My grandson is fifteen months old and has just about mastered the flat-footed scamper. Elbows bent like a bird, he dashes to the playground swings in confident steps. I am watching him grow in what appears to be a seamless sequence of amplifications. His growth spurts are tiny, assigned as such by a change in routine that his parents had grown accustomed to — disrupted sleep pattern unexplained by the usual list of irritants, or a new stubbornness where acquiescence had been the norm.
It got me thinking about those moments in our adult lives when we hit a growth spurt. When our vision of the world and ourselves was so profoundly challenged that we wondered how we could have believed such a fiction previously. What kinds of life experiences can offer this? The death of a loved one? Divorce? Serious illness? I’ve experienced all of these, as have many of you. But while each was momentous in its own way, none changed me as much as living abroad.
I may have had only one foot in adultland at that point, but I had never had the dislocating experience of being the “other.” And while this was a semester at a university in England and not roughing it in a Nepalese yurt, it was only two years after the end of the Vietnam War and many Brits still harbored anti-American sentiment.
Barely out of my teens, I had voted in a single presidential election but was being blamed for Richard Nixon and US war atrocities. As if I had been the person ordering the bombing of Cambodia. These offenses preceded me into every conversation as I struggled to find common ground and left me stung. How was I not judged by my dry sense of humor, the strident feminism of my teenage years? My curiosity about them? The particulars of ME made no difference. It was devastatingly eye-opening.
While I had chosen to live in England and knew I would be leaving at the end of the semester, a curious thing happened that again made me aware of how complicated the world was and how little I knew of it.
In the dining hall of the university, a classmate and I sat across from a middle-aged professor. In the course of the conversation, my friend and I said that we were Jewish. The professor narrowed his eyes, looked around nervously and slowly exposed a small Jewish star that hung from a chain around his neck, then quickly tucked it back in his shirt. He touched his finger to his lips and left the table.
The sense of otherness this man must have felt in his own country disturbed me greatly. This was England? Home of my adored Masterpiece Theater and the tea trolley that interrupted our afternoon lecture? How was I changed? I gained a healthy skepticism for the hands of power — sunny government assertions as well as corporate speak – that follow me to this day. But another emotion spurted from this experience.
Like many, I have occasionally ascribed generalizations to groups, and then onto innocent members of those groups. At a university in England, I wanted nothing more than to be judged for who I was, not by something over which I had no choice.
I remind myself of that in these difficult times.