Top 5 Things You’ll Learn If You Read This Whole Thing:
- You can never quite catch up with the present.
- Weird isn’t weird if you don’t think it’s weird.
- The exception to the rule is a dangerous thing.
- Overheard late-night conversations can change your life.
- America is founded on hypocrisy and rooted in bullying.
One cool, sunny morning when I was a wee little chunk o’ cheese back on the commune, Hippie Mom — she of the butt-length wavy blond hair and constant wearer of culturally appropriated moccasins — sat me down for our daily homeschool lesson, but I immediately noticed something was different about her.
The thing about my Hippie Mom was that she was typically unflappable. I could embarrass her with my wild antics around the commune, Hippie Dad could go on and on for hours with his anti-government ramblings or another member of the commune could noticeable shirk his share of the work yet expect full benefits of communal life, and Hippie Mom just continued on as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening.
To her, nothing out of the ordinary ever happened because there was no such thing as ordinary. Human beings were merely one of Mother Earth’s creatures that existed in her life, and what they did or didn’t do was nothing more than a data point, as important and unimportant as any other data point — similar to her as a squirrel’s meandering through the forest or the shape of the clouds passing by overhead.
Because of Hippie Mom, I grew up in a world of consistency. Hippie Mom was who Hippie Mom was, and what she taught me in our daily lessons reflected how she saw things operating. Nothing was worth getting too upset over, in her view, because nothing ever stayed the same. The present was a great place to live, but each “present” was gone before you could finish saying the word, creating a new present you could never quite catch up with.
Hippie Mom’s overall philosophy was to just be — to go about your day treading as lightly as possible on Mother Earth and all that she brought to you — be that the emergence of a beautiful flower in the garden or a bird that crapped in the pot hanging over the fire that held that night’s dinner.
But on this day, she was different. Her forehead was creased in a way I rarely saw, her brow furrowed and etched with worry.
“Queso,” she said after an uncomfortable silence not typical for our mornings. Mom was always chattering as we walked through the woods to wherever she was going to teach me that day. “There’s nothing more dangerous than an exception to a rule.”
Now, because of the individual attention I received from Hippie Mom, I was more advanced in my ability to philosophize than my peers in the outside world. That said, I still was only 8. My reply of, “Huh?” brought the first smile I’d seen all day to Hippie Mom’s face, and I was glad to see it. She was a pretty woman, and her smile was what Hippie Dad always said he noticed first about her when they met.
“Oh, son. Let me explain …” which was Hippie Mom’s way of letting me know she was about to dump something big into my brain and that I should get my head out of the clouds in which it so easily liked to float along. “You know that what you experience here on the commune isn’t … normal, right?”
“Of course I know that, Momma,” I said. “You tell us all the time how the outside world is different from our little group.”
“But do you understand that what any other person experiences isn’t normal either?”
That I did not understand. Surely there had to be something that was normal. I knew it wasn’t us, but I had taken comfort in uncertain times in the hope that “normal,” indeed, existed somewhere in the world. Hippie Mom saw my confusion and continued.
“Queso, let’s say you were brought up to think that a girl who wears clothes like we do is weird. Does that make her weird?”
In fact, I did think the clothes we wore — repurposed burlap sacks from the bags and bags of potatoes we seemed to be endlessly stacking — were weird. But I was OK with that.
I said nothing.
“It doesn’t make her weird, Queso,” Hippie Mom said, answering her own question. “If what you are used to wearing is what you wear, it’s not weird to you, and if it’s not weird to you, that means ir or you being weird is not a universal thing. And things that aren’t universal cannot be said to be fact.”
As odd as it might be to someone from the outside world, 8-year-old me understood exactly what she was talking about. This was Hippie Mom’s wheelhouse for instruction, and it was a central tenet of commune life, that we as human beings are really good at placing labels on things different from our own understanding of the world but that that didn’t make those labels actual, factual reality.
So I nodded.
Hippie Mom smiled again, pleased to see I was tracking her again. “Good. So then you understand how dangerous it is to say something is fact when you really mean that it is just true, yes?”
Again, this I understood. Fact was undisputed and unalterable. Truth changed over time as societies and communities and people changed. It was a fact that Hippie Mom was 5-foot-1 and 98 pounds. It was truth that Hippie mom was short and skinny, because there might come a day when the average person is 3-foot-7 and 50 pounds.
“Yup. I get that,” I replied.
“OK good. Then let’s go back to what I said earlier,” she said, and at that point she grabbed my left hand in both of hers and stared intently into my eyes with her own sky-blue pupils that seemed to dance with light in the morning sunshine. “There’s nothing more dangerous than the exception to what people generally hold to be true.”
She held my gaze fiercely while I struggled to comprehend her point. I liked learning new things, and I didn’t like disappointing Hippie Mom when she was trying to teach me something important. Finally, I gave up. “Momma, I don’t get that.”
Instead of disappointment, she flashed her smile again. “Of course you don’t, Queso. Most adults don’t get it. Most seniors still don’t get it. Most people die without getting it. But I want you to get it. Because it’s important.”
Now I furrowed my brow to match the look Hippie Mom had had all morning, to show I was serious and concerned and intent on picking up what she was trying to get across to me. Hippie Mom continued.
“Something a lot of people hold as truth — though most of them would never say it out loud — is that people with darker skin are not as good as people with skin like ours,” she said. “We’ve talked about this a lot.”
I nodded. Indeed, we had. One of the main lessons Hippie Mom had gotten across to me was about what she called “The Myth of American Exceptionalism,” this notion that somehow America was set apart and different from the rest of the world and somehow acted with a moral authority when it came to its dealing with the rest of the world. She had taught me how America’s founding documents, while brilliantly written, were based on a hypocrisy by the men who penned them, men who wrote or attested to the reality that “all men are created equal” while simultaneously owning human beings as property. I had learned all about how the shape of America we see on maps came about only because of its military superiority over the people who were here before people with skin like ours showed up, how we had moved them off land their ancestors had been on for generations to new and desolate places, only to move them again when we found things we wanted on that land. She had taught me how America talked a really good game about freedom and equality but how it had only grudgingly given basic rights to women and how some of those basic rights still were routinely violated when it came to people whose ancestors had been brought over to be slaves.
Hippie Mom was not like Hippie Dad when it came to his anti-government stances, but she hadn’t necessarily bought in to the myths most kids learned about in schools — myths like the Battle of the Alamo, which didn’t go down anywhere close to how it is taught even by the park rangers at the Alamo itself, myths like the supposed truth that America had to drop atomic bombs on Japan in order to avoid an invasion on its main islands that would have cost thousands of American lives, which was a theory advanced only after images begun to flood in of radiation-related illnesses months after the war ended and we were facing backlash for unleashing a hell we didn’t fully understand before we unleashed it.
Hippie Mom continued: “Here’s the thing, Queso. Just because you have experienced something different from how most people see the world doesn’t mean that how you see the world is factual. It might be true at the time, and it might not even be that.”
“Like what, Momma?”
“Well, let’s say there’s a person out there, a person with skin like ours, who grew up in one of the areas where people have a good deal of money and opportunities but not a lot of people who look different from them or who came from different backgrounds than them.”
“OK….” I said.
“And then let’s say there’s a person with darker skin in that community who did a really good job of overcoming a tough start in life, which was tough because of what his parents and their parents and their parents had gone through since back when they were slaves.”
“Does the fact that that one person, who did a great job overcoming a tough start and lots of ugly history, has managed to succeed make it any less true that this country had and has a huge problem with racial injustice, a history it has never owned up to, let alone tried to address?”
“Of course not, Momma,” I said. “Just because Bob’s a loud-mouth idiot doesn’t make all the kids on the commune loud-mouth idiots. He’s an exception to our rules.”
At this, Hippie Mom let out her too-loud laugh for which she was famous on the commune. “Now Queso, Bob is not a loud-mouth idiot. He just… enjoys expressing himself more than others.”
“No, Momma. He’s a loud-mouth idiot,” I said, and Hippie Mom wisely chose to move on.
“The point is, Queso… that just because one person is able to do something really, really challenging, the facts of actual reality aren’t any different. There are always going to be exceptions to truths, which just shows how truths are different from facts. Always be wary of people who confuse facts for truths and truths for facts, and never use an exception to discount the feelings and experiences of others.”
That night, while I was trying unsuccessfully to sleep, I heard Hippie Mom and Hippie Dad talking. Privacy wasn’t a big thing on the commune, and kids tended to know a lot about what was going on in their parents’ lives.
“So he knows?” Hippie Dad asked.
“Well, he knows that concept, but not the actual facts about himself,” Hippie Mom responded.
“When are we going to tell him about that?” he replied in a soft whisper. I could picture exactly how they were, both on their backs in their too-small bed that I sometimes invaded when the night got too scary, her head on his shoulder and his arm wrapped protectively around her.
“In time, honey. He’s young. He’s innocent. Right now, it’s enough for him to learn and know the principle,” Hippie Mom whispered back. Her hair would be left long and thoroughly brushed before she crawled into bed, spread out in a fan on the downy pillow that supported her head.
“You’re right. I know you’re right. But the boy … he’s sensitive. If he doesn’t find out the right way…”
“He’ll find out the right way. The way he’ll find out will be the way he’s supposed to find out,”
Hippie Dad sighed deeply, and I heard the soft sound of them kissing goodnight before silence settled inside our trailer.
Nine years later, I did find out, and it was the right way, though I imagine not the way Hippie Mom or Hippie Dad would have preferred. Two weeks after that, I walked off the commune and headed into the outside world on my own.
Things have never been the same.
Which isn’t to say that they’re worse. Or that they’re better. They’re just … not how they would have been if I’d stayed.
I’ve remembered Hippie Mom’s lesson from that day often as I’ve experienced what the outside world has to offer, that the exception to any rule is a dangerous thing because it can be used by people out to try to prove that the exception is the rule. I’ve thought of it often as I’ve heard the national debate on racial justice over the past year, as I’ve listen to people say that the Black person they know who has overcome the odds stacked against Black people in this country proves it is possible to come from nothing and become something.
This is undoubtedly true. But it’s not a universal fact. For all the great stories of successful Black people in our country, the reality is that overt and covert discrimination is a thing I don’t have to contend with, that most of the people I know don’t have to contend with. While it’s been difficult for me to come from a commune and do something with my life, it’s much different than the man or woman whose ancestors were slaves and whose more recent relatives were denied basic freedoms and economic opportunities simply because of their skin color.
Is that an excuse to wallow in the despair of many Black communities in this country? Is it a reason to riot and take away others’ liberties and economic opportunities? No. But if I as a White person with some Latino heritage thrown in don’t understand that what Black people in this country have faced has, en masse, an influence on their realities today, I’m not reading history correctly.
I love the stories of the exceptions to the rules. They are inspiring, and those who come from such difficult beginnings to accomplish so much should be revered in Black communities. Yet those exceptions are just that: Exceptions.
And until this country undergoes an honest reckoning with its racial history, something the past year has shown we are not even close to being ready to do, the chances of turning the exceptions into the rule with be limited.
America likes to think of itself as great, and it’s true that many good things have come about because of our existence as a nation. Yet a nation founded on hypocrisy that has continued its subjugation of a race of people for something as intrinsic as skin color will never be great until it shows the humility to confront the injustices of the past and a commitment as one people to do things differently in the future.
That’s not a truth. That’s a fact.
Can it happen? Personally, I don’t think so. When something so wrong is at the very foundation of the systems that now exist after nearly 250 years, I would say it’s impossible.
But I hope I’m wrong.
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