It feels like my country broke up with me.
I don’t mean that in any glib way, either. Everything has that unreal, everything-is-different-now feeling you get after a major breakup, when you’re going about your day, brushing your teeth or drinking fruit punch or cream-cheesing up your bagel or lobbing paper clips in the trash can at work, and suddenly reality shifts as it hits you that “I’m never going to eat bagels or drink fruit punch with them again”. The very air feels different right now.
My friend C from Ireland emailed me after the election, and I nearly burst into tears at work when I saw the first line of her email – “this is the first time I’ve wanted to cry at the results of an election.” My friend Sue made me laugh, though; she texted me at about 1 in the morning, when it was likely Trump was going to win, to say – and this is a direct quote – “WTF WTF WTF WTF WTF FUCKING MCFUCKITY FUCKING FUCKING FUCK GOD DAMNIT FUCKING FUCK”. A bit later she described the situation as “motherfucking asswhistling shitfest”. (I have to admit I really haven’t been able to come up with any better words myself.) Sue and I spoke more today, and she says her daughter told her that her entire fifth grade class is talking about collectively moving to Canada.
I’ve been…withdrawn. I’ve developed the bad habit over the years of going turtle when I’ve had a bad shock, sort of withdrawing into my house and not talking to people and hiding. It’s a protective thing, but it’s also sort of iced over my soul some. I joked to someone recently – ironically – that maybe I needed a breakup of some kind, because in my case I may need my heart to be broken back open.
And well, I got that, alright. I’ve been walking around for the past two days with that same constant soul-ache, a stab coming afresh whenever I saw someone sniffling at work, or when I saw the faces of Obama’s staff watching his meeting with Trump, or whenever I saw the words “President-elect Trump”. Or especially when I read any of the huge surge of reports of anti-Muslim or anti-Mexican or anti-immigrant or anti-Jew or anti-Asian or anti-gay or anti-basically-anything-other-than-white violence today.
I work for an organization that, as part of its mission, resettles refugees in the United States. And we all were wrecked that first morning, walking around numb, occasionally stepping out to cry. Our CEO called us all together for a group staff meeting that afternoon to rally the troops a bit, but I took greater comfort in something he said first – that if we were feeling upset or angry or betrayed or devastated right now, it was important to honor that reaction – because that meant that we had high ideals and moral standards for this country, and we cared deeply about them. If we didn’t care, this wouldn’t hurt so much.
And the good news, he added, is that we can still live by those ideals even if others don’t share them. The Constitution is still the rule of law in this country, and things like murder and obstruction of speech are still against the law. They may not be fairly applied in all cases, but those tools at least exist. You still have a law to turn to that says that “actually yeah, it’s okay for this person to speak their mind.”
And even if you aren’t brave enough to speak to a wider platform, or take national action…you also have the ability to reach out to your smaller community and improve things there. Smile at the woman with the hijab behind the checkout counter who’s making your coffee. Crack a joke about the local baseball team with the guy in the wheelchair that’s next to you on the subway. Step in when you see a bunch of kids taunting another kid by calling him a “fag”, or when you see a guy down the bar hovering over an uneasy-looking woman.
And we shouldn’t forget about joy either. Tonight, I boxed up a bunch of autumn leaves to send to a friend who was born in New England, but now lives in San Francisco, and recently said he missed autumn. And next I’m wrapping my father’s birthday gift to send through to him, and I’ve even started planning a Christmas party.
And we need to take care of ourselves as well. Eat when you need to, sleep when you need to, step outside into nature or watch cat videos or play Civilization for nine straight hours (just ONE! MORE! TURN!) or read poetry if you need a break. Yesterday, on one of the two occasions I had to step into one of my boss’ offices for a freakout, I told him the story about how my cat’s persistent demands for food were what helped pull me out of my post-9/11 funk; it reminded me that he was alive and depended on me to take care of him, and that also meant I had to be well enough to care for him. “My cat reminded me to be sure I ate today,” I remarked to my boss, shaking the bag of potato chips I was snacking on as we spoke.
And that is still true. We are all each still alive. And our government will not be able to take care of us as well now, so it is time for each of us to take care of each other now, however we can. We need to start with ourselves, first, making sure we each are doing okay, and then we need to check in on each other – helping each other with finances, advice, or even just hugs and beer. Send each other joy. Defend each other. Advocate for each other. Laugh with each other. Cry with each other. Speak truth to each other. Listen to each other’s truth. Remember what each other said.
We won’t always get it right, and we won’t always be able to do grand gestures. But if we are always thinking of caring for each other, that’s the important part. That is how we will gradually knit together first our families, then our communities, and then knit that into a true society that can be the country that we really were meant to be.