Summer is upon us. On warm days when families take to the out of doors, there is a steady stream of baby strollers on the sidewalks. Sit yourself down where you can watch them parade by and you will be treated to one of the true joys of summer — baby feet.
They dangle shoe-less out of the front of their strollers, golden as toast, rich and chocolate-y or deliciously pink. Some are immobile, the owners of the feet fast asleep as they glide by. Other feet bounce to an unknown tune in a little head. Baby feet are a far cry from adolescent or grown-up feet. They are innocent, unblemished and quite possibly fragrant, little-used except to kick off a blanket now and again.
In today’s world, a simple pleasure like baby feet can be a balm. Here’s another one. A sister and brother are walking along together, 20 feet ahead of their parents. The girl is maybe 12, her brother about 8. He says this: “The joy of seeing a dog is nowhere near the joy of petting a dog.” This little connoisseur of joy has got his priorities right and can parse out levels of joy aloud. Exquisite.
As our communities fill with visitors for the season, we get to see the unifying principle of our nation right before our eyes. Vacation is when we drop the labels we use to categorize each other: rich, poor, Democrat, Republican, Christian, Muslim, Jew. This influx of people all arrives under one label: tourist.
We know how to apply those other labels to those who populate our towns year-round, but we don’t know how they apply among summer visitors. There are cues, and we can guess, but without the labels and their attendant stereotypes, we are all just ice cream eaters.
If we share a brief conversation as we wait in line for a restaurant table, or sit on the other end of a park bench, or navigate a tricky bit of hiking trail, it’s all about “Where are you from?” and “What’s a good place for lunch?” The opening gambit is never “Hey, are you a Democrat or a Republican?”
We may discover a common interest, or that we live not too far apart back home. We may find that our new acquaintance lives in a place we’ve always wanted to visit and pump them with questions. We’ll comment on something that interests us about this stranger, their camera or their dog or their hiking boots.
But if a stranger comes to us with his or her label on, it’s a whole different ballgame. We allow a person’s politics or religion, age or style of dress, accent or skin color to dictate the terms of engagement, and we are not so interested in that lunch recommendation or where they went hiking today. The label is all we need to know.
We respond to people in cohorts quite differently than we do to an individual. Take a group of people with a mutual political affiliation or religious identity or socioeconomic status and we are quick to assign them all sorts of traits and beliefs they may or may not exhibit.
When we meet people one-on-one, we are prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt. We don’t dive in with “Hey, warm, isn’t it? I’m a Green Independent. How about you?” We start the interaction with exploratory small talk, looking for mutual interests. If we find one, we may dig a little deeper. No one is going to start a lifelong friendship from a conversation in an ice cream line, so the stakes are low.
But don’t we have the wrong end of the stick here? Those few minutes of idle chat are irrelevant to the rest of our lives. It is the people we live around, work with or eat a meal next to who are going to be part of our lives in a more meaningful way. Rather than slot them into their pigeonhole because we happen to know their party affiliation, aren’t they the very people with whom we should investigate mutual interests?
Aren’t they the people we should be asking about their work? Their hobbies? Their kids? Instead, we write them off because we know something about them that is different from that same something about us. We never get to learn that they could help us fix a leaky pipe or a knitting mistake, that they, too, are caring for an aging parent. We write them off before we know whether the part we disagree with represents 10 percent of who they are or 90 percent.
Before we write anyone off, we ought to know more than their labels. We ought at least to know how they feel about baby feet.
Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.