Sunday, November 26, 2017

When Cultures Collide

I ran into an ex best-friend today at N. Waterfront Park in Berkeley. It was an unavoidable meeting, both of us walking different directions on the same, rather obscure, path. I know it was unavoidable because, in the past ten years that we haven’t spoken, if I saw her from a distance, I would find another route to avoid her. This time she came upon me fast. Worse yet, my partner, who is still Facebook friends with her, said hello. So we all said hello and briefly compared notes on retirement and moved on. No big deal. But it was painful nonetheless because of the cloud under which we parted ways, the one that ended our friendship of thirty-three years.

We first met in a CR group at the Women’s Center on Brady Street in around 1976. I was an emotional wreck just surviving after the untimely death of my mother in 1973 and the suicide of my grandmother that followed the same year. I was alone caring for my sister in a strange city. Cathy wanted to be friends and I needed friends desperately. Although her class background was similar to mine (lower middle class) she was very different. Her ethnic background was WASP and very self-contained. Especially so because her mother had acute mental illness. She didn’t want to talk much about deep stuff and neither did I so we were a perfect match.

We talked feminist politics which evolved into leftist politics. I was careful with her as though I was walking on eggs. Instinctively knew that my unleashed, assertive, blatantly Jewish-style of interacting would scare her. So I kept it at bay. This took the form of censoring and toning down my feelings and impressions. I don’t have to be tacky and uncouth just because my family was, I told myself. Cathy was smart and loving when she decided to be but her rules were strict and inflexible. She would counsel me on dating situations telling me when to call a potential date, how many times to try, when to send a card and what consists of an appropriate gift. These rules of etiquette were helpful for me because they were so completely absent in my coming of age experience.

Time may not heal all wounds but it does diminish them. That’s what happened to me as the years passed. Partly it was because I was meeting other lesbians of my own ethnicity who I related really well with. They were proud of their backgrounds and didn’t hold themselves back. As I grew freer, more secure in myself, I began naturally reverting to the style of interaction in which I was raised. It’s more of an organically grown conversation where one thing reminds you of another so you move on to the similar thing and the other person responds with more information about their experience and it builds organically from there. It involves both speaking and listening. Just trying it out made me feel better immediately. For Cathy that was not the case. She felt unheard, not listened to. Cathy believed that every addition I made to the subject was a subtraction from her perspective. She insisted that heavy exploration of a personal subject must consist of one person holding forth while the other is absolutely silent. Of course I hoped that, after all those years, we could work it out, that she’d realize it was just a difference in cultural styles not in emotional worthiness.

Later, I would post articles on my Facebook page about Jewish conversational styles and how the dynamics of social interaction are culturally determined. But later was too late for Cathy and I. We made many attempts at compromise and a number of aborted attempts at connecting. It would work for a while and then I would slip back to my natural state. She blamed it all on me and I took on that mantle too. After all, wasn’t I the one who changed? The blunt truth was that she liked the person I’d pretended to be quite a bit more than the one I actually was. And I could not settle for anything less than my genuine self.

The last time we spoke was at her place, the very same house I had convinced her to buy with a lawsuit settlement so many years earlier. Before leaving I said, “Well, this is it. I guess that unless one of us is dying of cancer or something, we won’t see each other again.” She said nothing. We haven’t seen or spoken a word until today when I was filled with that same old feeling of loss and sadness; a coming to terms with the fact that not all conflicts are reconcilable.