What Experience Teaches Us

When I was 22 years old I went to buy my first car. Actually, I was buying my fiancée’s car. Actually it wasn’t a car, it was a stripped down Ford Ranger pick-up, silver with a blue pinstripe. We were both so young, kids really. But, months away from getting married we knew it had to be done so we walked into the dealership and did the best we could.

We thought we had negotiated pretty well, navigating good figures for both trade-in and rebates. We felt good about the overall deal until we found ourselves sitting across the desk from the “finance guy”. Then, looking at the paperwork thrust in front of our wide-eyed faces, I saw a number that didn’t make sense. I pointed to the figure and stated confidently that something wasn’t right — that wasn’t what we had agreed.

I still remember the feeling when he laughed.

He calmly and patronizingly told me that I didn’t understand. No, the discount or rebate (I don’t remember which) was there, I just couldn’t see it. It’s a common error that most first time buyer make, he said assuring us that it was there. It was garden variety razzle-dazzle ‘pay no attention to the man behind the curtain’ that I would never fall for now, but that was more than 20 years ago. Then, I was just a young woman figuring out what my role in my forever relationship, uncertain in how much was too much. My stomach twisted but I accepted the slick words and let the moment go. My fiancée signed the papers.

Having lived through that experience, I can empathize with people who find themselves on the wrong side of a scammer. I’m a smart capable person, I have good judgement and confidence in asserting what I believe to be true. And yet, I can think back to that moment where none of that mattered. Someone with more experience and less gumption took advantage of us to make a sale and likely put a few more dollars in his pocket. If it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone.

Many years later when I was in management at an automotive company I was attending a women’s leadership event and we were talking about the dealership experience. All of the people talking — myself included — had long since moved beyond buying cars as “normal people.” By that time I was eligible for two management lease cars a year, cars that I custom ordered online and picked up in a special employee garage. My car payments were deducted automatically from my paycheck, insurance was included, and maintenance was as simple as a showing up 30 minutes early to work and hanging over my keys. But, I remembered that young woman and that feeling; I raised my hand and asked whether we could really understand the dealer experience when we no longer purchased cars from dealers.

Every experience that I have gives me another opportunity to put myself in someone else’s shoes. The early married years when we drank Kool-Aid and ate Kraft Mac & Cheese, when a “luxurious” week would be Hamburger Helper and the cheapest pound of ground beef we could find. The time I held my infant son in my arms when the anesthesiologist put him under and he went limp in my arms and I panicked a little, even knowing what was going to happen. The confusion when a group of men in Australia asked me if I owned a gun, the joy each time the nurses placed my new born babies in my arms.

There are so many experiences I will never have, experiences that are missing for me because of the fickleness of my birth. Those limitations make it harder for me to appreciate the unique opportunities and challenges others have faced, my ignorance makes it harder for me to empathize with them. So, I keep my ears open to their stories, whether it is across the lunch table or through a podcast. I try to imagine what it would feel like to believe that my father rejected my kidney because I was gay or to lose my husband to an avalanche and feel responsible.

What if that was me?

Throughout the government shutdown, I have wondered how each person’s lived experience has informed their perception of situation. Have you lived paycheck to paycheck or have you always had access to savings and credit? Have you struggled with child care or do you have a strong support network? Have you been furloughed or laid off or have you had secure income? Have you ever been declared an “essential” employee and had to work regardless of pay?

For my part, I know that I saw the whole thing play out through my filter. One year, as part of a cost savings effort in my public sector job, we all had to take 10 furlough days — unpaid time off. With reasonable financial security at that time, I was able to mostly enjoy the extra time off with my family but I knew others who couldn’t absorb it as easily. Even with decent notice and the ability to space the days out, some people were acutely impacted. And that was about half as long as the federal employees experienced — all at once, unplanned, after the biggest shopping holiday of the year.

I am thankful for each of my experiences, both the good and the bad, because they connect me to my humanity. Talking with others I am reminded that I am not alone, that my experiences may be mine, but they are not only mine. I laugh sometimes when I realize how common my experiences are, like just yesterday when I saw an Old El Paso commercial about two taco shells making sexy talk in front of their teenage daughter. We do that and our daughter responds exactly the same way.

Exactly.

This is the part of each post where I usually bring it all together with some quiptastic turn of phase. I don’t have that tonight. All I know is that I am truly grateful today — and every day — for the variety of experiences that I have been able to have, for the friends that have let me into their lives, and for the strangers that share their experiences through their stories.

Tell me another one.

Remembering from You

Yesterday, I found myself sitting beside my husband on the metal bench of a ferry. Like I had countless times before, I was taking the short ride from the shore of Ohio out to one of the Lake Erie islands. We had moved up to the top deck so we could look out over the water and enjoy the crisp blue sky and I had settled down to wait for the tell-tale engine rumbling that would signal our departure. And then a sparkle of motion and crackle of sound alerted me to a small girl.

“Daddy, when will we get to the island? How big is the ocean? Mommy, when will we be on land again?” Her mother told her it wouldn’t be long and that it was a lake and not an ocean, to which the girl replied, “I am going to call it an ocean. Okay?” I smiled and turned around to see a pixie with her face painted with an elaborate turquoise and green peacock feather.

“Is this your first trip to the island?” I asked. She nodded shyly and leaned back in her bench. I lowered my voice and put every bit of smile I could into my conspiratorial tone, “My little girl is 17 now, but we brought her here for the first time when she was about your age. It’s an awesome place and I bet you’ll have a really fun time.”

I realized, in that moment, that there comes a time when your memories are triggered not by your own experiences, but by watching the experiences of others.

My daughter had been five, her brother two, when we had decided to take our first family trip to the islands. Even growing up on boats this was a new adventure. Going on our boat didn’t require buying tickets or standing in lines. Our boat didn’t have three levels with stairs and so many people. Why did it have tables like a restaurant and chairs like a movie theatre? Did they really NOT have to wear a “boat coat”? How long will the trip take? What will we do when we get there? They had wanted to see every inch, rushing from area to area to pick the perfect place to sit.

At the time, I had experienced the moment with a mix of worry and wonder. Every time my heart widened because my children were seeing something for the first time I had to fight off less positive feelings. There was nervousness that they would hurt themselves, from a mundane skinned knee or a catastrophic fall over the ship’s rail. There was embarrassment that other parents would find my children poorly behaved and judge my parenting skills. There was anxiousness that the trip wouldn’t live up to the hype and they would be disappointed.

But now, watching someone else’s child dash about I could fully enjoy her excitement. I understood completely what her parents were feeling as they said quietly, “Alright, let’s find a place and settle down” but I also wished they could be better than I had been and enjoy the moment. Sure, I knew that bad things were possible, but in retrospect I was able to see what they couldn’t. My husband and I had our eyes open and would ward their children like our own. We felt no judgement for their daughter’s exuberance, only joy for her and nostalgia for our own times gone to never be reclaimed. And that anxiousness? Wasted. She would love every minute of it.

Sitting at the end of our day at a picnic table, I flipped through the photos I had captured of our own first trip. My son, standing and clutching the rail of the ferry with my husband’s entire arm wrapped around him. Both kids standing on the shoreline throwing pebbles into the water, my husband arms crossed watching for danger. My daughter, arms thrown triumphantly out, ready to start (or perhaps finish) a glorious spin.

Looking back I’m sure of two things: we were so young and we didn’t realize what we had.

I have friends now with young children. Some are people my age who entered parenthood later than I did. Some are a generation younger than me following a path like mine just 15 years later. I don’t want to come off as preachy or a know-it-all — goodness knows I don’t know anything except my own history — but I desperately want to help them understand what I didn’t know or couldn’t appreciate at the time. Yes, parenting small children is trying and tiring. Yes, you have the constant worry that something horrible will happen and you won’t be able to prevent it. Yes, it is an awesome and awe-inspiring responsibility that hits you like a ton of bricks the minute you pull away from the hospital with the car seat strapped down behind you. Yes, yes, yes. But, it is also a chance to see the real honest-to-goodness joy of a new experience lived for the first time. Over and over and over again.

Until it’s gone.

I have a friend that I’ve lost touch with, a woman who had two children when she was young and then a third after a long gap. I asked her, sincerely, what that had been like. She told me it was amazing because she knew from experience how useless the worry was, how much it took away from enjoying childhood. My kids were young then, so I didn’t really understand.

I do now.

A Lesson from My Roommate

I had five roommates during college. One I lived with for only a day, deciding early that I would be incompatible with the house’s party culture. A second had the single in our triple suite and I remember only two things about her: her propensity for taking our phone into the bathroom and the way she had claimed the common room by the time I arrived with my stuff. I remember talking about it with my roommate and deciding that it wasn’t worth it to make waves. We lived quietly in our shared room for our semester and then parted ways. I reconnected with her recently on Facebook after more than twenty years apart.

My closest roommate lived with me sophomore year. We couldn’t have been more different, but we had an easy way of coexistence and connection that has endured. I was in her wedding when my daughter was a toddler and we visited her again last year. Our low-stress friendship is characterized by our mutual acceptance of someone for the person they are, even when that person confuses the crap out of you. It’s simple: she knows and loves my crazy and I feel the same about her.

Each of them played a role in my life, but it was my first roommate who taught me the power of learning from someone else’s experience.

When I went off to college I had a vague understanding that meeting people unlike me was important. I felt the limitation of my insulated life and was eager to see what I had missed. That natural curiosity burbled below the surface, popping out in late night conversations with the close friends I made over my first year. My growth was subtle, tucked inside and passive. I learned quietly bit-by-bit without intentionality or drawing any attention to my efforts.

 

 

My roommate, on the other hand, telegraphed her intent. She was outspoken about her desire to learn from the diversity and experiences of others. Sitting down with someone she would boldly ask, “What is it like to be __________?” She had grown up in Cambridge, Massachusetts and had lived her whole life in the city, so she found my very different rural Midwestern upbringing interesting. She didn’t have a driver’s license and asked me about the persistence of the car culture in my home state. Didn’t we realize how problematic the fascination with driving was and that we should walk and utilize public transportation? I told her, amused, that it wasn’t an option. We lived miles away from anything and there was no public transportation beyond the yellow school buses that took kids to and from our consolidated school district.

Her sincere interest often came before any deep friendship had been formed. Her questions were sometimes taken as an intrusion into people’s privacy, or worse as a kind of oblivious entitlement. As an 18-year old eager to fit in and find my place in the world, even I failed to see her intent clearly. It is only recently that I can see it for what it was and wonder, in retrospect, whether I would have grown more had I been bold enough to try her approach.

The simple truth is that I have only learned so much from my own experience. Casting a wide net out into the world and keeping my eyes and heart open to the experiences of others has helped me grow more. I feel empathy and understanding building every time I read a book, listen to a podcast or watch a film and wonder, “What was that like?” Even so, those moments pale in comparison to the impact of a close friend sharing their experiences. Those are the stories I tell others, the ones that cause me to reframe every future interaction through their words and the look on their faces. They are burned in my memory, especially when I find myself shaken by something I had never considered.

That’s why I can recall the moment I realized how little I understood about being a black woman in the United States.

 

I was having lunch with a good friend, an African American woman about ten years my senior. The weather had been pleasant and we had walked companionably the mile or so to the local pizza place down the street from our offices. Sitting down we ordered and then started talking about our children. Mom talk was easy for us, even though her son was in graduate school and mine was still just a little boy. In the wake of the Treyvon Martin shooting, she was sharing what it was like to fear for son’s safety in the world and the feeling of being constantly on guard. The conversation went through a number of twists and turns and then she calmly made a statement that I will never forget. “Mel,” she said, “I regularly get followed by security guards when I’m shopping at the mall.”

My first instinct was dismay. Sitting in front of me was one of the most sophisticated, stylish women I have ever known. The idea that anyone could see her as a shoplifting threat was ludicrous. Frankly, it was easier to believe that someone might look at me skeptically, but I had never given a thought to being a target of store security. And here was my friend, the wife of a police detective, sharing that it was a regular part of her lived experience. I stared. I stammered. I tried to rationalize away her experience as misguided or overly sensitive. Maybe she only thought she was being followed? Maybe she was remembering things wrong? Maybe it was a one time thing and not something that regularly happened? My brain tried to reject the truth of her statement and the calm look on her face and when it couldn’t I did the only thing I could do as her friend.

I believed her.

It may seem like a very small thing, believing that your well-dressed friend could be shadowed by plainclothes security at the mall, but to me it was transformative. Once my brain accepted that she had been profiled, I opened myself up to all kinds of other possibilities outside of my own lived experience. I was able to read articles and listen to stories without filtering it through my truth. If she could be profiled, I thought, certainly that was possible.

Now, more than ever, we need to understand that no one has cornered the market on experience. There are more than 7.4 billion lived experiences on this planet, from an elderly person who has lived their entire life in the same earthen home to the toddler of privilege who has already filled a passport. In a world where my own experience feels too narrow to understand and appreciate the questions of my generation, I find myself channeling that roommate of mine from long ago. No, I don’t go up to people and say, “Tell me what it’s like to be…” but I listen to people tell their story and no matter how hard it is to fit within my experience of how the world works, I try to do one thing.

I try to believe them.