Today we found ourselves in the most recognizable hometown in the United States: Andy Griffith's Mayberry. If you didn't know, Mayberry is a real place, but it's actually called Pilot Mountain, NC. I know, I know - folks say Griffith's hometown of Mt. Airy is the original Mayberry, but he actually pointed out nearby Pilot Mountain as his inspiration.
I never expected a placed named Aunt Bea's to have wifi, but I was disappointed to dicover that I didn't even have the slightest hint of a Verizon signal. I looked around the place; not one person had a device of any kind in their hands. Quaint. Well, except 3 of my 4 children, who now quite stood out to me with their ears plugged with buds, noses pointed down, and fingers tapping away on the screens of their ipad minis (the 4th would have been right there with them if she hadn't lost privileges earlier in the weekend).
I scanned the room again. One couple in particular had taken notice of our little crew. Eyes darting back and forth led to disapproving sighs, pursed lips, whispers, and shaking heads. My refined skills of interpretation gathered the following:
"Families should have conversations over meals. Children should not play video games at the table. That mother should engage with her children, not let technology babysit them."Et cetera, et cetera ...
I had to smile, sigh, and shake my own head.
They didn't know.
They didn't know that these children and I just spent 3 hours in the woods, on top of a mountain, having the time of our lives. Engaged. Together.
They didn't know that we'd driven over 90 miles just to have that experience.
They didn't know that even though they'd have preferred Subway, these three middle schoolers had ordered their meals complete with "excuse me", "please", "thank you", and "yes ma'am" (okay - the 13 year old said "yeah" until I elbowed him & gave a sideways you-know-better grin).
They didn't know that 2 of them were working on their Garage Band projects, while the third was playing Stack the States (part of me wanted to see him challenge them to a round, but I thought better of it).
Most of all, they didn't know that 2 of my 4 children have significant-yet-invisible special needs.
There was so much they just. didn't. know.
Don't misunderstand - I wasn't angry. I'm not, now.
I get it.
I do it!
It was my very first visit to Cabo Fish Taco - only the coolest restaurant in the coolest district in town. I'd arranged to meet friends for a pre-concert dinner and was basking in how-cool-am-I?-ness as I joined the table they were sharing with a couple I didn't yet know. I'd arrived late and was feeling a bit like a fifth-wheel, when my friend made a sideways jab at a woman in her yoga class whose "plastic boobs" don't move the way they should when she's in certain poses. Ah, fake boob jokes - an easy conversational win! I jumped in, embarrassingly eager to score a laugh from the table, and repeated a well-rehearsed comment I'd stolen from Joy Behar: "When a woman lays flat on her back her boobs should point east and west, not straight up north. If they point up perky to the sky then you know they're fake, cause God just didn't make them that way!" That one's always good for a laugh, right? Especially here in plastic-ville, where folks have more money & vanity than sense ... right?
The woman to my right, the one I didn't yet know, said quite matter of fact-ly, "My boobs are plastic."
Painful silence. A nacho and a wad of guacamole stuck in my throat like glue. I tried to swallow. No luck. I couldn't breathe. Meanwhile,
"Don't look at her boobs. Do NOT look at her boobs! Do N- dammit!"
I looked at her boobs.
They didn't look plastic. I mean, they were completely covered with a T-shirt, no cleavage or anything, but they weren't unusually large ...
"Stop looking at her boobs!"
She graciously broke the silence-from-hell: "I had a mastectomy 2 years ago".
I picked up my glass of wine and gulped. Down went the guacamole. And the nacho. And my dignity.
"You beat cancer?!" I asked. She nodded and smiled. "BOOM!" I exclaimed with true joy, along with a complimentary expletive I won't share here. Then I held my arm out for a fist bump.
Please-oh-dear-God-in-heaven-and-all-that-is-good-and-right, don't leave me hanging. I'm dying here.
She grinned ear to ear, shot out a victorious expletive of her own, and bumped back. I may be an ass, but she isn't. She's one seriously classy lady.
Never assume a joke made at some unnamed, invisible person's expense is safe. Because you don't know if that unnamed, invisible person is sitting right next to you.
We. Don't. Know.
A month or so ago, I was at one of the closest things to heaven-on-earth I know of: the annual Wild Goose Festival. I was listening to one of my favorite speakers, a man I know to be authentic and kind and generous. All guards were down.
Then, it happened.
He'd been talking about how beauty, whether in nature or art or music, should be experienced in real ways, not mediated ones. We can't let the symbol replace the original, even though technology offers us unlimited means of doing so. He was specifically referring to children at this point, explaining the value of letting them turn over an old log and experience real live creepy-crawlies rather than watch an educational video about insects. Mediated experiences will never match actual, authentic experiences - this is truth.
But then he drove his point home with a side commentary about how "If we did more of this, kids wouldn't need to be drugged up on medicine! Treated like guinea pigs, walking zombies..."
I looked at my feet.
I told myself he didn't mean it. At least, he didn't mean my kids... He meant those other ones - nameless, faceless kids whose parents never send them outdoors to play, who stare at TV and video games all day long and are given a prescription drug the first time they wiggle in their seat at elementary school. He probably doesn't actually know a kid like that, but that's who he means. Those kids.
Problem was, the arrow had been released and it had found its mark, intended or not.
I refused to spiral downward. Instead, I rehearsed all-too-familiar self-talk, between deep cleansing breaths:
"Your kids have spent more time in the mud than most their age. You continue to use diet and many other means to help your son's autism. You waited till he was 10 before you allowed the neurologist to medicate him (frankly, you should have done it sooner). Your daughter is missing entire portions of her brain and was facing a future bedridden in a Ukrainian institution. Both of them are happy and healthy because you provide them adequate and proper medication."
By the time this self-talk was completed, I felt better, but I'd completely missed the rest of his talk. And I was sorry for that. I think he would be, too - in fact, I know he would be. He is a good man, and a good speaker.
He just didn't know.
We. Don't. Know.
So, what's the answer? Political correctness? Walking on eggshells, careful not to offend?
A hundred times, NO.
Watching what you say is exhausting and unhealthy and ... well, about as believable (not to mention palatable) as artificial sweetener.
I obviously don't have this one nailed down (just ask my new cancer-survivor friend with the plastic boobs). But I've caught glimpses of light here and there that point to a two-fold solution.
That invisible person you are willing to sacrifice in order to drive your point home or to score points of acceptance from a group you're trying too hard to impress? Compassion even for THAT person.
Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe there's a detail I'm missing. Or - sometimes - maybe I'm just being an ass.
Experience has taught me that when compassion and humility are practiced (not pondered - practiced!) then I don't have to watch what I say. I can let what is within flow out, without care.
In fact, if I sincerely practice them - consistently - something truly amazing might happen.
I might find myself having compassion for that couple in Aunt Bea's. Wondering what it must feel like to see young people using devices you believe to be responsible for the ruin of your beloved way of life?
I might even find that I'm humbly checking my assumptions, reminding myself that for all I know these people are angry about the food or the wallpaper - that their disapproving glances might have nothing at all to do with me or my kids.
Because I don't really know, do I?