It has been a hard week. I still hurt for my community.
Small town living, for those of you who don’t know it, is a strange experience. Even in a city the size of ours — maybe 10,000 folks — over the years you get to recognize almost everybody.
Some you know, many you don’t. Many you know about, and many know about you. You carry on your life pretending to know only about a tenth of the people about whom you actually have some degree of knowledge, and they do the same about you. When you are finally introduced at some function, you casually say, “Yeah,I’ve seen you around,” when, in fact, you have probably been in any number of conversations where that person has been discussed at length. You may even have participated in the discussions.
On the surface it seems absurd and dysfunctional. But, in fact, it serves a very real purpose. You cannot acknowledge every person you meet on the street; you cannot be part of everyone’s life. You protect yourself from endless human interaction by dividing the community into those with whom you will stop to carry on a conversation, those to whom you give a polite nod, those you pretend not to know but with whose family and history you are really quite familiar, and those you don’t know at all.
When a crisis erupts, these social protections fall away. You have need of each other rather than a need to ignore each other. So the unspoken knowledge you have of each other becomes spoken, and the fabric of the community suddenly becomes tightly and closely knit.
I know that at this moment the communities of Red Lake and its larger neighbor, Bemidji, are feeling close. They need each other and want to support each other. People who have kept an artificial distance are finding themselves claiming each other as friends.
There is much to work out. There are long standing animosities; Red Lake is not especially welcoming to outsiders; and Bemidji has a deep strain of racial prejudice born of sometimes legitimate, sometimes completely misguided perceptions. Yet, like estranged siblings, the two communities have a funny kind of shared love.
All of this will be played out over a long period of time. Things move slowly in small towns — suspicions run deep, opinion is stronger than knowledge, and openness to new people and new ideas is not a small community’s strong suit. But it will be played out. Our communities will become stronger and closer for this tragic event, just as, I’m sure, New York City became stronger and closer because of 9-11.
Luckily, the metaphoric explosions to which I referred in the past have occurred, so the media spotlight is off our part of the country while we work through this tragedy. It costs too much to keep people and equipment in so isolated a location, and it stretches staff too thin. Also, the national powers that be did not want to touch this situation. Like a killing in a Black community, the media knows it has to tread carefully. Accusations of racism are quick to emerge,and any way you cover the situation is likely to get you in trouble.
Then, our president found himself in a real bind. He dared not say much about Red Lake, because just beneath the surface was the incendiary issue of guns in our country, and that is not territory where he wanted to tread. He did some sanctimonious mumbling and will probably offer some “Wizard of Oz” medals to various people in White House ceremonies, but he wanted this off his plate, and quickly.
It was far easier, and more politically expedient, to stick his nose into the tragic public dying of a poor brain-dead girl. There he can make grand pronouncements about the sanctity of life without having the contradictions of his policies brought under public scrutiny.
As I said, I’m weary right now. All this death — including the poignant and public dying of the Pope has me worn to a nub. Perhaps that’s why I’m willing to ramble so, and to engage in a little moral kidney punching rather than compassionate sermonizing. And here it is:
I wish poor, comatose Terri Schiavo would have lived in the home of an innocent, middle class family in Baghdad in George W’s giddy bombing sights. Then our untroubled president, for whom all answers come so easily, would have been forced to decide whether his belief in the freedom to live was stronger than his belief in the right to kill.
But she didn’t. And so he moved on to a blithe intrusion into her tragic dying, leaving the people of northern Minnesota blessedly alone. Now, we are left to our own devices to find out how to heal and how to transubstantiate a dark moment into something of goodness and hope.
I hope to be part of this healing when I get back. But, for now, I, too, have to move on. I have 30 students who need me. In times of great confusion, you grab the nearest hand and walk it toward the light. That’s what I have to do, and that’s what the people of Red Lake have to do.
May we all do it well, unnoticed, and to the best of our hearts’ abilities.