We See the World So Differently

A group of ladies in my building get together at 5 o’clock every Sunday afternoon for a social gathering. They drink a little wine, share some hors d’oeuvres, and converse. Shortly after the group formed, I was invited to join them, which I did a few times. After the first gathering, I went out of politeness. These are all women who had careers — some rather interesting ones. And most are well traveled. It is clear that none of them started life intellectually deficient. Now, as retired seniors, their predominant life focus is backward looking, which is an anathema to me.

As I devote each day to learning new professional skills and examining a breadth of ideas and information, I could not relate to their continual focus on the mundane — who knew whom, who lived where when, whose family is related to whom. I wanted to scream, “Who (expletive deleted) cares? Who are you today? What do you care about most when you wake up every morning? What did you learn that was new and exciting last week or yesterday?”

I was a child of the Deep South with some classic Southern roots and a mother who was ashamed of her family’s connection to Confederacy leadership. In many families, there are verboten discussion topics. That was one in my family, which was unusual in the South. On the topic, Mother would only say, “We are not those people.” So I was not imbued with devotion to lineage as virtue or vice — an affliction for many Southerners. And I was fortunate that a job transfer moved us from South Alabama to Northern California the summer after I graduated high school. This meant my college education and career occurred in California. I realize today that, although my parents did not know it at the time, they reared me with liberal California values. The result: I thrived there.

A prolonged serious health issue accompanied by some unexpected setbacks caused me to return to Alabama ten years ago. This was not part of my life plan, but it is where I am now. Fortunately, my health issues have been dealt with and no longer exist. And I contemplate the future with enthusiasm at a time when most of my like-aged compadres welcome a slower pace, albeit not with backward-looking attitudes.

In addition to the vapid interests that dominated conversations in the ladies group, I began to see various forms of subtle bigotry rear their ugly heads last year. (Both of these traits — looking backward and bigotry are common in this culture.) That meant I had to make a decision. Choice one: I would have to swat that thinking down every time it appeared, which I have done a lot of in my life. It is a grueling, exhausting process and a complete waste of time among older Southerners. They are who they are. They were reared with values I never learned and that I refused to acquiesce to in the social milieu that engulfed my youth. Choice two: I had to not attend the gatherings. I preferred choice two for multiple reasons and used my allergy to cigarette smoke as an excuse after I had to leave one woman’s apartment because, although no smoking was occurring with guests present, residue of her cigarettes infested her lovely upholstered furniture and carpet, and I found it difficult to breathe.

The organizers continued to invite me and I begged off. Then I had an unpleasant interaction with one of them when, sporting a smile to cover poison, she told me she was voting for Trump because he was the best choice of two evil candidates. To say I was rude would be a gross understatement. I was a full-on bitch when I responded to that inane remark — in front of a number of building residents. She was shocked that I would behave in such an unladylike manner. (I did end up with two new interesting friends as a result of not allowing her to say that uncontested.)

The second positive result (in addition to new friends): they stopped inviting me to the damn group!

Then, yesterday, I ran into one of the organizers when I was going down to pick up mail. She started in again, inviting me to come to the group, which is meeting in her apartment — just four doors down from me — this afternoon. I thanked her for inviting me and told her I would not be attending. Obviously surprised by my directness, she wanted to know why. I should have said I have other plans, which is sort of true. I do have a project I am working on and which I will be working on at 5 o’clock. I tried my old, “It’s just not my thing,” line that worked last year. But she continued to press. Finally, I told her I was not interested in families’ lineages or who knew whom (unrelated to friends in common) or who lived where when. I explained that I live in a world of ideas and learning and growth and creativity and current affairs and international developments. That I look forward, not back. And continually hankering for the past is of no interest to me.

Of course, she immediately became defensive and started telling me about her old family history, which I have already heard one time too many and which only proved the point I was making, but she did not “get” that. After I interrupted to go hold the building door open for my across-the-hall neighbor who was carrying a load of heavy groceries, she said that since there was no more Hillary we could all discuss politics now. My reply, “I have no interest in discussing politics with Trump supporters.” She told me I should consider all viewpoints. I, looking at her as if she was stark raving mad, calmly said, “No, I should not consider the views of bigots.” She did not seem to fully grasp the meaning of what I said. What I was thinking and restrained myself from saying was, “I have heard enough ignorant mutterings to know I have no interest in them since I find them to be a waste of my time, a drain on my positive energy, and a serious detriment to the well-being of the country. In addition, I have a zero tolerance policy toward bigotry.”

My neighbor with the groceries needed to get to his mailbox behind where she was standing. When she moved so he could reach it, she asked him what he’d been up to. His response, “Same thing that I’ve been up to for 18 months — trying to destroy Trump’s power.”

She said nothing. I smiled and felt deeply thankful for an ally who would overtly reveal his views as I said, “Ah yes, a kindred spirit.” He and I headed to the elevators together, discussing the dangers of Trump as we came up twelve floors to our safe perches above the city.

Since then, I have thought about the exchange — about the significant difference between those of us who look forward and those who yearn for the not-so-good ole days. The chasm between us appears wide, deep and stark. This division may say more about our political separateness than much that gets piled atop these distinctly dissimilar life lenses.