A few weeks ago I watched two women dressed in black from head to toe playing with their young children in the shallow end of the Forest Park pool.
I assumed they were Muslim, but I was too self-conscious to ask.
What I also remember feeling is admiration for these women whom everyone else couldn’t help but notice.
I know what it’s like to stick out. Whenever I’m in Thailand I’m conscious of sometimes being the only farang (white guy) in the neighborhood. The same is true at other times when I don’t look like everyone else.
But these two women seemed to be having a great time with their kids in the water. They seemed to be so at ease, almost oblivious to the fact that the couple hundred others in the pool were dressed in a lot less clothing and had a lot more skin showing.
When I was a boy in the 1950s, the narrative we were taught was that America is a melting pot, that all of us, except Native Americans, came to this country as immigrants with different languages, religions and customs, but we assimilated or kind of melted together into “Americans.”
The narrative began to change in the 1960s. The metaphor gradually replacing the melting pot was that of the tossed salad, i.e. one salad with each ingredient retaining its own characteristics and identity.
So here were these two Muslim women. Call them the carrots or the tomatoes in the salad that day. They both stuck out and fit in at the same time. But the more I thought about it, I recalled that on the same day I saw two very pregnant women wearing bikinis and several WSSRA clients doing their own behavioral thing — call them the cucumbers and croutons — in that same pool/salad without anyone thinking they did not belong.
And here I was trudging toward the lap lanes with my walker. Years ago now, the first time I used my walker at the pool, I felt like everyone was looking at me. When you are a new ingredient in the tossed salad, there’s always going to be the “first time.” There will always be the first time you get thrown into the salad bowl and the other ingredients have to decide if your presence is OK with them.
On Aug. 12, many people, especially in our nation’s capital, were anxious that a Charlottesville-like tragedy would be repeated when white supremacists demonstrated. Turns out, only 25 of them showed up. Seems to me that our national salad is learning to let new ingredients be themselves while blending rather than melting in.
Those Muslim women, dressed in black from head to toe, were taking the biggest risk that day at the pool — at least at first — but thanks to an evolving narrative in this little town, no one — except maybe me — thought it was a big deal.
When I came to town in 1982, having black and white kids together in the pool was a big deal. It was the new normal. Now it’s just the normal.
Several years ago, I decided to take one small step in building bridges instead of walls by going to have what’s left of my hair cut at a black barbershop. I was self-conscious about being the only white guy in the place. Now I’m just Tom.
I’m also a white guy, a Lutheran, and a Cubs fan. Jeff, the owner, doesn’t expect me to be like him. We do share a lot in common, which helps us connect, but it’s our differences that we share in the stories we tell each other that makes the relationship fun.
Not all stories of venturing out of comfort zones have happy endings, of course. But one of the reasons our nation is polarized is that, more and more, we are moving into lifestyle enclaves in which everyone thinks alike, or at least keeps their mouth shut if they are different.
So here is the test of us in Forest Park, a village in which 85 percent of us voted for Hillary in the last election. How will we react if an outspoken Trump voter wants to be tossed into our salad? We already have lots of brown and black folks and lot of LGBTQs spicing up the mix, so we’ve gotten used to that. But a Trump voter?!
In two months we’re going to vote on video gambling. Are we willing to cross over to the other side, not to convince them that they should see it our way (which, of course, is the right way!) but simply to accept them as they are, to see how the “opposition” might be integrated into a healthy, tasty mix?
By the way, that owner of the black barbershop where I felt uncomfortable and self-conscious the first time I walked in?
He and I are going camping together in October.