Thursday, February 16, 2012

Some Observations

We have been living in Montana now for over two months. This is a blip on the timeline of life, but enough for me to start noticing a few cultural differences. These observations seem to have a common thread and it is one that I feel the rest of our society should embrace. As with any rule, there are exceptions, but I think those people must be transplants.

1. The people have time.
2. The people have space, not just with their belongings.
3. They aren’t afraid of a lawsuit.
4. The kids have more freedom.

When I point out the time and space factor, it must be said that it is a subtle but powerful influence in the culture here. People back home can come across as tense and pinched. They aren’t able to spread out and relax. The word “terse” comes to mind. The relative lack of clutter of people, things, cars, and buildings here seems to allow the people who live here to function with less stress. This is immediately apparent when you have a conversation with a local. A conversation takes time, and requires both parties involved to pay attention and be accountable.

A variant of this would be the truck that lost steering or power or something on the hill by the library this morning. I was trying to turn left from a side street onto the main road, but it was all but blocked by two police cars. I couldn’t see what was on the other side of them. The police didn’t realize that I come from a culture where I would have to wait for them to tell me what to do. When I figured out that they didn’t care what I did, that they assumed I had common sense and care, I pulled out and went around them by way of the oncoming traffic lane. No one directed us, no one got excited; we just took turns and took our time. The policeman was putting something he had rummaged from his trunk onto the road in front of the truck’s tires to keep it from drifting away. Everyone involved was smiling. There were no crossed arms, tense shoulders, or staccato conversations into a cell phone. It was amazing.

When I used to attend the Masjid, one of the cultural differences most pronounced was the close personal space they all kept. We would sit in a room with plenty of space, but we would be touching elbow to elbow, knee to knee. It never became particularly comfortable for me. The opposite here is true. It goes beyond just the absence of traffic or lines at the register. It involves something deeper that allows a person to know that there is room for them, that they are wanted and valued, that they aren’t just another person taking up a seat. I find it fascinating that this sense is not abused, just accepted. No one spreads out across an area wider than they need, but they are completely comfortable taking the space that they do need. I think this is intimately connected to having the freedom to think for themselves, to see things creatively, and to be independent. It is much more difficult to do those things when you are constantly bouncing into other people’s personal space bubbles.

Apparently, this also gives you the personal freedom to fall on your ass. They don’t salt or plow the parking lots here. You often step out of your car onto a whole sheet of ice. The other day, it was like packed down powdered sugar. We skated to the store, as walking seemed hazardous. It is nearly impossible to see the painted lines on the roads here. That makes for alert driving for us out-of-towners. It also gives me a headache. Again, I think they just figure that we are smart enough to figure it out.

The books at the library are integrated. There is no librarian telling my kids that they aren’t “allowed” to check out a book. The juvenile non-fiction is mixed right in with the adult non-fiction. This was my favorite revelation about freedom and culture here. They firmly believe we are smart enough to figure it out ourselves. The kids in the library run around. Let me say that again. They run. Inside. The library. No one yells at them to stop. No one makes their parents feel like terrible parents. It just happens, because they are kids, and that is life. People sometimes bring their dogs inside the library. Not purse poodles or service dogs, but pet dogs. The most amazing part of this to me is that no one even blinks. Again, it happens because people love their pets, and that is life.

This kind of self-awareness coupled with self-responsibility is beautiful. I am loving it.

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