At Either End or Above the Middle
By Virginia Fortner
It used to be instinctual. When I heard opinions that I didn’t like, an instant rebuttal formed. I pushed hard against a system, practice, or piece of information that felt false, and imagined brilliant retorts for days.From my end, the other perspective was preposterous.
I softened my views when I noticed that intelligent people whom I loved held that other perspective. Could I wear their shoes long enough to understand where they stood? I learned that when I let the ends go and was able to glimpse both sides of an issue, the view took on a more interesting look.
I first attempted this wider view in Kohala on the Big Island. Here, gratitude swelled up for the daily feast of life while sitting on the lip of a volcano, but would it apply to experiences in my mainland stomping ground where I grew up?
Paradise’s sunshine and birdsong faded on the seven-state Southwest roadtrip I made with a friend in 2016. However, there was ample experience to test out an attempt at a balanced view. A friend and I mostly followed the route of my 10-year-old’s scrawl on a 1949 diary that I started in Kansas.
We watched the first three presidential debates at various locations across the country with people, I love but differ with politically. I observed their dismissal of candidates’ crassness and poorly developed plans for the country but learned to be patient.
One lecture over a delicious home cooked meal was particularly difficult for me to handle. It was over the need for trickle-down economics, but I knew it best to silence my rebuttal for expecting wealth to sprinkle down on those whose hands are tied by increasing regulations. The lecturer’s spouse had lost a job with no explanation the day I arrived. Sitting there, eating my second home-made cinnamon roll, I thought how we often find ourselves on opposite ends of issues and lose the taste of gifts that bind us together.
Other times it was serendipitous. I could count my times with Kay—across seven decades of friendship— on one hand from our third-grade year. Yet, at Winfield, Kansas’ Walnut Valley Bluegrass Festival, we talked lickety-split about the ten years since we’d last been together. Her husband, on oxygen full time, went on and on about the increasing burden of their farm, kept up by their adult kids. She deferred to him often. We’ve little in common, yet a bond persists. Finding out that we were headed toward Arizona, she decisively reached for her phone. “Don lives in Arizona!” Within a day, her brother called and insisted that we stop by.
Two weeks and many extra miles later, we did just that. I remembered a fat kid my brother’s age who bugged Kay and me as we skated, dammed up gurgling streams, and played dress-up. He was now a wood-turner displaying work in two Arizona galleries, a master chef, and happy husband of a fourth wife who welcomed us to their hospitable home. His story of needing a stroke to slow down a high-powered, drink-your-lunch life and job, alone, was worth the miles off my diary-travel route.
The clincher was when Don showed me his deceased father’s People I Have Known, written after he learned to use computers in the nursing home. It included a dot-matrix column about my Kansas family the year we were farm neighbors. Don told me Kay had seen my mother as a model for her life. That tempered stinging memories of Mom’s criticism of my sewing attempts, cooking failures, and adventuresome spirit. I better understood her need to uphold our family image. In turn, I increased awareness of releasing fears around my own children’s differing lifestyles.
My high school friend, with whom I reconnected at our 45th reunion, drove through all seven states. I puzzled why he wouldn’t agree to share driving, although the pillow under me ended up behind his back after a few hundred miles. It took longer for me to be patient and wait for him to answer simple questions over the often-silent miles.
I recalled strangers, unrecognized hometown folks, often did not introduce themselves, except for “You don’t know who I am, do you?” Was it a tease, Midwest quirkiness, or lack of social savvy? It felt a little like mind reading and control games. I decided to ignore it and sit back and enjoy the Southwest scenery.
In Texas, I read aloud from my diary about a car wreck still stenciled on my childhood memory. About fifteen four-lane miles north of Giddings, bridges along the raised highway sported new sides and guard rails. Then we came upon one with aging cement sides at the bottom of a long slope. Memory heard again my dad’s voice, “Sis, stay off those brakes!” I walked the shoulder where our Nash had rolled those long years ago, skidded on its side, and rested above a dried creek. Instant déjà vu!
My patient driver mindset took it in matter-of-factly. I balanced my thudding heart and wonderment at finding myself there after nearly seven decades. That magic prepared me to notice a restaurant in a New Mexican border-town opened the year of my birth. We arrived at Carlsbad Caverns as it closed and saw bats emerge at dusk. And we found an Oklahoma panhandle librarian who knew just the right keys to push for newspaper articles mentioning my reclusive grandparents’ lives around the time of Mom’s birth.
We found the Kansas farm where I knew Grandpa’s family had lived. I had slept in the living room of that house before my last uncle’s funeral. If the present owner had not invited us into his home, I would never have known that the front steps got finished and led to a deck, privacy fence, and pool with three bronze palm trees. Those palms were the reason we almost missed finding it, so far from the frugal farmers’ labor that had built the tiny house.
I told my friend how Uncle Ed’s closet contained five pair of overalls, five chambray work shirts, and one pair of work shoes and his Sunday clothes. He was buried in his dress shoes, white shirt, tie, and suit. After probate, his trust gifted unsuspecting relatives with $150,000 each. He lived both ends of the continuum, able to manage maize harvests, oil wells, savings, and investing on one end while remaining close to the bone on the other. I never learned if Uncle Ed toyed with his view of both ends from above the middle.
I looked at simplicity and abundance and felt thanks for both in earlier days and here in Hawaii under my own palm trees. I inched a little closer to sharpened awareness and less judgmental acceptance than when I started the mainland odyssey.
Welcomed home, lazy island life resumed. I was grateful for mowed grass. Familiar space found me again celebrating the daily feast of living. The volcano erupted once again, taking a day or so to move toward cooling balance.
Hearing news reports after my diary trip, I appreciated each candidate’s past and personality in a wider light, although I didn’t identify with either on many points. I sent in my ballot. Each day’s feast on the lip of a volcano continued.