Paying tolerance forward

Belinda Ouellette, Special to The County
3 years ago

I watched her carefully position her late-model SUV into the parking space in front of me, her eyes shielded with brown tinted, cat-eye-shaped sunglasses.  She removed the glasses and immediately put a white paper mask on.  

I once again thought of how these masks, which protect us from receiving and transmitting the virus, hide our facial features and make it nearly impossible to identify our acquaintances.  It is a small price to pay, however.  Awareness of the erratic behavior of this virus is key in ceasing its spread.  

She slid out of her vehicle and pulled out a quad cane, complete with ice picks at each tip.  Dressed in gray, she blended in with the dark pavement and cloudiness of the winter sky.  I got out of my own vehicle, following behind her as we entered the grocery store.  We each claimed a grocery cart and began that sometimes dreadful journey into the land of food, relying on a quickly scribbled list or computer prompt; choosing our purchases either carefully or with abandon.

As expected, we found ourselves face to face eventually, our eyes meeting briefly and crinkling out a smile at each other.  I have become an expert when it comes to deciphering eye smiles; a skill I believe to be crucial if we are to survive in this new  environment. .  I spoke first, allowing the volume of my voice to increase. My greeting is always short; just a quick “Hi!” and I move on to a more detailed conversation.   

“Hi,” I said.

Her response was slow.  “Hi.  How are you?”

“I am doing well, thank you.”  I spread my arms out slightly.  “My favorite place,”  I said; now rolling my visible eyes.  She laughed softly.  

“I hear ya,” she said.  “I surely hate this shopping experience now.  It has become some sort of a dreadful task.”  She pulled on the mask slightly and giggled.  

I pulled at my own mask and nodded my head in agreement.  

“Just out of curiosity,” she said, “do you believe in all of this?  Do you really believe or is it just some sort of political game?”

I answered immediately.  “I believe it is real.  I believe in science and the facts that are presented to us.”  I paused a moment, not wanting to land head first on political turf with this lovely lady.  “I also believe it is much better to be safe than sorry,  And besides that, it is kind of fun to choose from all of these very colorful masks!  And another thing;  the grocery clerk at this very store could not decide whether or not I was young or very seasoned!  He could only see my eyes.”  

She laughed easily with me.  For just a moment, there was a rather uncomfortable pause between us and I knew she was choosing her words carefully.  I also sensed we were on opposite ends of the spectrum.  

“I guess I sometimes don’t know what to believe,” she said.  “I usually avoid the topic when it comes to what this country is now experiencing.  Do you know what I mean?”  Our eyes locked for just a second, and I could see confusion, hesitation and even a trace of fear. 

“I know exactly what you mean, my dear.”  I turned my eyes away then, scrambling for just the right response.  I wanted to walk away from this encounter with a smile and not with an affirmation of the unbearable division that seemed to be ripping our nation apart.  

I spoke slowly.  “Despite the differences, we have this.”  I pointed toward her and then back to myself.  “We can greet each other, share a smile and even an amusing anecdote.  We laughed again and slipped into a conversation regarding the weather, SUVs and our favorite comfort foods.  It was a pleasant and very simple encounter; one that would, under normal circumstances, be immediately forgotten and lost in the events of an ordinary day.  

To me, however, it was proof of civility.  

We are tossed into life’s salad, our experiences and differences blended together.  Some ingredients are bitter; some are sweet and savory.  I prefer to walk softly, expressing my opinions firmly, without losing respect for the opposition — often a tedious endeavor, to be sure.  

Let’s not pass up those random conversations or that chance to consider another opinion, belief, religion, ethnicity or political stance. This knowledge will only make us stronger as we search for peace; not only within our nation but also within ourselves.

Belinda Ouellette lives in Caribou with her Goldendoodle, Barney.  You may email her at