Writing about The Language of Flowers last week and thinking about my grandmother’s work as a foster parent brought me to a surprise understanding of something about myself.
All those years of visiting my grandmother, hanging out with the changing roster of foster children, thinking of all of them as family. The regularness of it all settled into me and made me know certain things, know them as things that just were true. And that meant that all the things about all those kids that weren’t “normal” were. The kids with severe developmental delays, the kids with personality disorders, the feminine boys, the masculine girls, the girl with vitiligo, the girl who was covered — face, chest, arms, hands — in twisted, burn-scarred flesh … everything was normal.*
I think Mom’s house planted and nurtured acceptance in me, the ability to see whatever people were, whatever they couldn’t help being, as normal. I lacked tolerance for things that were choices, things that could be controlled: a bad attitude, prejudice, selfishness, littering. This is the first time I’ve seen a connection, the clear line from Mom’s house of “everybody fits” to my ability to take people as they come.
I’m far (FAR) from perfect — made some serious missteps in high school and didn’t quite correct them until I’d been at college for a while. I’ve made any number of missteps in all the years since — but I’m not bad. I’m still pretty intolerant of things that can be controlled (racism, homophobia, fat jokes, littering), but for the most part those lessons learned unconsciously while playing at my grandmother’s house have stayed with me.
I want to be clear, place a solid divider between “acceptance” and “tolerance.” I tolerate a lot of things — (some) conservative political opinions, the weather, reality TV. I may not like or agree with them, but I can put up with them. Acceptance is something else all together. There’s nothing to think about, no judgments to make. What is just is. And it’s fine with you, and it doesn’t threaten you, and you don’t pat yourself on the back for accepting it, and you don’t show it off to your friends because you imagine it gives you some kind of gritty street cred, and your life goes on. When I can’t accept, I work for tolerance. But I don’t let myself forget that they aren’t the same thing.
Acceptance doesn’t mean acting as if there is nothing to accept. In other words, I don’t pretend that I can’t see difference. That seems silly at best, and insulting or worse the rest of the time. It drives me crazy when people are trying to have a conversation about race and someone says, “Oh, I don’t see color.” Not seeing color is an erasure of me. Accepting someone shouldn’t mean negating/denying/erasing the things that make them different. Acceptance means that the things that make someone different might be interesting, but mostly they don’t matter in the slightest.
And that was the never-spoken take away of growing up at Mom’s house, a lesson so deeply rooted, it seems more innate than instructed.
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* Okay, not everything was normal. There was one girl who freaked me out. I don’t remember her name. Or how old either of us was when she came to Mom’s house. I remember one day a bunch of us were playing on the far side of the flower garden near the garage. I came around the side of the garage and found her squatting down, eating dirt. I can still remember the shock of that, how wrong it felt and how I didn’t know how to respond to it. I remember she was eating the way shame eaters eat — hunched over, hiding it, stuffing it in quickly so no one would see — and her posture alone told me I shouldn’t think what she was doing was normal. Another time I caught her eating tattered leaves that had been picked off of harvested cabbages and thrown onto the refuse heap. She swore that Mom had given her the cabbage. I remember thinking how hungry she must have been to eat those dirty, wilted leaves. I also wondered how she could be hungry when Mom served food for an army no matter how many kids were under her roof, and her portions were definitely not small. She was only at Mom’s for a short time, and I don’t remember much else about her. I have since learned about kids eating things like dirt and ashes because of minerals their bodies are lacking or because of stress. At the time, it was just strange, she was just strange. Strange, which was troubling, not simply “weird, ” which was endearing. She was maybe the only child I thought of that way for years.