I had a discussion with a friend today. We both grew up in communities where stories were our daily bread. Front-porch sitting kind of stories. Old people stories. Stories about our neighbors and about people we didn’t even know. Everybody always had a story about somebody else. I’ve been known to prod my own family with “Ain’t you got a story for me?”
It’s a question I ask of lots of folks.
And sure enough most everytime I ask it, I get a story I wasn’t expecting.
Over the weekend, I attended a one-day literature conference at OSU/Cascades, where I heard all kinds of stories. I met people whose names and stories I didn’t know. I learned something from each one. One gal grew up on a ranch. They raised cattle. Mostly black Angus cattle. But one year, for some reason she couldn’t recall, they introduced a red cow into the herd.
“Do animals recognize that they are different in color the way people do?” I asked. (I wasn’t raised on a ranch. I can’t hardly stand to see a cat give birth, and I really can’t stand to see anything die. I’ve been known to let bugs out the door rather than kill them.)
This girl, the one who grew up on the ranch, she didn’t know if animals recognized color or not but she recalled all those black cows were unkind to the red one. Maybe it was just because it was introduced into the herd late, she suggested. But, then again, maybe it was because it was a red cow and not a black cow like the rest of the herd.I don’t know for sure, but I know people who say they don’t see color are lying.
When my son was in first grade, one of his good friends was biracial. He had a white momma and a black daddy. His daddy was a very famous fellow around these parts because he played in the NBA. Once, when my son was making a trip to go visit his friend, his teacher inquired whether his friend was black. “No, he’s not black,” my son said. “He’s grey.”
So even at age six, my son saw color. He didn’t know what it meant, which is why he told me what his teacher said when he came home, but it don’t take long to figure out that color is one of the most obvious ways that herds thin themselves out.
When this gal told me the story of how those black cows were so hateful to the red cow, I felt terrible for that red cow. (If you have not yet read Brenda McClain’s One Good Mama Bone you should do so. You’ll come to feel for the left-out cows in life, too, even if you are not a farm girl.)
One of the other stories I heard at the festival was told by a poet. He read a poem that made me think about what it must be like to be transgender. I wondered if when you go through the reassignment surgery if you go through a season of mourning the person that you used to be. Even if you didn’t ever feel like that person was really you, it was the only person you had known. We have a friend who has just gone through this surgery. So much about their life has changed. It’s been hard at the same time it’s been freeing.
I’ve never been divorced but I wonder if it’s like that, too. My divorced friends have gone through a time of grieving the marriage they never had but had hoped to have. It’s not that they want their old life back – most of them don’t – it’s just that they grieve the dream of what they had wanted life to be like.
I don’t suppose anybody born wants to be born to a life that is hard in any way. So I don’t know but I imagine that it is very, very hard to be a woman trapped in a man’s body or a man trapped in a woman’s body. Sometimes I feel like a skinny person trapped in a plump person’s body. I hate that feeling. When I went through menopause I felt like I was trapped in an ape suit on a scorching hot day. It made me just want to slap somebody.
Nowadays, I feel more Canadian than American. I sat for the pledge for the first time in my life last week. Sat right down the minute the pledge started. The sight of the American flag nauseates me lately. Seriously. Makes me sick to my stomach. I think of all those flag-draped caskets and I just want to puke. I hear the cries of a dear friend whose daddy died in Vietnam like mine ringing in my ears: Why? What was it all for?
I spoke with a fellow who was wounded in war, in North Korea, and I think of my daddy, who did two tours there, and I wonder as a draft-dodger meets with a dictator: Why? What was it all for?
Why is the very same question the drama teacher at Parkland asked during the Tony’s: Why aren’t the arts a core requirement?
STEM can teach us how to build a bomb but STEM will never teach us why we should never use it.
Only the humanities can do that.
Only hearing another person’s story can make you wonder what it feels like to be them.
Karen Spears Zacharias is author of AFTER THE FLAG HAS BEEN FOLDED (HarperCollins).