By Jennifer Moore-Kerr
In what seems to be a time of ever-increasing strife, this column is a small attempt to build bridges with our neighbors. The broken bridges and steel-clad social bubbles that keep us apart can begin to mend and thin as we get to know the stories that define each other. In this space I will be interviewing community members of all walks of life from throughout the Voice readership area … may you enjoy meeting them, and may this build bridges for us all. Thank you for joining me on this journey.
Recently I got to thinking about the name of this column, “Building Bridges,” and what it means at its most significant level.
Living here, in the river valley, our landscape is dotted with bridges. Some are beautiful, some functional, all allow us to traverse our communities from one side to the other. This year the bridge on Highway 23 south of Spring Green has been out since the fall as the surface is repaired and bike lane improved. It won’t be completed until the end of summer. What an illustrative example this gives us of the value of a bridge.
I have friends just the other side of the bridge. There are students in the River Valley School District sprinkled throughout the land and communities on the south side of the river (all of the schools of are on the north side of the river). I work with people who have crossed the river to go to work at that bridge for years. The detour adds maybe eight minutes to the crossing, but it seems to have affected everyone’s sense of our connectedness.
And so, I think about what a bridge means. According to my Webster’s dictionary, the first two definitions are as follows: 1. a structure spanning and affording passage over a river, chasm, road or the like. 2. a connecting, transitional or intermediate route or phase between two adjacent elements, activities, conditions or the like. I am struck by two terms: “affording passage” and “connecting” as I look at this definition and think about both the construction on Highway 23, and this column. Until a bridge is unavailable, we, on either side of the divide, take them for granted. They are simply a means to get to our friends, school and work. When they become inaccessible, we believe ourselves to be (perhaps unduly) inconvenienced, sometimes even we act put out. Is there a parallel between this and the bridges to which I refer in this column? I believe there is.
When the traversing between sides of a river is easy or uneventful, we don’t think much about it. When it is bothersome it gets our attention, leaves a void, and causes discomfort. This column is named “Building Bridges.” When I go down to the river at 23 and look at the construction being done, I am amazed at how much equipment is used, but also, at how carefully the work is being done. Great effort is being used to keep debris from falling into the river. The process of building a bridge is complicated by the fact that it is, after all, a bridge “over a river” and a river is moving, always changing, and quite difficult to traverse without a bridge. To stand on one side without a bridge, looking across, the other side can seem completely out of reach. A bridge brings it within reach.
The “bridge” I use during the interviews for this column is our stories. Those stories connect each of us with our neighbors, with those we may not know, those with whom we are in disagreement on often political issues. But how we get to those stories matters. What we ask. How we ask. And, perhaps most importantly, how we listen to the answers we receive. Each interview I have done, I use the same set of questions. Broad, structural questions. To take the analogy perhaps too far, these are the girders of the story. I ask: What brought you to the River Valley? What keeps you here? What do you value most about the area? What is a hope that you have for the area? What makes you happy? Sad? Who is your family? Are they here? What is something you wish people knew about you? For each interview, these questions are what lead to the stories I then share with you, dear reader. The order in which I ask the questions varies, as led by the flow of the interview itself. I am learning that some questions provide more structure, and thus lead to more stories than others. The purpose is to let the person on the other side know that I am interested. To build trust. To create a safe way to span the chasm.
For this month, I endeavored to create a mosaic of answers to the above questions by asking them of multiple people who came into the Spring Green General Store where I work at the register. In addition to building that mosaic, I learned some things about the questions I ask, how I ask them, and the importance of context in creating connection.
The thumbnail responses I received drew a picture of a natural beauty that wrapped itself around Jill, drawing her back. We have majestic, spectacular, sandhill cranes. Gigi loves the river bottomlands that are easy to explore on frozen winter days. We embrace the sparkling snowscapes, we are wealthy with cultural opportunities. Evelyn found a small-town feel with a big-town aesthetic; we have arts of all sorts. Dennis spoke of such diverse creativity; we are replete with fabulous musicians in accessible venues. Robin found a safe place to raise her children. Diane returned to her childhood home to find engaged, literate people. APT brings us extraordinary performances, and everywhere we find good-hearted neighbors. The consensus seemed to be that there is no place like this. We come here to work, to be with family, to be wrapped in beauty. We come for love. We return home after exploring other places. They come here to “get away.” They come for the arts. Visitors come to float on the river in the summer. To hike the hills in the winter. We are all here with our own stories. We are blessed with this area, and it seems that the mosaic is filled with beauty — human, cultural, artistic and natural beauty.
As I asked my questions, and as I reflected on the answers I received, I was struck by what seemed to be true: Asking someone what they value is empowering. It creates a safe place to share stories. It is the difference between asking “How are you?” and “How are you?” Genuinely caring about, and listening to, the answers to those questions creates the foundation on which we can cross our divides — whatever those divides may be. We all have a story. A story of how we got here, what makes this home, what we value, who we call family, what makes us happy and what makes us sad. And it matters how I ask, in what order I ask, and if I have made it clear that I care about the answer. And then, hearing those stories, to quote the amazing inaugural poet Amanda Gorman, who recited her poem “The Hill We Climb” at the presidential inauguration on Jan. 20, “victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made.”
I feel so very blessed to hear both the long-version stories I have shared, and will continue to share, in this space, as well as the short versions shared as our paths cross and you take the time to give me a glimpse of what makes you you. Thank you to all of you who shared a piece of this mosaic with me, including Joy, Diane, Evelyn, Dennis, Judy, Chuck, Gigi, Robin, Jill, Ron, Paul and Beth, as well as some who did not share their names. Some I named in my column and some I did not. I thank them all for their time and their sharing.
I look forward to continuing to build bridges with you.
Jennifer Moore-Kerr is a mom, a free spirit and a barefoot dancer living in Spring Green where she can walk to the river and commune with friends. She can often be found welcoming locals and visitors alike to the Spring Green General Store where she tends the register most days. To suggest ideas for future “Bridges” columns, email email@example.com.