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Questioning Assumptions

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?" Zen teaching tale

Zen Circle painting by Kazuaki Tanahashi, Miracles of Each Moment, 1998

Cropped hair, clean shaven, bronze skin, zip up jacket, and solid build at about my height of 5’ 5.” I see a Latino, I'm guessing, in his late teens. From my canvassing spot in front of the post office, I welcome this young person. I call out, “Would you be interested in answering a few questions?”

“Sure,” he says, smiling at me. Definitely interested. As people hurry by carrying letters and packages into and out of the post office, the young man and I lean towards one another so we can hear despite the sounds of the Modesto, California street—cars passing on a nearby avenue, beeps of a dump truck backing up, a distant siren.

I have come to Modesto from my home in Berkeley to do canvasing and voter registration in this potentially flippable (from Republican to Democratic) congressional district. Using a questionnaire developed by local Swing Left and Indivisible groups, I take notes on a chart on my clipboard. I ask a series of questions to learn what issues matter to people—their concerns such as healthcare, jobs or the environment. The intention is: to support people in contacting their fundamental hopes, difficulties, values; to sign people up to vote if they aren’t yet registered; if it seems that they are open to it, to point the way for them to become involved themselves in taking action so they can contribute to making the societal or political changes they hope for; to share the thoughts and concerns of people we canvass to a Swing Left chapter and the local Democratic Party. I’ve been doing canvasing and voter registration at a Saturday Farmer’s Market for six months; I still have a lot to learn. I not only track this young person’s responses; I track my own.

“On a scale of 0-10, with 0 at ‘terrible’ and 10 at ‘terrrific’?” I ask, “How do you think things are going in this country with the current administration?” “0,” he retorts. He seems to want to talk further, which pleases me. I make a number of assumptions: that he lives with his family, that his concerns reflect those of his family, and will be healthcare, immigration and jobs, themes I’ve heard in the past from local Latinos.

Showing him the list of possible areas of concern, I ask, “Please select what matters to you in order of importance.” He scans the possibilities and points to Social Justice. Wow. I hadn’t expected that. In my months of doing canvasing in the Central Valley, he is the first to highlight social justice. I’d been way off in my assumption.

His interest in social justice matches my own and I engage in the conversation with increasing energy. Wondering what’s at the root of his interest, I make a new assumption: this young person comes from a family of organizers or union workers. “I haven’t met anyone else in doing this canvasing work who’s expressed a strong concern for social justice,” I say and continue to probe, “How did you come to this? Are you from a family committed to social change?”

“Oh no,” he laughs. “Not at all. My family is very conservative.”

Surprised to hear this, I note how I’ve misread him again. Readjusting my thoughts, I express admiration. “That takes bravery, stepping forward like that on your own!”

He smiles. I take a risk and pursue further, “How did you end up thinking so differently from your family?”

Now he takes a good look at me, probing directly into my eyes. Then he speaks again, “I’m transgender.” I breathe in. “I’m already taking hormones.” A pause. “I’m about to have sex change surgery.”

Taken by surprise, I look back at this young person to see what I missed. I note wide cheekbones, tender cheeks. I don’t know how to see him clearly. Transgender. It didn’t occur to me. Regaining my bearings, I grapple with my basic miss on this person’s gender identity. What a huge misreading. Another assumption to let go. I am guessing (assuming) that “he” used to be “she” and is now “he.” That might not be accurate. My thoughts revolve topsy turvy. Even in this writing, I struggle to describe our exchange in a skillful way, to find the accurate pronoun. They? He? I am confused. I don’t know the respectful choice for that individual

I continue the conversation, eyes meeting eyes, “How courageous of you,” I say. He smiles back in what seems to me to be appreciation, or maybe agreement. I don’t know.

I now make another assumption: it must have been really hard, painful, for him to be living with a conservative Latino family while undertaking sex change surgery. “Gosh, this must be challenging,” I say, “to be going through hormone therapy and surgery in the context of your conservative family.”

“Oh no, my family is very close and they are really accepting of me.”

Another assumption I need to let go. At each turn in the conversation, I see an inaccurate assumption.

It has begun to drizzle, and we huddle together in the doorway to the post office for shelter. The young person continues to talk, “It was hard though when I first was setting up the surgery at the hospital. It would have been helpful to have the right papers.”

That’s when I realize that I haven’t even asked whether he is registered to vote. When I suggest that I could help go through the steps of the registration process, he becomes animated and enthusiastically fills in the form. I become animated too. On the Register to Vote application, there is no question on gender, just a box where you can check off: Mr., Mrs., Ms. or Miss. That section of the form is optional. I don’t notice how or if he fills it in. I want to be steady and attentive when I guide people through this registration. But exhilarated and confused by the series of surprises, I have lost some balance.

As the drizzle turns into rain, our exchange comes to a close. I feel it’s been a warm connection. He seems glad to have talked to me about the surgery and to have become registered to vote. And I am glad to have met what seems to me to be a thoughtful and brave person.

It isn’t until afterwards that I become aware of how many times my assumptions had been off: most of all about gender identity, but also about the issues that matter to him, about the experience of having different views from those of his family, about how his family relates to his identity. It’s humbling to recognize my tendency to make inaccurate assumptions.

In seeing all the ways I was “off,” I begin to get an inkling of the multitude of assumptions that I bring (that I’m guessing most of us bring) to every encounter in life and how assumptions of all kinds are probably mostly inaccurate.

Jean Sitting, oil

For over forty years, I’ve been training through Buddhist meditation in being present, but I’m still often distracted, caught up in the past or the future. With all these years of practice, I wish I had better honed my skill in being present to my assumptions, in recognizing the way I color what I see. In tandem with that skill, and as relates to my conversations in canvasing, I also wish that I knew more about how to be respectful in my use of pronouns as well as in my bearing in meeting a transgender individual. Or for that matter, in meeting people who have gender identities different from my own as a heterosexual cisgender female. He, she, they, cisgender, female, heterosexual. The words I’m using right now feel clunky to me, but I don’t yet know how to write about this meeting more gracefully. When I show this blog to my twenty-eight year old daughter, she suggests to me, “You might have asked, “What gender pronoun do you identify with? Or What are your gender pronouns?” But I hadn’t thought to ask. I’ve got a long way to go.

My exchange with the young person in front of the post office prompted me to remember a Zen teaching tale. “A Cup of Tea” is the story of a monk, Nan-in who has tea with an idea-congested professor who came to inquiring about Zen. Nan-in pours tea into the professor’s cup, continuing to pour as the cup overflows. When the professor exclaims in alarm, Nan-in explains: “Like this cup, you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

How different are the opinions and speculations of the professor from the assumptions I make, coloring and distorting what I see, hear and do? A person I meet in canvasing is in some essential way my Zen teacher; but I cannot learn their “Zen”—who they are and what they are saying to me—nor offer them my kind and present response unless I empty my cup of assumptions.

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