America

How travel has helped me to understand others through compassion and conversation.

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Growing up in New England, you might appreciate the classic beauty of our beaches and cranberry bogs, but nothing prepares you for the majestic beauty that can truly surround you once you go out west. Once I moved to California, I was struck by the most stunning mountainous skylines that I would encounter just driving down the highway. Rolling sand dunes, cavernous forests, and vast beaches where you can see dolphins play from the shore as you stroll past sunbathing sea lions. It was the time that I spent living in California and started to explore the western coast, that I got a taste for how overwhelmingly beautiful America really is.

My childhood in New England with a homogeneous neighborhood and insatiable craving for reading led me to imagine all of the wonderful things in the world were nowhere near me, and surely had to be abroad. As soon as I finished my bachelor’s degree, I moved to Europe. I traveled to as many countries as I could while living in Poland, but by the time I returned to the US I was 24, and I had only been to a handful of states outside of the region where I grew up. We often think that the only place worth living in, is where we have already lived. I wanted to be around those who thought the same way I did, who were also just as liberal. I thought I wanted to be where everything was my normal. But stepping away from what you know, is truly the only way to learn more. I never thought of the United States as a place worth exploring when I was younger, until I started doing that very thing. My experience of living abroad challenged my perception of the world, but seeing more of my own country is what sparked my desire to understand it better. One of the greatest side effects of travel is the chance to gain perspective, to see how real people live in other parts of the world, or in your own country. It is easy to stay home in your bubble and echo what you hear and believe to be right. You may never share the same beliefs as others, but taking a moment to talk to people who live differently will be the only step towards compassion and understanding.

About a year ago, I visited a tiny town called Sayre, Oklahoma. Like all of the best towns I’ve visited, you wouldn’t even know that it was there unless you took the time to veer off the main highway and venture into the hidden part of the town. At first of course I was surprised that Sayre was even a town at all, in my long journey I got into the habit of talking with my dog about the places we visited. I remember looking at him and saying, “Sayre, Sayre. There’s absolutely nothing here.” But after walking around the center of the town which looked as if it popped out of an old western film, I found a very charming coffee shop and stopped inside. There I met these two gentlemen who talked with me about their lives, their travels, and their experiences in Oklahoma working and raising families. The fellow on the left had lived all around the United States, including Boston, before making his home base in Oklahoma and driving trucks for a living.

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At the coffee shop, Sayre, Oklahoma 2016

We couldn’t have been more different, but we connected and maybe had a moment of humanity and understanding. I had a similar experience this past week in McClellanville, South Carolina. In this tiny town, a world away from Sayre, I talked with everyone that I met, asked about how they got to that small fishing village, and what they loved about where they lived. As a child, I imagined that I could have only been happy to live in a big city like New York, or maybe somewhere in Europe. McClellanville would not have even been a place I could imagine myself wanting to visit. But something about that tiny town is magic. Even though I’m not religious, even though I surely did not vote the same way as many people in that town, I connected with all of the folks that I met. Everyone was very kind and understanding. Everyone took the time to talk with me, to look me in the eye and treat me respectfully. We talked about art, about the passing of close family members, about what we loved about the sea. We were joined in a series of moments of humanity, together. If I never went down the tiny road that lead to this town of 400-500 people, I would have never had the two days of joy and peace that their community offered me.

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A peaceful moment in McClellanville, SC 2017

Today is a sorrowful day for me, and November 8, 2016 caused a deep earthquake within me. I had known what the possibility could have been, but I hadn’t felt my heart break quite like the days and weeks after the announcement of our next President. I felt a deep sorrow within me that our country would choose to stand with someone who so clearly supported hate and fear. I was disgusted that so many could not see that the anger and rage coming from his supporters would hurt our country, and hurt so many who desperately need help. I was horrified that someone who spoke freely about sexual assault, and the lack of value of women could walk into the highest office in our country. I felt betrayed, harmed and almost as if I had been attacked myself. The thought of being around people who could have possibly supported the President-Elect made my stomach turn.

There are so many people in this world, so many within my own country with confusing, wonderful or weird stories. Lives are complex, shaded with so many influences and although tempting, it is very short sighted to judge someone who lives differently than you do. Even the reality I have of being able to search for my happiness, of being able to travel– this is not even a glimmer of a possibility for so many others born within the same country. I have, as I’ve said before, the privilege of dreaming.

To travel is to dive deeply into learning about the human experience. I love this country, I refuse to stay with my head buried within the sand of my own liberal bubble. I want to learn about all of America, a place where we clearly do not see eye to eye, but we have so much to offer each other. I know that the conversations I have with others while I’m on the road may not changes votes, but what I hope for myself is that I can try to continue to understand others, to learn about their lives and their world. Attempting to know what is different from yourself or your surroundings is the only way we can begin to try to understand one another, the only way to make progress. I believe that compassionate understanding and true listening is our only hope to connect and to heal. Approaching my understanding of how other Americans may have voted for our new President with even the slightest sense of their every day lives, the history of their regions, the pain of their past, it allows me to have a glimmer of understanding. And that allows some peace to grow within me.

Today is a very sad day for many of us, but not all Americans. I am choosing to spend the day peacefully reflecting, then joining some friends to make signs for the March in Boston tomorrow.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am proudly a raging liberal. But what I know for sure, is that opening my heart and mind with compassion is leading me to a more peaceful place in coming to terms with today. I can’t explain away hate, but I can compassionately see that even though I am a woman, I am lucky enough to have the privileges of travel, living safely within my assigned gender, education, race, and having educated parents who tried to expose me, in their way, to folks who were different from us. Once I grew up that door opened much wider, with travel.

Through compassion you can see that the root of hate is often fear, anger, struggle. I’m not saying it is in any way right, or just. I still deeply believe you should continue to fight, to face inequality, to use your voice. I will continue to peacefully protest and support the organizations that I believe are making social change. I also know that today is actually happening, and ignoring it will not undo reality.

I dreamed of HRC being sworn in today, but my dream is not a reality. I’m so sad, because I do believe our next president stands for bigotry and hate. But in addition to trying to fight all the negative changes he and his administration are promising to make with my resistance, I hope to try to approach those who are different than I am with compassion and love. I do believe our country failed the many people who struggle in poverty and lack of education, and I hope I can in some way, help make a tiny change by trying to engage and be more understanding.

As of today, I’ve visited 32 states. I know that this is just scratching at the surface, that even in those states I have visited, I haven’t really had the time to get to know more than one part of a state. Today, we have a new President of the United States. It is an era that I believe in a large part, to have been brought on by fear and resentment. By a feeling of many across the country that they have been left out of getting ahead. I refuse to be a part of the fear of the unknown. I look forward to seeing more and more of my country. I look forward to the tiny towns in South Carolina, Oklahoma, Montana, Idaho, and all of the other states along the way. I want to know how people live, and how they came to believe what they believe. I want to gain an understanding, and I want both sides of arguments to try to practice compassion.

I love my country. I believe we do deserve better than who we inaugurated today, but I know that this is a big, beautiful land with lots of diverse experiences. I look forward to getting to know the United States as each year passes by, and I hope that my understanding will bring some peace and connection with those that I meet along the way. I vow to keep exploring, and to continue to try to make connections with compassion and understanding. My current travel goal is to visit all 50 states within the next five years. I know I plan on trying to listen as much as I can at each stop along the way as I continue to look for America.

 

 

 

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