A Mirror Image Along the Way

I could have been looking into a mirror.

A mirror that adds 30 years and changes my race.

Mary is making breakfast for me. We are exchanging facts about our lives and have found surprising similarities. Mary also grew up with four brothers and is the only girl. She grew up in and around Minneapolis, a large city that she eventually left for South Dakota’s quiet. Mary is a nurse and worked in hospice care for most of her career, visiting homes and assisting families of patients who were soon to pass. She hasn’t been working recently because the conditions at the local hospital are unacceptable, so she is prioritizing what she likes to do over money.

Mary is cooking me an entire package of bacon, and I can’t stop stuffing these salty strips into my ravenous mouth.

Mary and I share a name.

All these strange similarities make me feel closer to this host, who has quietly and humbly made me feel at home despite how completely different the rural South Dakota life is from the life I have at home.

Mary tells me about how she and Dave met. She tells me that they married about seven years ago. For each of them, it was their first marriage. Neither of them have any children. They get along, despite of, or because of, meeting later in life. They both hunt and want to be outside in their free time. They are casually outdoorsy–not in the heavily-filtered Instagram pictures way, but more in a, happy to not see other people for a few days way.

The TV is on. News from Ferguson is dominating the news cycle. I have been following news from Ferguson, but have felt so isolated from humanity while in Wyoming that the protests, the violence, the media blackout, the heavy police presence, the National Guard being sent in, still doesn’t seem real to me. As we talk, it’s hard for me to turn away from the clouds of tear gas.

“So what do you think about what’s going on in Ferguson?” Mary asks me. My eyes go wide. I turn my head back to the bacon. Mary friended me on Facebook last night and probably has already seen the political nature of many of my posts. Negotiating politics with a host, who is generously providing food and shelter for me, and literally making it possible for me to go on, has consistently been challenging for me. I am caught between the well-engrained politeness I have been taught and rage against injustice that makes me want to cry and scream and break things.

“I think it’s really just gotten so out of control.” I don’t specify who is out of control, but she gets it.

“It’s totally out of control. The police response is completely out of control. It seems like there are deep injustices in that city that are erupting now.”

“Definitely–I mean, they’re saying that the city is mostly black but only has 3 police officers who are not white.”

“I think that’s wrong,” Mary states firmly. What does she mean?? I wonder. Is she questioning the validity of the statistic?

“Wrong in what way?” I ask.

“Well, it’s wrong for a police force to be so unrepresentative of the community. So of course people are going to be mad, and they’re going to be mad for a long time. It contributes to anger building between the people and the police.” She does get it, I think.

We soon turned back to chatting about other things, but I was pleasantly surprised. Never had a host asked me a politically charged question so openly. Many of my hosts have been casually offensive in the way they interact with me, but Mary has been respectful and straightforward. She didn’t dance around the question or her opinion, but she did it a way to create space for me to open up to her.

I could have been looking into a mirror. A mirror that adds 30 years and changes my race.

The bike trip is presenting me with people who can teach me something. Maybe the people who interact with me are specific to me–and my identity as a brown woman traveling alone. These adults are showing me what growing up can mean. Mary is an example that change at an older age is possible, that love can bring people together no matter what stage of life they are in, that nurses often share common traits (like no-bullshit), that rural does not mean ignorant racists, and that asking questions to enter a conversation can allow for openness.

I continue to shovel salty strips of perfect bacon into my mouth, and remember Mary as an adult who I want to be like when I grow up.

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