Once again I find myself on the West Coast of the United States for a short while. There is something about the cultural space from about San Francisco northward and into lower British Columbia that makes me feel “normal”. This is the geographic region where, for the most part, I can be completely me without worrying that I’m saying or doing something culturally inappropriate. My tone of voice is understood within various contexts. My tendency to say nice things to people — including total strangers — is not seen as being fake or an attempt to gain something but just, as I mean it to be, as a way of spreading more good in the world. My interests in environmentalism, alternate economies and community living are all well within the spectrum of normalcy for this region. In short, this is the place where the culture and my internal defaults are pretty much in sync.
Every time I come back to this area I reconsider the reasons that I leave at all. The reasons are many and varied, and none of them have to do with those basic levels of cultural comfort. As I contemplate why I would choose to live some place where I have to work to fit in or accept that I will simply be a stranger with strange ways that are constantly misinterpreted and misunderstood, I understand more about what really drives me.
Home is where the heart is. Home is where love lives. Home is about people.
But home is also about comfort and predictability. Home is about the things we surround ourselves with — the consumer goods, yes, but also the plants and animals, the scent of the foods we make, our choice of incense or synthetic room fresheners.
Beyond the walls of a building, home is also the place where you know how things work. You know how to shop for the things you need, how to find services within the community, how to navigate the bureaucracy of government. This is why technology causes so much angst for those who have not been able to keep up with the speed of change. Without changing location, people find that they no longer know how to deal with the basic things that make life work. (Remember when phone books were the way to find a lawyer, plumber or car mechanic? Remember when you could find a job by reading the classified ads in the newspaper? Remember when a resume was something that professionals had, but a retail job or position at a coffee shop could be landed by showing up at the shop and just talking to the manager?)
In Glasgow I stick out like a sore thumb the moment I open my mouth. People notice my accent. I’ve thought about trying to adjust my accent to get rid of that discomfort, but isn’t that a bit fake? Wouldn’t those people who know that I’m not Scottish be even more judgemental the moment they realized that the accent was borrowed just so that I could fit in better?
I would stick out even more if I behaved exactly like I do here.
On Friday morning I was on a bus heading for a conference. The bus driver smiled and said, “Today is going to be a great day!” or some variation on that to each passenger as they boarded. “Yes it is!” I responded with a smile and an internal thought about how this is a small piece of positive magick common in this local community.
About half way to my destination a woman got on the bus with a book bag that said, “Got Privilege?” on it. As she squeezed through the crowded bus past my seat, I reached out and put my hand on her arm to get her attention, “I LOVE your bag!” I told her.
A huge smile spread across her face. “Thank you for noticing! I got it at the White Privilege Conference.” She told me a bit about the conference. I said I’d look it up.
On this bus, in this place, I knew I’d given her day a nice start by saying a nice thing that I really meant. I also got to learn about something that I’m genuinely interested in. If I’d been on another bus in some other place, such a personal connection with a complete stranger might not have gone so well. I can hardly imagine a Glaswegian taking so kindly to my breach of their personal space by actually putting a hand on their arm to get their attention like that. If my Scottish partner had been sitting next to me on that bus, I’m sure he would have sunk into the seat in horrified embarrassment.