Letter to my daughters during an emotionally fraught election week

14925760_10154214115062632_9220519340659118834_n (1).jpgDear Lily and Neve:

I wanted to write you a letter about this past week, because although you’re sentient little humans now, not babies, you’re still young enough that you haven’t absorbed the full impact of what’s happened.

In some ways, of course, that’s a blessing. But it also makes me feel as though one day, you may approach me and ask, “What did that election feel like?” Because you likely won’t remember much about it yourselves.

You won’t remember how you slept in last Tuesday, because your school was closed for election day.

Neve was first to rise. Wrapped in a blanket, I held your hand as we made our way downstairs. You sat at the kitchen table, eating Gogurts, and then we splayed ourselves across the living room floor, playing Sleeping Queens until Lily woke and appeared in the doorway. Once she’d had breakfast, too, you guys watched your allotted half hour of cartoons while I went upstairs to get ready for the day.

It was the first time in my life that I’ve ever dressed up to vote.

I was inspired.

I paired black pants with a black blazer and white blouse. My body giddily hummed with a quiet electricity like hope. Election day was finally, finally here, and a potential moment for change, and perhaps the shattering of a glass ceiling, had arrived.

When I’d gotten you both dressed, we walked down the street to the city building, where I checked in (with your babysitter, Leila – small town!), got my ballot, and led you both to a voting booth. I pulled out the list I’d made for myself for all the down-ballot races, and I started from the bottom and worked backwards. The enormity of the Presidential vote, and my first-ever opportunity to vote for a woman, spontaneously inspired me to save that oval for last.

“Can I fill some out?” Lily asked.

“No, sweetie. You can’t vote until you’re 18, and that means you can’t fill out any part of mine, either. It’s illegal.”

“Aww…”

Neve, meanwhile, got bored after a few minutes and asked to hang with Leila. (Is it too on-the-nose at this point to say “It takes a village”?)

I’d finally backtracked to the first set of names, and I pressed hard while desperately trying to keep the ink inside the oval next to Hillary Clinton’s name. I wanted to feel sure my vote had been counted.

I turned toward the machine where you feed your ballot from its thin cardboard folder, and you girls held it with me. We struggled, and I tried to explain that you had to hold it loosely enough for the paper to be caught and drawn from the folder; plus, another woman patiently waited behind us for her turn, so I ultimately fed it in by myself.

But the fact that my 8 and 5 year old daughters touched this historic ballot as we sent it off to be counted suddenly hit me as a meaningful, symbolically powerful moment. And I got a little teary.

So on the way out, when we ran into a neighbor, I asked her to take a photo of the three of us together.

This was how excited and hopeful I was.

But as you know now, the election didn’t go as your father and I had hoped. As that became clear later that night, your dad went out for a late-night run, and I shut off the TV, got into my pajamas, and tried my damnedest to read a magazine in bed. Neither of us slept well, torquing our bodies with frustrated sighs, unable to locate our emotional “off” switch.

For one morning, weeks before, we’d had National Public Radio’s Morning Edition on during breakfast, and the Access Hollywood tape – which revealed Trump talking about grabbing women by the genitals without their consent, because he’s a star, and they’d let him – was being discussed. This led me and your father to talking about the issue with you both. We said that your body is your own, and every person in the world has to respect that; and if any kid or adult ever tries to touch you in a way that feels wrong, or makes you uncomfortable, or if anyone tries to make you touch them in a strange way, you should do all the things you normally don’t have license to do: scream, kick, bite, punch, run to get away. Whatever you have to do, do it.

What I didn’t tell you was this story from my past, because you weren’t yet old enough to understand it, or take away any meaning from it.

As a U-M freshman, many years ago, I took a bus one night from central to north campus to spend time with a friend. The bus was crowded, so I had to stand, and soon, I sensed that the man behind me was standing much, much closer to me than the space demanded. I nudged a step or two ahead, and he crept forward, following me. I moved to another part of the bus entirely, closer to the front, and I could see the man’s reflection in the darkened windows, making his way toward me again. I froze with fear as he stood behind me again, angry at myself for not doing something, for not speaking up.

But I was just a shocked kid, still getting used to being on my own in the world.

When the bus finally arrived, I ran to my friend’s dorm room, and I cried as I told her about what happened, feeling humiliated and embarrassed and scared and violated, and furious at my own helplessness. Of course, I should have been aiming my rage at that man, not myself. He likely forgot about this event within a day or two, but it has haunted me ever since it happened. (Now you know, my girls, how a sexual predator can honestly say, “I never met that woman.” It’s not necessary to know or remember us to assault us.)

This is one of a handful of stories I could tell, and many women have a storehouse of these stories (if not far, far worse ones), which is a national disgrace. And while I’m not naive enough to think the problem will go away, depending on who’s in the White House, I’m nonetheless spiritually gutted – as a woman, and as a mother of daughters – by the fact that so many Americans would vote for a man who has so baldly viewed/treated women in a similar way.

We’d also told you that this man has said insulting, threatening things about other groups of people – many of whom are represented in your amazing melting pot of a school – and that he often acts like a bully.

So what could we say when we got you up for school the next morning?

We said “Good morning. It’s so good to see you. What would you like for breakfast?”

You guys were young enough that you woke up having completely forgotten the frenzy of the day before, and you were your happy, bright little selves. I’ll confess that I wanted to soak in a bit of that sunshine myself – go back and visit that pre-knowledge Garden of Eden briefly. So Joe and I didn’t raise the issue then. We left the radio off and played music instead. We busied ourselves in the kitchen and spoke in low tones about staying offline for a few days. We put the newspaper directly into recycling. We sat down at the table with you, playing 20 questions as Neve who, as she does nearly every day, announced, “I’m thinking of an animal.”

Then we drove you to school, and our brief, temporary reprieve ended.

Joe headed to work, and while I had an afternoon full of phone interviews scheduled, I first had a class to get to.

Ready to roll your eyes at your painfully stereotypical progressive voter mom? I was going to yoga. In Ann Arbor, no less.

But I knew that there, I’d be surrounded by people who were feeling the same shock and pain and grief that I was, and there would be some small comfort in that. I also knew, from past experience, that yoga is a good way for me to get out of my own head for a while. So I went through the motions of driving there, and for 90 minutes, I focused on tensing the muscles in my legs, and my physical alignment, and pulling up into a bridge by leading with my chest, and perhaps most important of all, breathing.

Following class, I had 90 minutes before my first interview happened, and I realized that I’d left crucial paperwork I’d needed to fill out for an appointment that day back at home, a 30 minute drive away. And while I’d normally be cursing a blue streak about this, and finding a way to avoid driving back and forth, on this day, it felt like a cosmic intervention – the universe benevolently giving me another way to avoid thinking too hard about what kept rolling around in my head, as if on a loop: “So this is who we are.”

Not that I believe that every person that voted for Trump supports the outrageous statements that he’s made. I really don’t. I think a lot of voters have felt ignored, or condescended to, for many years, and many felt frustrated by establishment politics.

But the fact that so many voters decided that they could look past those painful statements has nonetheless unmoored and shaken me to the core.

So while avoiding NPR (and instead blasting “Hamilton”), I drove home, changed, filled out the paperwork, and drove back. I conducted my interview with 2 equally shell-shocked folks on U-M’s campus; drove to Domino’s Farms to pick up an in-home sleep test (for apnea, which I may have) and turn in my paperwork; I did a phone interview with an opera singer in the building’s lobby; and then I stopped at Costco on the way home.

Not because I needed to, but because it would fill time and maybe keep the emptiness I felt at bay. I fed a couple of garbage bags full of cans and bottles into Costco’s recycling machine, eying customers as they poured in, wondering which among them voted for Trump. I searched for clues. Who looked happy? Who was moving through the world like a zombie, like me?

This is an “us vs. them” mindset that I never particularly wanted to have, of course, but this protracted, divisive, brutal election cycle seems to have taken us all there.

Hence the hostility toward protesters who are simply exercising their right to free speech, and the dread progressives feel about the Thanksgiving table conversations to come.

When it was time for me to pick you both up from school, you climbed into my car, and as we drove home, Lily mentioned the election.

“Hillary didn’t win,” I said.

“She didn’t?” Neve asked, surprised.

“I know. We talked about it at school,” said Lily, ever the world-wise big sister. “A lot of people in my class were sad.”

“Why didn’t Hillary win?” Neve asked.

“Well, I don’t know exactly,” I said, pulling into our driveway. I shut off the car and turned around in my seat to look at you both. I felt myself starting to cry, and my voice cracked and grew quiet. “Sometimes the person you want to win doesn’t win. That’s true for everybody. But what matters now is that we make an even bigger effort, every day, to be kind to people.”

“Why are you crying?” asked Neve.

“Because she’s sad,” said Lily.

“And I’m worried about people getting hurt,” I added.

My mom instincts kicked in as I looked at Neve’s wide, worried eyes, though, and I composed myself enough to assure her that their day-to-day lives probably wouldn’t look or feel all that different, or change all that much. “I just need you guys to promise me – and I’m going to do this, too – that you’ll each try even harder to be a good person and help people that you see who need help.”

“We will,” Lily said, and Neve echoed her.

“Thank you,” I said.

And as kids often do when they see one of their parents distressed, you circled the wagons to take care of me. As we walked toward our house from the car, your four little arms encircled me. When we got inside, you asked to watch your half hour of cartoons.

“Do you want to watch with us, Mommy?” Lily asked. “We can all share the afghan. It might make you feel better.”

“That’s very nice of you to think of me,” I said. “And that’s just the kind of thing I was talking about. You see I’m upset, and you’re offering to help. So thank you. I’ll come watch with you in just a minute.”

In some ways, the earliest hours of this post-election era felt like a painful break-up. Many of us were simply catatonic for a while.

But the following day, Thursday, I got to be part of a sold-out women’s storytelling/readings event in Ann Arbor that provided me with a modicum of courage and comfort; and before that, I got walk you home from school and watch you both glide along our neighborhood’s sidewalks on scooters, crunching through red and yellow leaves, and I thought about how, even when I’m at my saddest, you bring flashes of joy to my life.

So I’m thankful for you both in these days of disillusionment. Though I’m terribly worried about the world you’ll both grow up to inherit, you strong, bright, witty girls also provide me with hope that the course we’re on can be altered.

What am I going to do? I’ll confess, it’s really hard not to feel utterly defeated, like the goals are now simply too insurmountable. And much of what will happen in the coming years will not be affected one bit by anything we might try to do. But what other choice do we have but to keep doggedly trying to make things better for you, anyway?

So I’m going on a strict social media diet (and urging others to do the same), since I think our absorption in this virtual world is at least partly to blame for the sharp divisions and hostility among us, as well as for the unprecedented ugliness of this election; I’m getting even pickier about the news sources from which I draw information, going with long-established, industry standard news organizations and magazines (and thus steering clear of trendy, overtly partisan news sites); I’m writing letters of thanks to Barack and Michelle Obama, as well as to Hillary Clinton, for their service and for what they’ve stood for and accomplished; I’m aiming to be more in touch with my representatives on a regular basis about proposed legislation, as well as about potential appointees; and I’m supporting humanist organizations (including women’s rights groups) that will have a steep uphill climb in the coming years.

But I’m also, in broader terms, going to do what I asked of you. I’m going to try even harder to be kind, to have an open heart and mind, and to help those who might be harassed or attacked.

For although the slogan “Stronger Together” did not successfully usher our first female Presidential candidate into the White House, it’s nonetheless an idea I believe in with my whole heart.

With much love, and a measured sense of hope,

Mom

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