I am on Zoom. Three people in a row say how thrilled they are at the progress we are making here in the United States, the protests, knowing black lives matter. I can feel their buoyancy. I sit still, stunned, uncomfortable in my skin because I feel so far away from them, on the other side of the world, on another planet. I am terrified, angry, anxious. Hopeful, yes—but nowhere near being able to touch “thrilled.” Later, I wonder if I was judging their excitement, naming it naïveté without knowing I was. Or was it only that while I believed in the promise of the protests I could not trust they would lead to real change? Or maybe I only need to be able to embrace the good when it comes, more readily, more fully than I do? Or maybe the distance and discomfort I felt was only because I live in all the shades of gray.
I can’t count the number of white people I’ve heard say the murder of George Floyd woke them up to how bad things are for black people, for indigenous people, for all people of color. I’ve cringed, stayed silent. But I’ve wondered. How could you not know? At the same time, if I am fair, I think this monstrous act (that follows centuries of monstrous acts) struck at an especially vulnerable time. Maybe because we are all so off kilter from the pandemic this has reached deeper, feels more vivid. Maybe even those of us who scream white privilege, who have the luxury of turning away, of tuning out, haven’t been able to turn away from this. For me, it joins other griefs, wakes up overwhelm and powerlessness. And living in there, too, is a flicker I think might be hope. If you don’t know where to begin, you might start here. 75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice
Before the election, I turn from my mailbox to see my neighbor Ted and his dog Buster walking toward me. They look happy. “I just got a letter from Mike Bloomberg,” I say. Ted teases me about how Mike and I can’t keep our relationship secret much longer, and I fall in step with them on their slow walk home. We talk politics, about who we are voting for in the primaries, about how much we both like Elizabeth Warren. We fix the world, talk about the environment. That gets me going about banning Roundup, and we talk about how people would have to be willing to tolerate some weeds or actually pull some weeds, give up a little on the pristine. We talk about edible weeds, my fondness for dandelions and their greens. (Right now another neighbor has some nice big ones behind his trailer I am quietly harvesting.) At my gate we stop. “Well, I have to get going,” I say.
“Oh, sorry,” Ted says. “I’ll get off my soapbox.”
“No,” I say. “It’s always a pleasure.” But I am instantly sorry I said I had to go. Something under my skin bubbling up, the need to finish prepping my class before I leave. But I could have been happy standing there a few more minutes, fixing the world together. I wish I had.
My grief surprises me. First, I am disappointed in the very act of voting for Elizabeth Warren because overnight they have decided she’s already lost. Later, I walk down the narrow hallway of my trailer home, my being pulled inward, heavy, weighed down by decades of elections behind me, only the rare win, 44 years of voting for people and causes I believe in and seeing them lose. I watch Elizabeth Warren announce her withdrawal, hear her voice break again and again, admire her ability to be poised and honest and vulnerable at the same time. I honor her grace and authenticity. I cry unexpected tears, the ones she fights back on camera. It comes to me that I am now more fond of her than ever. I am crying for her, for her monumental effort, grappling to accept this ending, as much as I am crying for my own loss, and for all the women like me who were so full of hope we might finally have a woman lead us. She’s not wrong. Her efforts moved things forward in a big way. And I love that those pinkie swears count, that disappointing all those little girls she met during the campaign is one of the things breaking her heart. The next day, the L.A. Times writes that surely those little girls will see a woman president elected here in their lifetime. It stops me. I do the math. They’re predicting within the next 60 or 70 years? Surely, you jest. How about before those little girls reach their teens? How about 2024? How about we elect a brave, bright, talented, experienced woman of color with grace and a big, big heart?
The teacher reads Etty Hillesum’s work out loud. It is beautiful prose, steeped in wisdom and love. (Later she is killed at Auschwitz.) Etty holds the horror and the dying. She finds joy in the jasmine, white against the dark wall, lets her heart lift. She cradles both.