Friday, October 22, 2010

The space between our houses

It took a while to get to know my neighbors next door on the west side of the house. Eventually I managed to find one them outside long enough for me to say “hi,” but it wasn’t until the second such meeting that I managed to pull out a conversation with the fellow. We chatted about a number of things: how long he had been in town, how much he hated the neighborhood, and our respective occupations.

“And what does Veronica do?” I asked, referring to his fiancĂ©e who evidently owned the house but whom I had yet to meet.

“She’s a nurse,” he answered.

“Oh, over at the hospital down the road?”

“No,” he hesitated with a bit of a controlled pleasantness, “at the abortion clinic.”

I don’t remember how I responded; I probably managed to act naturally enough, straining to think of what I would have said if she said any other profession. In reality, I realized that, while I’ve managed to render my brain tied into too many knots to be useful regarding every other political issue, abortion was still one that did not have any ambiguity. And though I’ve counted plenty of pro-choice people among my friends and acquaintances over the years, I had never met one who actually performed the abortions we disagreed about.

I suppose they have to live somewhere, I found myself musing, as if it would have surprised me less if the entire staff resided in the abortion clinics whose insides I had never even seen.

Over the next few weeks in which I managed to meet Veronica at least once, I wondered what she and I might agree on, where we would be able to find common ground. Could I see her as someone who cared deeply about the plight of the abused or confused woman, someone whom—but for our difference in understanding the other human life at stake—I might be fighting beside rather than against? I did not know. I had no idea what I would say if the conversation came up. I almost hoped I wouldn’t get the chance.

As it turned out, the chance came on a Sunday afternoon, the day after I had attended a Saturday morning mass outside the local abortion clinic (hoping desperately that Veronica wouldn’t be going to work on a Saturday morning, which she indeed did not). I was doing some Sabbath pleasure reading on my front porch, and Veronica came out to put her dogs in the yard. I walked over to her yard, and we talked for quite a while—about why she hated the neighborhood, about her previous marriage, about my research, about the town.

“So are you Catholic?” she abruptly interjected with no lead-in twenty minutes into the conversation. The question was common enough so near a major Catholic institution, but I held my breath before saying yes.

“Yeah, it ended up working out that way,” I said awkwardly, treating the question as if related to the university rather than (as I assumed) the pro-life movement. “I didn’t come here for that reason though; I applied to 10 schools, and most of them were state universities.” By bringing school into it, I managed to change the subject quickly enough.

But as Veronica had introduced the topic without a lead-in, she did not have any trouble returning to it when we were wrapping up our afternoon chat.

“I want to thank you for talking to me, even though you know about what I do,” she said (she had evidently been upset at her fiancĂ© for telling me where she worked, assuming that I would not speak to her as a result). “I didn’t realize when I moved here what a lion’s den I was moving into. Most people when they find out where I work don’t talk to me anymore.”

And after spending weeks wondering what I would say if the topic came up, I suddenly found my response came quite naturally, especially in a conversation in which I had squirmed a bit to admit my faith.

“Oh, I can imagine how hard it is,” I empathized. “Sometimes being a Christian in academia feels like that: it’s not anything I’m ashamed of, but I normally worry that if it’s the first thing people learn about me it could cut off some friendships before they start.”

“Huh,” she pondered, looking out into the yard thoughtfully, “I can see that...”

I didn’t have to strain to find common ground after all; as it turned out, we were two women with undisguisable allegiances that put us at odds with opposite halves of society. In that common ground of the no-man’s-land between the two entrenched armies, we both knew that we were on opposites sides, that we both believed our respective side was right, and that neither of us wanted to shoot each other. That afternoon in the space between our houses, our fear of alienation had united us.


Anonymous said...

Merry, Wonderful blog. In the end one finds we are all just people and the "samenesses" are much more than the differences. MCS

Christian H said...

I read this a few days ago but didn't comment as I felt I had nothing to say. I just want you to know that I've been thinking of this post a lot since then.