Typing this morning from LaCrosse, Wisconsin. I'm here to speak tonight at the town's annual Knit in Public Day. As the place is just close enough to Chicago to make it practicable, I came up by train.
Barring bandits or cows on the track, the trip is about five hours. We chugged along smoothly and I got a shocking amount of work done. Of course, there's not a lot to look at on a train and so five or six passengers, in passing by, stopped to ask about my knitting.
The most interesting conversation was with a woman who looked to be in her early twenties, and who began our dialogue in the usual manner.
"I've never seen a man knitting before."
To which I gave my standard reply, which I always deliver with wide-eyed surprise.
"You haven't? How odd."
She blinked. "Well, no. I mean, it's something women do, right?"
I smiled. "Not in my house."
"Oh," she said. "Well, I was brought up old-fashioned."
"So was I."
"Well, it's just surprising that you would do it in a public place."
I opened my mouth to say that, by coincidence, I was en route to an entire assembly of public knitters, but she went on.
"Don't you think about how it might look to the kids?" She indicated a few who were seated nearby in the coach.
"I don't follow you."
"Well, it might confuse them. The boys especially. A man doing something a woman does."
"I don't follow you."
She laughed. "Forgive me," she said. "I'm in the ministry, so it's second nature to me to minister. I'm always thinking about setting a good example for the young people."
I wondered if the window next to my seat could open, and if I could throw myself out of it.
"And you know,"she continued, "I have seen for myself that young boys need grown men to be role models of strength."
We were, figuratively speaking, at a crossroads. I could a) ask her why she felt a man peacefully doing something creative was not a strong role model, or b) feign narcolepsy and hope she'd go minister to the lady across the aisle.
Before I could do either, she asked, "Do you ever stop and talk to Jesus, and ask what He would want you to do?"
"I'm a Buddhist," I said. "Jesus and I don't usually go to the same cocktail parties."
"Oh," she said, stiffening. "Well, I guess there's nothing I can say to you then, is there? Have a good trip."
And she walked away.
Now, before some of you (you know who you are) start kvetching about Christian missionaries, let me ask you (firmly) please to not do that. We don't bash anybody's religion in here.
And as it happens, I have been just as annoyed on many occasions by Buddha-pushers who feel I am insufficiently Bodhi-fied because my practice is Zen and not Tibetan or Vipassana, or because I eat meat, or because I reflexively say "God bless you," when somebody sneezes. No single theology holds the monopoly on faith-based douchebaggery.
No. I wrote this conversation down because lately I worry (as you well may) about how we're ever going to climb out of the mess the world's in if folks won't talk to each other. Or rather, if folks won't listen to each other. Here was a textbook example of this large problem, shrunk to fit two people.
Missionary Lady and I had quite a chat but in the end, she didn't want to hear from me and I didn't want to hear from her. If we had kept talking, I doubt I would have been able to keep my cool well enough to be persuasive rather than combative. The end result: stalemate. If she and I can't speak and listen, how are opposing politicians and entire countries going to reach accord?
I hope you're not expecting a tidy wrap-up to this post, kids, because the heck if I can figure it out.
On the other hand, I did finish the knitting. So that's something.