Reframing the Lens
We go home to Minnesota every summer. We have a cabin on a lake. Really, in Minnesota, who doesn’t have a cabin on the lake, after all, it is the land of 10,000 lakes. You can’t drive for ten minutes without running into another lake. In our case, our cabin is in Northern Minnesota on land that has been in my wife’s family for four generations, if you include our children’s generation. It was homesteaded by her grandfather about a century ago. For a long time, the area remained very pristine. I remember when we were first married, we would go to the cabin and look out over the lake. There was no one there. One whole side of the lake was government property. One side was owned by the descendants of other homesteaders who had lost interest in the place decades before. There was only one other cabin, on the far side of the lake, over two miles away, owned by the author of children’s books who made an occasional foray to this remote location. A small river flowed from the lake and was home to one other cabin where an 80-year-old bush pilot lived surviving off of canned soups, Winston cigarettes, and coffee that he only mixed with brown sugar – the secret to a long life he once told me. The entire region was similar. Many old timers fondly recalled the old days when people logged, trapped, and lived off the land. If one took time to listen, there were stories to be heard about the people who had settled in this area and were remembered by many still living at the time. You could hear an appreciation for the land, the challenges it offered, and the respect held for those who had struggled to make it their home.
When my wife and I went overseas to teach in the early ‘90’s, we would return for a visit to this cabin each summer. There was something almost magical about returning from our overseas life each year to a place that seemed to be sitting still, content in the daily challenges’ life had to offer, and at peace with both the hardships of grueling winters, and melancholy evenings of summers on a lake. Each summer, when we returned, there were reports that one person had passed away, or another, as the older generation who were the history of the region began to move on. I barely knew many of these people, but for my wife and her family, they represented a slow change in a place they once knew and felt intimately about. A place that represented a way of life that was a part of their fabric, their memories, and who they are.
One summer, we returned, and it seemed everything had changed. Gradually, some “city slicker,” as he had been described to me, had been buying up the properties on the side of the lake that had been homesteaded by various people. He now owned all of that side of the lake and had moved forward with a development project subdividing the properties into lots. These lots were not cheap, and were largely purchased by what can be described as the “upper crust,” people from large cities looking to buy into a piece of “paradise” spending occasional holiday time in the large lake homes they built. Fortunately, they tended to be a good bunch of folks, building their homes off the lake and developing covenants that respected the land, the lake, and the people of the area. There is no doubt they introduced a new demographic though, and it is from this the true purpose of this piece is derived.
We’ve slowly come to know some of the new folks on the lake. During the summer, we will occasionally see them and wave, exchange pleasantries, even get together for an occasional coffee and light meal. It was during one of these get togethers one of these folks described her experience volunteering at a community center in one of the local townships. She had been helping out with a day camp there, and made a comment about how difficult life is for these kids and how little they had. I didn’t say anything at the time, but I found her comment a bit curious. I had been coming to this area for years, even before I had met my wife. I had always kind of envied the folks here, and the lives many of the kids lived. It was true, life is hard in that area of Minnesota, especially in the winter, and the folks who live there have to be hardy. Kids living there often have to pitch in chopping wood, working in gardens, and helping out in ways we don’t see in the cities anymore. They don’t have access to a lot of the junk food found in the cities, and, in many cases, lack reliable access to the internet, mobile phone service, and even electricity. That said, those same kids run around in the woods, hunt, fish, and seem to spend more quality time with family than I usually see in families from other economic demographic groups. Yes, life is hard there, but there are benefits as well, and I think the benefits are worth the hardships for many people.
This whole experience got me thinking about my good friend, Linda, who unfortunately passed away from cancer a few months ago. At one point she and I were talking, and she described to me an experience she had traveling through rural Myanmar with a friend of hers. While traveling, they came across kids running around barefoot, kids working in rice paddies, kids looking after younger siblings, and kids walking along the sides of roads to get from one place to another. At one point, the friend commented on how sad it was to see kids living like this. Linda told me, “you know, it was strange, but I saw the situation differently. I saw kids having the freedom to run around without shoes and feel the earth beneath their feet. I saw kids who had a sense of pride contributing to their families and helping out. I saw kids who were able to really experience life. I wasn’t quite sure what was so sad about it.”
These experiences have caused me to think about how we tend to observe and interpret other cultures. It seems we often approach other cultures with a bit of a deficit mentality. We assume others must want what we have, and therefor are suffering if they don’t have it. We’ve come across that in our own family. A few years ago, we took in a nine-year-old street boy, whom we were eventually given guardianship of. At the time we took him in, he had never worn a pair of shoes in his life. He was used to sleeping under bridges and benches, in culverts, and in parks. He ran with a group of other street kids whom he could sometimes trust, and at other times feared. When we took him in, we perceived ourselves doing a great thing, and saw ourselves as really making a difference in this boy’s life. I don’t want to say we haven’t made a difference. I think he is definitely better off with us, and is certainly happy. He is having experiences he would never have had before. In fact, while I write this he is in China participating in a soccer tournament, a game he has proven quite skilled at. From time to time, we talk about his life before he came to us. I remember the first time he talked to me about his life on the streets. His English was just developing, but he was able to clearly articulate for me his perception of life there. It wasn’t the terrible life I was expecting to hear about. Instead, he talked about what it was like hanging with a group of boys who looked after each other, knowing they were there for him if anyone else wanted to hurt him. He talked about the different shops he used to go to for handouts of food, the things he did for fun, the excitement of experiencing holiday celebrations on the streets, and the relationships he had with everyone from the police to the bus drivers. In many ways, what he described to me sounded a bit Huck Finnish, and I realized I had only been viewing his past through my own perceptual lens. When I reframed my lens, I really began to understand what life had been like for him. Yes, his life had been hard, and there had been people who hurt him and took advantage of him, but his perception of those experiences was not the same as mine. Many people have commented to us over time on how well adjusted our son is considering what he has come from. We’re very proud of him, but we’re also very cognizant of the fact that he is who he is because of his experiences and because of how he has perceived them. We’re very careful not to make him ashamed of what he has come from, and we try very hard to listen and hear how he sees himself.
The discussion we had with our neighbor at the lake this past summer really set me on a path of reflection. My wife and I are in our 28th year as international educators. There is no doubt in my mind that when we first went overseas we viewed things from a deficit perspective. I think this has changed for me though. I’ve come to appreciate and respect differences, and understand the way we do things is not always best. Whether I’m in Minnesota, Myanmar, or some other country, there is so much to learn and appreciate. I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to engage with so much of it.