captured the essence of the moment. Sure, some gave a glimpse into it, but none captured the actual experience. That’s because truly magical moments have nothing to do with what is seen by the eye and everything to do with what is felt by the heart and soul.
And second, I’ll probably never experience something like that again. No matter how many times I ride my bike by that field and no matter how loudly I sing to those cows, they will probably never come running again. (My singing might actually make them run in the other direction.) But even if they do come running, their actions won’t be nearly as remarkable. Remarkable moments, like remarkable people, can’t be duplicated. And, like people, the more unique they are, the more they should be treasured.
But here’s the thing: whether or not the cows and I now have some kind of undefinable relationship, they are now on my growing list of favorite things.
And anyone or anything that goes on that list will forever be part of not only a good story but of my life story. And that, in itself, is magical to me.
Some people would have been offended by the text message I received yesterday morning: “Every time I see a porta potty, I think of you, Trina.”
That text was quickly followed by one from the other person in the group: “Me too.”
But I wasn’t upset. Instead, I texted back “It’s my legacy.”
And I wasn’t kidding.
For the past few weeks, a porta potty has literally been keeping me sane during long, stressful hours at the office. And it hasn’t just been a constant source of entertainment, it’s been a reminder about humanity and finding joy wherever we can.
When the porta potty first appeared outside the Catholic Church directly across the street from my office, I was confused. I wasn’t sure if the church was providing a new public service or was having plumbing issues.
As it turns out, it was both.
The church is having its bathrooms renovated, and the porta potty is the interim plumbing solution.
And while I’m fairly certain it was never intended to be a social gathering place, I am absolutely convinced no one thought it would become a source of entertainment. Yet,that is exactly what it has provided for me and my colleagues. (Although I have no doubt that they are more entertained by my obsession with it as they are with what is actually happening across the street.).
But I’m not the only one who has become fascinated by its popularity. While I was pondering why it had become a social gathering place, one of my colleagues had started a running tally of all of the random people using it.
We also wondered about the shoe lying outside of it on a Monday morning, which prompted a story
about a wine bottle that had been in that same space during church services the day before. We watched municipal employees and homeless individuals take advantage of the same service.
One day, we noticed that the trash cans lined up near it resembled the children in the “Sound of Music” singing at the command of, well Maria Van Porta Potty.
The rest of the office was highly amused the day I cringed in embarrassment after two men looked up at my window and waved as I snapped yet another picture with my phone.
But, most importantly, we’ve laughed at our (my?) obsession with the blue box across the street.
And I’ve needed those laughs.
My job involves working with people who are already disenfranchised at a time when they are being threatened and marginalized more than ever. The office budget is tight and getting tighter. I have to deal with tough situations and difficult people on a daily basis. And yet, that porta potty has provided several reminders:
- Even though life sometimes stinks, it is sometimes, gloriously comical.
- No matter how our culture divides and labels people, in the end we all have the same, basic needs.
- One of life’s greatest mysteries remains the puzzle of those single shoes left in random places.
- Other people are incredibly interesting when they think no one else is watching.
- Laughter isn’t just the best medicine, it’s the best way to get through life. Finding joy in the mundane, routine, and sometimes difficult challenges of life isn’t optional. It’s an absolute necessity.
I know the porta potty will soon disappear from my life, but something tells me I’ll find some other source of entertainment. It is, after all, a matter of survival.
I was hanging out my office window, which is on the second floor of a rehabbed old house, when the thought struck me: “Is this really going to be my legacy? Is this the way people will remember me?”
To provide some perspective, my office sits directly across from the Catholic church, next door to the Presbyterian church, catty corner from the public library, and less than a block away from the town square. Since I have a corner office with two windows, I almost always having a view of something interesting happening
From nuns doing the Macarena on the front steps of the Catholic church, to numerous political protests, to pedestrians being hit by cars (yes – pedestrians and cars plural – it happens more often than you might think), to the priest wearing a skirt (he swears it was a kilt), I have a great vantage point – and some pointed commentary – on all of it.
I also have an insatiable curiosity, which means when I have questions or concerns, I simply fling open my office window, lean out, and yell to whomever I think will answer.
My colleagues and the regular passerby have come to consider this normal.
But on the particular day in question, I was yelling at a stranger whom I’d never before seen. He was walking an adorable, large, white fluffy dog, and I felt compelled to meet him (the dog – not the man). So, I opened the window and asked.
The dog looked around confused. The man looked around confused. And, realizing that neither of them knew from where the request was coming, I told them to look up. They did, and I was invited to come on down for a meet and greet.
That’s when the thought struck me. “This might be how some people will remember me – as that crazy lady who was compelled to yell at a total stranger in order to meet his dog or who shouted questions from a second story window at the church custodian across the street.”
And then another thought struck me – “Who cares? At least that is an interesting way to be remembered.”
I’ve been thinking more and more about such things recently.
That’s because today is my 50th birthday.
I am now a half a century old.
Statistics show that I have more years behind me than I have in front of me. My potential to accomplish great things will become more and more limited as the next years rush by me.
In other words, dreams of becoming the next great American novelist are now fading in the same way that hopes of suddenly blossoming into a great beauty faded at age 25.
But these superficial desires have been replaced by something far much more realistic.
Fifty years of living have taught me that life isn’t about my being embraced, or even appreciated, by the rest of the world. Instead, it’s about embracing and appreciating the world I’ve been given while, at the same time, never accepting that it can’t be improved.
It means I will probably always laugh too loud and talk too much because my enthusiasm can be overwhelming. It means my innate desire to share everything I’m thinking and feeling will always require my friends, colleagues and acquaintances to tolerate listening to yet another “Trina story,” and it will mean I will always break into song whenever a song lyric is used in conversation.
It also means I will cry too much, defend the underdog, rally against injustice and never, ever let someone else make me feel guilty about my beliefs.
And if all of that, along with penchant to make friends with every dog I encounter, yell out of office windows, and constantly stop to take a photo every time I think the sky looks amazing, then so be it.
That is my legacy, and I consider my life well spent.
Dear Senator Capito,
I’ve called your office more times during the past couple of weeks than I have called any politician’s office in my entire life. You see, I’m worried about your intentions.
Your job as a senator requires you to make decisions in the best interest of me and the other 1.8 million people who live in West Virginia.
You aren’t doing that.
I saw the recent photo of you and President Trump with a caption that said together you will bring back jobs for coal miners. That’s a lie, and you know it. There are a variety of reasons coal can no longer be the backbone of West Virginia’s economy, and your support of environmental deregulation at the risk of harming state residents won’t fix it. (http://fortune.com/2016/07/20/why-donald-trump-wont-bring-coal-jobs-back-to-west-virginia/). But you realize many or your constituents don’t want to read or hear the facts. They just want their politicians to fix something that is permanently broken. So unless you have a plan to find new jobs for former coal miners, and I’ve seen nothing of the sort, you are lying. And you are voting against the best interest of unemployed coal miners because they don’t want to hear that life as they know it has changed. Apparently, their vote is more important to you than their health is.
This same political pandering must be why you aren’t questioning Trump’s executive order on immigrants and refugees. After all, I’ve seen your written response to those who questioned your support. You defended yourself by saying that Trump is acting in the interest of national security. It’s not about national security. It’s about rhetoric and feeding into the hate that spurred Trump’s campaign. And you know it. His actions certainly aren’t based in fact. Experts in homeland security have expressed concern about his order: http://www.npr.org/2017/01/31/512592776/will-trumps-refugee-order-reduce-terror-threats-in-the-u-s. But many West Virginians don’t understand immigration or the extreme vetting that refugees must already endure. They seem to think that being Muslim is practically a crime and use this to justify their distrust and even hate while calling themselves good Christians. But you don’t care if their opinions aren’t based in reality, and you choose to feed their fears anyway. I thought your job is to protect West Virginians regardless of their misguided beliefs. If so, you’re failing.
Which brings me to the issue that is probably bothering me the most: your plan to vote to confirm Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. Ms. DeVos doesn’t have a degree in education, has no experience working in a school environment, never attended a public school or state university, sent all four of her children to private schools, and supports for-profit education. No matter how I look at this situation, I cannot understand how you could believe that putting her at the helm of our nation’s public education system is good for the Mountain State. Let’s face it, West Virginia is already struggling with educating our young people. During the 2015-2016 school year, 51% of our state’s high school juniors scored below the reading proficiency level, and 79% of them scored below the math proficiency level. Twelve percent of our adult population hasn’t even graduated from high school. Let me repeat that, more than 10% of our adult population hasn’t even graduated from high school!
Please explain how Betsy DeVos, a woman with no education experience, will be able to help West Virginia. Since we live in such a poor and rural state, I certainly can’t imagine how her passion for private schools will help.
I hate to be cynical, but do you actually like having an under-educated constituency? Do you believe that the less educated we are, the more gullible we will be? I certainly hope this isn’t true, but since you have a pattern of voting in ways that support your constituents often misguided beliefs and against their best interests, I find myself wondering.
Even more importantly, I’d also like to prove myself wrong. I ‘d like you to show me that you aren’t making decisions because they are popular instead of being right.
That is, after all, what we mothers have often told our children to do.
Maybe it’s time to start behaving in the same manner.