on difference

With the way American society has become increasingly contentious, divided, and even aggressive (as exemplified by yesterday’s synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh), I’ve been thinking about how P. and I fit into our adopted community, this valley here.

In many ways, we are in the minority: immigrants, Eastern Europeans (there are only about 5-10 others from that region here, in a community of 5,000), and non-native English speakers. There are religious differences too: I’m Jewish, one of maybe a couple dozen or so Jewish people in the valley.  P. is an Orthodox Christian – so a Christian, yes, but belonging to a branch of Christianity that is barely represented locally. None of our compatriots in the valley are Orthodox Christians; there is no Orthodox church here, the closest being located in Wenatchee, nearly 100 miles from Twisp; and this branch of Christianity is different enough that I’ve had a few local Protestants tell me that they “don’t understand” what Orthodox Christianity is, exactly.

Having grown up in a different country, at a time when the world was not quite as globalized as it is today, there are also significant cultural and social differences. There are too many to list here; they range from not having the same pop culture references as those around us to viewing friendships and intimate relationships in a different light than most Americans.

Beyond linguistic, ethnic, religious and cultural differences, there are also ways in which each of us as an individual, and the two of us as a couple – as a family – might stand out. A lot of this has to do with P.’s ongoing struggle with depression and other mental health issues and learning disabilities. These challenges have impacted pretty much every aspect of his life, from his hesitant command of English despite many years in this country to difficulty acquiring and holding down a job to the way he looks and dresses. And, because P. rarely feels up to leaving the house, and my local friends are either busy or prefer to spend their time doing other things, I can often be seen out and about solo, whether it is catching a play or a movie, taking in an art exhibit, hiking, or simply grocery shopping. A bit of an unusual situation for a couple, admittedly.

Given all this, it’s hard to believe how easily we seem to fit into this community – in a large part because no fitting in is required. The valley is filled with so many different kinds of people, some of whom can be assigned to certain sociodemographic groups and others who are just plain oddballs, each in a class of their own. There are liberals and conservatives, ranchers and conservationists, retired lawyers and software engineers in gleaming mountaintop homes of glass and steel – and aging off-grid hippies in solar-powered teepees, people with PhDs and people who can barely spell, kombucha sippers and alcoholics. And, somehow, this is all OK.

The local online bulletin board does periodically erupt with political discussions that quickly turn into lengthy rants or uncompromising, rapid-fire back and forth comments. Both Bernie stickers and Trump stickers abounded leading up to the 2016 election. But, residents’ day-to-day interactions with each other have been surprisingly civil and tolerant, so far at least. My sense is that, because in a small community like this you are bound to bump into the same people again and again in the course of business or social interactions, you have no choice but to deal with people who can be very different than you, and you get to know them better as individuals.

This means that life forces you to go beyond the stereotypes, become less judging and more open-minded. In the city, it’s so easy to find or create your own little bubble and live in it. Urbanites – in Seattle at least – tend to segregate themselves by neighborhood, by workplace, by how they spend their leisure time. And, there is so much aspirational living in the city. On my infrequent return trips to Seattle, I’ve been struck, lately, by how artificial many people seem. You can see people trying to fit in – or to stand out. The way they dress and style their hair, the coffee shops they frequent, the bikes they ride – everything screams, “Look at me, I’m part of the ‘in’ crowd!” or “Look at me, I’m unique!”

In a community that is as small and as diverse as the Methow, there is no one to impress. So, I don’t hesitate to make a grocery run wearing the same unfashionable, grimy jeans I just wore to clean the chicken coop (I will check for any stray bird poops stuck to the backside but that’s about it). And, while I don’t always like to go to the theater or art show alone, it’s because it would be more enjoyable to trade impressions with my husband or a friend, not because people will look at me funny for being there by myself. It’s OK not to look perfect or have a perfect life because no one around here is perfect. No one is perfect anywhere, of course, but in the city so many people are trying so hard to make it seem like they are.

Getting back to P., we’ve been a lot more open with people around here about the challenges he’s facing than we ever were in Seattle, and not a single time have we felt stigmatized or shunned. Admittedly, we had a very small social circle in Seattle, so it’s possible that my conclusions are not really valid simply because the sample size was always too small. However, most of our Seattle friends or acquaintances sort of drew back a little (or a lot) when they realized the extent of the difficulties we were dealing with or got a whiff of some “weirdness” about us.

Most people we’ve met out here in our new community don’t draw back. Instead, they might open up and share something difficult from their own lives – a combative past marriage, drug abuse, an illness in the family, the loss of a home. And, in a culture that we’ve always felt was closed, hush-hush, and artificially focused on all things positive based on our early (urban) experiences in the U.S., this is incredibly refreshing, and human. I only wish more communities in this country, and elsewhere, were like this, with people accepting each other as people, with all of our differences and imperfections.

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