We Are All Potatoes

Encounters with people along highways

During the middle weeks of July I was all over Montana working on a story that will be published in the fall issue of Montana Quarterly magazine. It is about the responses the eight Indian Tribes here are having to COVID-19, primarily as it relates to the money we all got as part of the CARES Act. For example my People, the Little Shell, while we remain landless and still haven't gotten a single penny as a result of our federal recognition last December, got $25 million. It’s awesome … and complicated.

One of the big stories in Montana this summer, and part of the ripple effect of this larger story, has been the overrunning of Glacier National Park by tourists, all via the west entrance. I have regularly seen the GNP Twitter account issue early morning updates about road closures in places like Polebridge—where I go because it typically doesn't see crowds like other parts of the area—due to traffic back-ups. Which is nuts!

When I drove up the west side and saw it for myself I was astonished at the knots of people all clustered around river put-ins, on the sidewalk in towns like West Glacier, etc. Not a mask to be seen either. It was ominous and made me angry ... and also unsurprised now, a couple weeks removed, that new cases are steamrolling right along in Flathead County. In all the counties where people have gathered for recreation.

Heading to the east side, however, up over Marias Pass, was a different story. That's because the Blackfeet Nation closed all access to Glacier from their lands, and have been urging people not to stop on their way through. The town of East Glacier, typically off-the-hook with people on a warm summer day like the one happening when I passed through, was a ghost town. It was like a post-apocalyptic movie scene; empty parking lots, boarded-up storefronts, the only group of people a knot of GNP rangers standing around armed and armored like they were set to deploy to Portland to beat on people, etc. While I was there traffic picked up a bit, but it was all just blasting through. No reason to stop, so no one was. They were all headed to the west side.

One man was on the street corner with a sign that read, "Open Glacier Not Afraid." I talk about the conversation we had in my magazine piece. In a nutshell, he has lived in East Glacier his entire life but isn't part of the Tribe. He has been out of work since March and his unemployment is set to expire. He just wants to work. He sees business booming on the other side of the park and wants some of that action; needs it, rather, as the three months of summer are literally when these folks make their living for the year.

One moment from the conversation I didn't write about was when, after I asked him if he knows anyone who has gotten sick, he said no. Then he went on to describe how he doesn't even believe it's a real thing. That it's a "fake" disease. Some conspiracy theories and the like were hinted at, all the usual stuff. I was taken aback, but also deeply, deeply moved. I could see the pain in his face, in his eyes. He wasn't belligerent or stupid. Just ignorant and lacking of the critical skills to question the messages he gets from a commercial "news" media that knows there is money to be generate in whipping us up into frothing funnels of rage.

I didn't challenge him but I didn't agree with him either. I just listened. I also chose not to drag him by putting his comments in my article where there isn't room for context. To do so would be the analog equivalent of a social media post where a person's ignorance gets shared for no better reason than for everyone to point and laugh at him. Both sides do it. How does that make the world more livable? How do antagonistic bumper stickers and signs pointing fingers and name-calling the Right improve our ability to get along any better than a coal-rolling pick-up flying Trump flags? I wish progressive people would just avoid responding to the petty bullshit in kind, live as examples of kindness and compassion, then show up at the polls and dominate the election. No name calling, no self-righteousness, none of that. I suppose one can effect positive change in the world and still be an asshole, but why would one want to?

It's hard, though. Especially on social media. I've done it, I do it. It brings out the worst in me and that upsets me. So I go stretches with all of it deactivated, then I ease back for a while and just try and do better. It is never, never easy.

A couple weeks ago I had another similar encounter when I had an opportunity to help out some people in need. They were a man and woman stranded at a gas station trying to get back to Spokane. In our discussion the woman involved, who did all the talking, related the story of how they were headed to Oklahoma but had to turn back because her doctor had called and said she had test results she could only reveal in person. So the couple had turned back for Washington.

Throughout our brief exchange the woman referenced "God" quite a bit; she talked about blessings, about there being a "plan" for all of us, etc. It jabbed every judgmental nerve and piece of Christian baggage I carry about Christians who wear their faith as a kind of virtue pin. A way to signal their righteousness even as they go about voting for raging, hate-filled assholes for public office. It's entirely possible this woman isn't even one of those people, it's just that her manner of speaking brings those stereotypes to mind.

But again, this was no time to argue. This was a troubled person in crisis trying to understand the world in the best way she knows how, to deal with her adversity in a way she can comprehend and find comfort in. She didn't need to hear a, "Well, actually.... " from me. She needed my compassion in the same way the man in East Glacier did. I gave it to her, to both of them. How could I not? Who am I, what does it say about me, if I hadn't?

I'm reminded of the Preface to Jim Harrison's wonderful book of poetry, After Ikkyu. He talks about when he first began studying Zen in "a state of rapacious and self-congratulatory spiritual greed." I have been that. I am that. And I see similar effects in others who consume all of this political noise relentlessly, assume they have it and everyone else all figured out, and want to address the world with every bit of their impregnable superiority. "There was no more self-referential organism alive than myself," Harrison continues. "A potato that didn't know it was a potato."

We are all potatoes. There is the strength of humility in remembering. We can maintain strong convictions and have disagreements. We can get radicalized and fight the power and all that. But we don't have to be jerks about it. We don't have to close our minds and hearts to the idea that maybe we can learn something from everyone, if only by imagining ourselves in their shoes. There absolutely are times to take to the streets, to stand our ground. But sometimes what is required is a simple act of listening.