It should come to you as no great surprise to learn that I am a country bumpkin at heart. My siblings and I grew up in the countryside, on a little patch of Heaven called Covered Bridge Estates, in very rural Belleville, Illinois. Our youth comprised of little need for shirts or shoes and oftentimes this lack of attire would have applied to my older sister as well. The locus of our activity was often the lake attached to our property. Bear in mind, this was no bucolic “Lake Wobegon” type lake, but, rather, a seven acre man-made hole walled up on one side by an earthen dam. And it was chocked full of large mouth bass, muskrats and Copperhead and Water Moccasin snakes. These last two are significant, as they represent two of the more venomous snakes in southern Illinois. A haven for the moss and algae that grew there in abundance, and which routinely served as a burr in his saddle, the lake’s resiliency to my father’s chemical warfare was more than just impressive. Even the copper sulfate, which he applied liberally, and which is deadly to many fish species, failed to provide positive results. EJ was frustrated, so much so that he pitched to his two young sons the following offer: Manually remove all the offending moss from his lake utilizing any means possible and my brother and I would be rewarded with a week-long stay at an expensive basketball camp. Curt and I were probably about 11-years-old at the time. We were lucky to keep shit out of our pants, much less mastermind a way to extract tons of moss out of a creepy lake. Oh, and here comes the important part– WE WERE TERRIFIED OF THAT LAKE. Regardless, the draw of spending seven days away from home learning how to become the stellar basketball studs that we would never actually amount to was too much of a draw.
The plan was as unsafe as it was simple– get in our john boat, row out to the center of the lake and pull out as much algae as a single summer day would allow. My sister played some sort of managerial role, apparently, but the dirty work would be performed by my brother and me. It would take about two weeks, roughly a 100 or so trips from lake to land and a lifetime’s worth of anxiety to remove all the moss from that lake. In those first few days we dallied with the notion that our basketball camp dreams could be fulfilled by dangling our limbs from the side of the boat and pulling moss a single strand at a time. The lake was too big, and the moss problem too severe for this to be an efficient use of time. Eventually my brother and I would sling ourselves over the side of the boat and heap gobs upon gobs of moss up into the boat with our arms. Terrifying, at first. But, over time, the squish of the mud, caresses from occasional no see-ums, mosquito bites and abject mortification of not knowing what lay below the water line became commonplace. We made pretty tidy work of cleaning up that lake, and the basketball camp reward is a favored childhood memory. But it is now, as an adult, that in the years after we cleaned up that lake that it had transformed itself: No longer was it a receptacle of fear and mystery, it had become a container of joy– a place where my brother and I, along with the neighbor kids as well, would spend hours upon hours splashing away hot summer days.
Familiarity softens hard lines.
You really can’t effectively address a difficult problem until you have fully immersed yourself into becoming an active part of the solution. Over the last 39 years of my life I will admit to having used the following words: Queer, dyke, homo, porch monkey, beaner, polak, gook, camel fucker, retard, and more. I did not have a meaningful relationship with a person of color until I was in the seventh grade. Never knew a single gay person until college. No special needs children. No adherents of any religion outside of Christianity either. And now, almost 40 years later, I find myself lovingly surrounded by the people I would have once used these terms to describe as a younger man. I don’t recall a time ever when I have been more contented with the people who comprise my world. So what about my life changed?
I became old. I also became a father.
Having recently performed a “moral inventory” I have learned about myself the following: I want my world to be one where the default response to any given situation is love and understanding. And I more than just want this world for my daughter. I am crafting it with her. I believe there is a reason why organizations like United States Armed Forces tend to be more racially tolerant than most– that distinctions of difference become blurred once you are forced to work side-by side with someone not matching your definition of “normal.” We all want normalcy. We all want to be loved. We all want to be understood. I remember the day I stopped using the word “retard.” It was the same day the mother of a special needs child told me that her daughter would occasionally cry herself to sleep on days that she would hear this word. I can’t be a part of that problem. So I chose to be a part of the solution. While I am no bleeding heart liberal, don’t embrace the concept of political correctness and absolutely abhor groupthink, I want those around me to feel as good about themselves in their lives as their presence in my life makes me feel about mine.
The fear and indifference of a murky lake can become a joyful place when the unfamiliar is made familiar. And the fostering of love and understanding in this gift we call life can become the default reaction to our everyday experience. If we want it to.