Thursday, December 9, 2010

For the sake of argument

I drove straight to Jim’s place, hoping to put to rest any doubts or hard feelings that might remain between us.

We’d had a failure of communication—our first—a few days earlier. He got angry when I challenged him about Sarah Palin, whom he admires: “Do you really think she’s qualified to be president?” I asked. It’s the same question he’d asked me two years ago about Barack Obama.

He snapped, thrust his truck into reverse and started to pull away, grumbling something, before he stopped momentarily, stuck his head out of the cab and yelled, “You tell that Steven character to pay his rent on time or I’ll just turn the water off!” He backed out of earshot, furious, and drove away.

He’d come out to check on me, as is his custom, to see if there was anything I needed, to talk about water use in the two-acre blueberry enclosure my friend, Steven, rents from him to house, feed and water 1,500 thriving plants. I know Steven is responsible and would get current as soon as possible—if he had gotten behind, which isn’t so rare in these tight economic times.

I got the feeling that Jim had been harboring other resentments and had simply had enough, and burst out in anger. I didn’t take it personally; I’d never seen him act this way before, not since I started tending the blueberries nearly three years ago. Our conversations have always remained civil, even when it includes politics, on which we seldom agree. I never thought he’d get upset over me asking him about Sarah Palin.

The drive up to the farmhouse winds through Jim’s well-tended orchards and can be treacherous on some corners if you’re not paying attention, dropping off suddenly into a ditch or clump of trees. It’s about a half-mile or so past the packinghouse, workers’ quarters, and the blueberry enclosure. I seldom drive up that way unless absolutely necessary.

I thought about just going straight to the enclosure, set my worries aside and let Jim settle. In time, our differences would abate. But I’ve seen how things left unattended can quickly turn sour, how one seemingly “simple” misunderstanding can turn best friends into bitter rivals or enemies, and make families into unbearable hornets’ nests.

Believe me, I know.

My brother, for example, hasn’t spoken to me, my mother, or anyone else in the family for nearly 20 years; maybe more, I’ve lost count. He’s refused to make peace, not enough even to send flowers or a word of condolence when mom suffered the loss of her husband of 45 years, a stepfather who treated us like his own sons.

His refusal to settle with our stepfather before he died made no sense, and his icy unwillingness to send a note of sorrow to our mother felt needlessly harsh and mean. I wanted to lash out and make him suffer the way I had seen our mother suffer over the many years he’d stopped talking to her. I felt the cold drowning force of bitterness trying to choke down my own grief. “He’s such an asshole!” I said. “How could he not even send flowers?”

It all began with what was an apparently “simple” misunderstanding, not unlike the one I’d just experienced with Jim, when a word or statement is misconstrued, and if left unattended, breaks the bonds of friendship or tears rifts into sacred family connections.

It’s unfortunate because many people pay a heavy price for these hardened feelings, which only become harder to break as the years pass.

I like Jim and didn’t want him to think that I meant any disrespect, didn’t want our misunderstanding to grow into something worse. We may live on opposite ends of the political spectrum but I don’t want it to become an obstacle to friendship.

I’m impatient with things hanging in air, with uncertainty, especially when it comes to friends and people of close acquaintance. It drives my roommate crazy that I want to “fix” things right away.

“I can’t settle things as quickly as you would like,” she argues.

I would rather have gone straight to the field and waited for another day to make amends with Jim, I would rather have gotten busy with work and forgotten about our differences, imagined or real, but I knew that wouldn’t work. I needed to make peace.

I kept thinking about the New Testament admonition of Jesus, who tells his followers that if anyone has anything against them, a complaint or a grudge, it’s better to go and make peace with that person first before going to the altar, the place of worship, to meet with God. Make peace with your brother first, he says, then go and worship.

I haven’t been to church in a long, long time. The blueberry field has been my sanctuary, a more welcome refuge than most—a place of quiet, with few distractions, and opportunities to find clarity. It’s like going to my own place of worship, where every day, in the silence of the vast open sky and surrounding hills, I encounter something much larger than myself, something that makes me glad to be alive.

I could feel some of that slipping quietly away as the days passed without a word from Jim. I was sure that he had taken offense and probably didn’t quite know how to say so. I was sure that the longer I lingered without going to him and straightening things out, the more likely a rift would form, potentially ruining a good thing.

“How hard can it be to make peace?” I asked myself on the drive up to his home. I’d never really thought about it out loud until now, the cost of making peace, the courage it takes to face another who may have a grudge or other legitimate complaint and attempt to make things right. It’s not as easy as it sounds. “How could anyone who wants to make peace get hurt?”

I decided to run up to Jim’s place to see if he was there and tell him, “Hey, I hope there aren’t any hard feelings between us, Jim.”

Usually, when we talk politics, Jim’s good-natured and keeps his sense of humor. He’s never lost his composure. Our differences are not unlike those of other Americans divided by politics; he listens to Rush Limbaugh while driving his truck around the farm. I can’t tolerate Rush for long, not before I begin to think what an enormous misinformed blowhard he is.

On one occasion, Jim drove up in his truck, blasting the radio with Rush Limbaugh’s churlish voice, which he listens to every day on local KVEC. He turned down the radio, popped his head out the window, as if waiting for a sound, and yelled, “What! You’re not listening to Rush?”

He knows I don’t care for Rush. “I don’t have a radio, Jim. I just listen to yours as you drive around the farm,” I shouted back.

Thankfully, Rush is on for only a short time in the morning, and Jim also occasionally likes to listen to the Rolling Stones or other early rock n’ roller’s from his days as a ‘60s rebel. Mostly, though, the farm is quiet, unless the tractors are running close by or the packinghouse is busy.

Jim drives busily up and down the farm’s dirt roads, monitoring his orchards, watering systems, or charging the batteries of a tractor, taking care of problems before they happen—if he can get to them in time. He’s busy and industrious, often getting into scrapes such as rolling his truck on its side while trying to move a fallen tree.

I have a great deal of respect for Jim. He’s been good to me, a complete farming neophyte rescued from the ravages of journalism. He’s gotten me out of jams when the irrigation has sprung leaks, or he’s brought tools I didn’t have on hand, and has offered advice on weed control and other farming matters.

Despite our political differences, he’s been a good friend.

Jim likes to share his story of attending the original Woodstock, where he subsequently met up with some hippie organic farmers and got hooked on a lifetime of farming. Along the way, with nearly 200 acres to tend and a family to support, however, he’s changed a lot of his ideas, including how to farm.

“The whole organic thing’s a sham,” he said once. “Well, maybe not entirely,” he added, “I know a few organic farmers who are doing OK. But how many of the people you know who eat organic are actually environmentally responsible? Don’t they all drive cars? Fly in airplanes?”

He’s been farming for more than 35 years, and he’s meticulous, keeps the machinery running smoothly, takes care of breakdowns as they happen, and doesn’t rely on factory mechanics to do it for him for hundreds or even thousands of dollars. He does it himself.

He likes to get things done and doesn’t have patience for people who don’t pull their share of the load. “I get up at 5:30 every morning because I’ve got things to do,” he complained recently. “I don’t sit around and wait for things to happen.”

When I finally caught up to Jim, he wasn’t at the house but down by the enclosure, pounding on a wall in the washroom of the workers’ quarters with heavy mallet. “This is how I work out my frustrations,” he said, after I told him I hoped he wasn’t offended by anything I’d said the other day, and that I didn’t want politics to become an issue between us.

“Yeah, that’s all right,” he offered. “I got a little excited. I’ve had a lot going on.”

A tenant had failed to pay rent since August, he added. The tenant has pleaded for time, telling Jim he’s working on a re-build of a car he plans to sell, and he just needs a little time. “Well, it’s been over three months, he hasn’t sold his car and I haven’t seen a penny.”

It was this and a few other things, like the cancellation of a big order and a family emergency, Jim said, that set him off the other day when he drove away.

“Still,” he added, “I don’t know what the big deal is about Sarah Palin. She’s just as qualified as anybody to run for president. I think she’d make a great president.”

I kept silent, saving that argument for a more appropriate time, biting my tongue to keep from pointing out that Sarah would hardly make a great president if she couldn’t complete her first term as governor. This wasn’t the time for debate, which will come soon enough, but for mending, and making peace. §