A Friends Across America Plan

Long ago, in 2013, on my blog I mentioned that in 7th or 8th grade I began a new hobby that helped form some important beliefs I still hold dear to this day. In our current rancorous culture, here goes with a trip back to the 1970s.

I grew up in the Pocono Mountains in northeastern PA. Most of the local people in my area were descendants of early German settlers. I can trace my direct ancestors back to the mid 1750s, when they arrived from Germany. By the 70s, the Poconos being a resort area had begun attracting year-round residents from Philadelphia, New Jersey and NYC. With the locals, by my generation, very few younger people spoke PA Dutch, an Americanized German dialect. My father and many of his relatives often spoke PA Dutch when together. My mother understood PA Dutch, but did not speak it, so we spoke English at home. My brothers and sisters and I didn’t really pay much attention to PA Dutch, because most people spoke English in public and at home. Where the PA Dutch culture lived on mainly was with cooking.

We lived out in the country in a big, old house across the road from the parsonage, where our elderly pastor and his wife lived. He was of PA German ancestry too, although from another area of PA. He spoke PA Dutch and fit in well with the locals. His wife was a lovely lady, Jewish and originally from NYC. It’s always amazing to me how in America people from completely different backgrounds so often marry and set out to bridge all those divides and build a family.

Our pastor’s wife was a teacher, educated at Columbia, and she took me under her wing and tried very hard to expand my horizons, by exposing me to books from their pretty extensive home library, by trying to teach me how to play the piano and she had albums of classical music and operas, which she played often. She would tell me about the composers and the stories that operas told. I certainly was a musical disappointment, but I did read the books and various things she guided me toward.

Our pastor was a talented woodworker and always had many projects going, they gardened and were always experimenting with new things. My parents always had many projects going too and were always experimenting with new things too, so this seemed normal to me. I was constantly acquiring new hobbies and to this day, I still am always looking for new things to try and new things to learn.

I sat and read the World Book Encyclopedia set my parents bought for us and that spurred this burning desire to want to meet people from all over the world. While it was interesting to read about all the fascinating people and customs, I longed to actually be able to meet people from these faraway places and learn about their lives.

That long ago blog post I titled, Multiculturism My Way, and it explained how I started acquiring foreign pen pals, when my German teacher at school handed us a brochure on how to write and request pen pals from various countries. I don’t even remember how many pen pals I had, but it was quite a few. I used my babysitting money to pay for international postage.

My parents always encouraged my brothers, sisters and me to pursue hobbies and in our house there were always an assortment of hobbies, pets, and projects going on.

However, the person I rushed to tell about what this pen pal effort meant to me was our pastor’s wife. I remember she was sitting at the desk by the built-in wall of bookcases in their living room and I was so excited as I told her about my very first pen pal, a girl in India. I told her about my “Friends Around the World Plan” and how I intended to get more pen pals from other countries and how I wanted to make friends all over the world. She didn’t laugh at my plan, but she smiled at me and told me she thought that was a wonderful plan.

Once you start talking to people and trying to find some common ground, the differences start fading into the background. Everyone can find some common ground with other people, because we all have family, friends, and all the emotions of the human heart that are universal.

One thing I repeatedly told my kids as they were growing up was that they needed to focus on getting to know people, rather than about people. What we know about people whom we don’t really know is almost invariably secondhand information, often gossip and even more often swept along by malignant hot air. Getting to know people takes some personal investment of time, a willingness to listen and an open heart.

It seems insane to me that so many people in America keep beating the drum about “civil war” and how there’s no hope left for America, before even putting any real effort into turning things around. Sure, the political and cultural divides have deepened, but so much of that is driven by mass media flamethrowers, who get rich and famous by lobbing non-stop agitation propaganda and by politicians, who gain power from the polarization. Each American has a choice whether to listen to and buy into all this raging culture war or we can choose to start ignoring the flamethrowers and begin charting a different course for our country. The malignant hot air blowing in America’s political and cultural spin war threatens to burn hope and goodwill to the ground, if we let it.

Watching the growing rancor in our politics and so often in our online culture, rather than a “Friends Around the World Plan,” we sure could use a “Friends Across America Plan,” where we commit to try to listen more or at the very least to stop rushing to form sweeping judgments about people we know nothing about other than they hold differing views or some single comment or video they made sparks outrage or even worse a viral pile-on attack.

I bet it wouldn’t take very long to “fundamentally transform” America if even a small fraction of the country decided to ditch the left vs. right culture war and began to embrace a “Friends Across America Plan.” For those who say it’s impossible, well, I’ll quote Napoleon Bonaparte – “Impossible is a word only to be found in the dictionary of fools.”

Have a good night!

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