Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Day One

We woke up on and off all night, checking our phones and then briefly holding each other, trying to will away the horror. We tried to believe it would right itself in an overnight decision, a reversal of Florida or Pennsylvania. A miracle. We tried to have faith, despite the encroaching darkness.

I got up at 5:30 to the final news. We embraced, tried to steel ourselves for the day. I would face dozens of students directly threatened by this turn, and soon, as well as pockets of gleeful good cheer and blinding lack of compassion. I dreaded both, trying to marshal the emotional forces to do what must be done, or at least to figure out what that means now, right now, in this terrible new world. He would face a torn staff, with many devastated and others gleeful. He would swallow that down to sell his lab's science to another room of executives. After all, only corporate interest can matter, now more than ever. What is science in this new world? Only that which can make money can have a home at the university.

My 7:10 class, almost entirely Latinx and Filipino first-year college students, was church-house quiet. One of the few white students tried a joke, "So, what country are *you* moving to?" I stopped and looked him in the face to get a sense of the intended tone. He dropped his gaze. "It's awful." The joke died on the vine. Everybody hurt too much.

A student I usually think of as a smiling ball of light sat at the front of the room and conferred in whispers with his friend. She put an arm around him. I asked them what was up. He said he was telling her about Pence's effort to divert AIDS funding to "conversion therapy". Tears welled in his eyes, and then in mine. He's terrified. This could happen to him. Policy director and VP Mike Pence would have him tortured and brainwashed in an effort to make him fit Pence's preferences. He would call his suicide "God's plan to save him from his sin."

I tried to draw them out, but few wanted to talk. I asked how many had voted, and told them how sorry I was that this was their first election. "They aren't all like this," I told them. They looked at me, eyes too full of emotion in many cases, dead in others. It looked exactly like grief counseling, because that's what we were feeling--grief. Too many people lost hope today, experienced betrayal on such a fundamental level it cannot be unwritten. They will not forget. "I'm so sorry," I told them. My voice broke.

G, a quiet young man in the back who moved here from Mexico only months ago, spoke up. "Even if he'd lost, we'd know half the people wanted him. Half the people hate us." I wanted to hug him. I wanted to weep. I am supposed to teach them English. I don't know what they learned today, other than the worst lessons of adulthood: people choose hate over love all the time; bullies often win; rear-guard action is often the most awful. I fear they learned the worst thing of all, the thing all survivors of violence learn--trust is very fragile, and once it's gone it's even harder to get back. It's true that once imperiled, you never really feel safe again.

Every semester, I weave in civics questions as extra credit, extol the virtues of the ballot, encourage them to know how U.S. government is designed to work. I teach them to reason, to research, to express themselves and gain ground in a ground war rigged against them from the start. I try to show them that these can be foundational principles, that they matter. This is the first time the whole enterprise, the thing I have given my entire adult life to, felt like a lie and a waste. For the first time, I felt like a liar and a fraud. But, I was supposed to go on teaching them English.

My 8:35 class is a veterans learning community. I didn't know what to expect, and was nervous approaching them. "Please don't let my evaluator come today. I don't have it today." I cycled these thoughts anxiously as I approached the room. The students already there were quiet. Several were all in black. I said good morning, and asked how they were.

"Well, that happened" a young ex-Marine said. Her usual blue jeans and hoodie were replaced with an all-black outfit. I raised an eyebrow at her as she approached with a missing assignment. "Seemed appropriate" she said. There were nervous laughs. I felt, horribly, relief. We aren't so different. Despite their conservative values and deep acculturation to the party, many of them were also uneasy or bothered or scared. Okay, let's do this.

"Where are you all with everything?" I asked them a vague question, trying to take the temperature. Nervous chuckles.

"I guess we're just a TV show now?"
"Fucking good jobs with Border Patrol now though, right?"
"Yeah, anyone in construction better gear up, start building that wall."
"I still can't believe it."
"I've still got four years of Guard time. I'm gonna get called up again."
"Goddamn it, really?"
"Yeah, right? What the fuck?"

Always a rowdier group, and full of amusing and baroque cursing, today their voices were loud but their words were simple. As one would sum it up, "I don't know what they're happy about. We're all fucked now."

As the voices overlapped, one small group pulled into themselves. The self-titled "white boy corner" was busily trading phones around. I broke into the conversation to ask what was up. They told me they were sharing memes, so I asked about them. "Oh, just stupid shit, you know. A lot more of them today, though." They started putting the phones away, still chuckling to themselves about the social media frenzy. One said, "I'm going into law enforcement. This is good for me." I asked him if he knew what "entitlement reform" meant, and how it relates to people on disability. He did not, but wrote it down to Google later. I know his afternoon will be a lot less amusing. I am torn between feeling bad for him and glad to open his eyes, though it is far too late.

A chronically-late student arrived, well into class. I took his papers and noted that he's even later than usual. He got stopped at the border, which he crosses every day. When he showed his military i.d. and asked why they were hassling him so much when they see him every day, they told him to shut the fuck up and wait. After class, he told me he's used to getting a lot of grief because he grew his hair out and dresses like a slacker. Today, though, it wasn't the same. When he asked them to hurry up because he had somewhere to go, he was muscled aside. "Come on, man. We do this every day. I'm just asking you to step it up."

"It's a whole new world today, fucker. You'll wait."

He tried to laugh it off when we spoke after class. This combat veteran and native-born son of the United States has seen shit before. We both know this. "I always knew I'd live to see the end of the United States," he said with a nervous laugh. "I just didn't know it would be so soon."
All of this happened between 1 and 10 a.m. today. In the hours since, I have talked to my sister and best friend and husband. We have shared tears and stilted talk and speculation, all of the usual parts of grief. We have shared our mourning process, and will continue to do so, because that is what we're doing: mourning. All of us keep briefly forgetting, and then having to wade through the dream-like feeling, and the horrible realization all over again, and again. This is a death.

I looked at social media briefly, but it's too heartbreaking. Several of my most progressive friends are leaving social media, especially Facebook, out of a belief that it dumbs down the discourse. They seek to protect themselves, which I understand, but also seem to forget that taking the smartest people out of the room does not elevate the conversation. On the other hand, people I went to school with decades ago are crowing. They celebrate what they see as the preservation of their way of life. I believe them to be right, and so cannot have them in my life anymore. It hurts too much; their way of life is predicated upon my erasure and the erasure or enslavement of too many other people. I see the feeds of my Canadian, European and Asian friends and feel their horror, mystification, and dread.

I don't want to leave, but I have no idea what to say or how to help. I am disgusted and physically ill.

I suspect that anyone who has wondered what they would do if they saw fascism rise is about to learn the answer. Civil war is not impossible; unrest, suppression, and suffering are a certainty. We are witnessing history of the worst kind and, as always happens, millions are celebrating it openly and will never be called to account for the pain they will inflict on others. We stand at the crossroads.

I have work to do, both because I am paid to do it and because I believe it has value. I need to work.

But I also know that, as my best friend so accurately and heartbreakingly summarized, my country took a referendum on my value and the value of many of the people whom I most cherish, and rejected us outright. It's hard to feel like I have value today. And then I think about how insulated I am, as a white person, a person whose differences of orientation and religion are easily closeted, and someone with healthcare and citizenship and the advantages of the relative political freedom of the Pacific coast. I think about that and I know that I have to be here, to provide safe harbor, to hold up a fucking light in this dark night. We all do.

I just don't know how to find the strength, yet.
Help me, friends, please.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016


This doesn't really have a home and I don't know what it connects to, so I'm putting it here. 


I'm in my car, on the road to work on a sunny, smoggy, warm day just before spring. I am listening to Mark Bramhall read Open Heart, Elie Wiesel's last meditation on his life, work, and approaching death. His frank unwillingness to see his death approach, even as they prepared to open his chest and heart, both inspires and appalls me. 

The skilled voice gives a dying man’s words richness and humor, steers them away from self-pity or indulgence. Wiesel’s confrontation of his mortality and the contents of his heart turns my mind toward my mother. All discussion of hearts, open or not, does that now.

Now off the highway, I stop behind a cherry-picker truck at a stoplight. It is a kind I have never seen before—black-framed and huge, far longer than the utility trucks I am used to seeing in my neighborhood. 

I see warning signs in both red/white and black/yellow color schemes, alternating between Danger and Peligro depending on who’s looking. Inanimate objects code switch more easily than I can. This both amuses and depresses me.  Which is typical.

I drift between the words, so somber and reflective, and my own broody avoidance. She seems, as the dead so cruelly do, very near. That is not my feeling, but his. He speaks of a sister, lost, and found again in a granddaughter who bears her name. We are all the daughters of daughters, sons of sons. We are all lost and found again. I am not sure whose prayer that is.

Tears prickle behind my eyes. I take a deep breath, look up again at the black frame of the truck. Just in front of me, stuffed into a gap in the back frame, is a green bit of felt. It is the head of a Kermit the Frog doll. One eye is missing the black plastic that gives it context. The other stares blindly at me. It, he, grins in my direction. I am washed in nostalgia, bittersweet and full of lies. I laugh out loud. The light changes. Baruch Hashem.