Our friend Terry said something to us last week about how culture is like a thumbprint embedded on our souls. Like a lot of things we don’t pick or ask for, that thumbprint is predetermined for us when we’re born; it surrounds us; we swim in it. Like the air we breath, our culture is part of everything we think and do, affecting us, being affected by us, and yet virtually unnoticeable. I am a different person because I was born into the geographic location of the Chicago suburbs and not South Florida or small-town Texas or northern California, I realize, the first child of a Midwestern couple who were starting a new business, not working at office jobs, and a new family, not a big one, in the early 1980s. My personality and perspectives have been affected by a childhood in private school instead of public school where my mom and not my dad cooked most nights and my family ate out often. I went to northern Wisconsin most summers, not the East or the West. It was normal to me that people sent annual Christmas cards and gifts required thank-you notes and when someone came over to your house you should try to be a good host.
Most of the ways I’ve been affected by the culture I grew up in are so tied up into the way I look at things and do things, I can only see them when I step outside that culture into a new one, like I’ve done over the last three years, surrounded by different people who didn’t grow up in Naperville, Illinois. Until I’m confronted with someone else’s reality—in a new place or in a new conversation, in a story over coffee or in a story on a big screen—it’s hard to see the world as bigger than what I experience with my own pair of eyes.
I’ve always been fascinated by this. It’s why I like books and blogs and meeting open people who will talk about their lives. It’s also part of what’s drawn me to a new book, Smitten with Squash (Northern Plate), from the Minnesota Historical Society, written by our blog friend Amanda Paa. It’s the fourth in what the MHS calls The Northern Plate Series, a book collection that celebrates, one by one, foods that are beloved and prolific in the American Midwest.
If you didn’t grow up in the middle of the United States, you may or may not be familiar with the annual bumper crop of squash everybody’s talking about around this time of year. But when I was a kid, summer meant people would bring bags of zucchini to school or to church, handing them out to anyone who wanted them and would use them up. People put zucchini in cakes at church potlucks. There were zucchini gratins and zucchini slices roasted on the grill. And apparently what I experienced in Illinois is not too different from what others experienced in Minnesota, nor what Tim and I experienced at our farm pickup last week when there was a take-as-much-as-you-can approach going on with the plethora of summer squash.
“Summer squash is promiscuous without even trying to be,” Amanda writes. “It’s a shame they are sometimes taken for granted, which most often happens when they are growing at the speed of weeds.”
It’s funny, but when I read those words, I mostly think how much it makes sense to me, how alike a life in Minnesota can be to a life in Illinois, how people in certain regions have relatable experiences simply because of weather and the way things grow. I like when it’s easy to picture what someone else is talking about. I like it when what someone’s saying makes sense, even if that something he or she is saying is about a simple, fairly basic thing like food.
I watched that popular Brene Brown video on empathy with my friend Rachel yesterday; maybe you’ve seen it? If you haven’t, it’s worth watching, if only because Brene raises the very valid point that relating to someone else’s condition can take effort. While, sometimes, finding a relatable quality in another person is as simple as squash, sometimes it’s a lot of talking and listening and hunting for the always available “me too” buried inside each one of us with one another. Listening to someone else’s life experiences, coming alongside him or her to step into a new pair of shoes, can hurt—because what that person experiences hurts. Bearing one another’s burdens can be awkward and uncomfortable and make me feel like I have no idea what to say.
I am learning to recognize that initial struggle, that wanting to push away the they’re-too-different problem to focus on something else, is a symptom of my own unique culture and perspective. It’s a sign that this person isn’t exactly like me, not in the obvious surface ways of summer squash soup recipes and harsh winters and families that celebrate birthdays by going out to eat, and so I must force myself to remember he or she is like me, too. Even with different geography and genetics and birth order and finances and interests, all of us humans are people birthed onto the earth without warning, without asking for it, without getting to pick the family we’ll live in or the town we’ll call home. Part of the great human experience is dwelling in one place while realizing it is not the only one, living one kind of life while interacting with people who live different ones, being present in the day you’re being given while being open to entering into someone else’s. And even if you live in a town with two people, if you’re reading this blog you have an Internet connection and the ability to read and that means you have endless windows available to you, letting you into other people’s souls. Everything everybody’s doing is telling you about himself or herself. There’s so much to learn about one another if we’ll listen.