Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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— for Aliya and Khalil
Once upon a time, before Donald Trump was elected president, there was a woman who lived on a cul-de-sac where an orange cone in the middle of the road reminded drivers to slow down because children played in the street. The houses were built around a grassy circle with a fire pit where grown-ups gathered after the kids’ bedtimes. Everyone had a two-story home with a whirlpool tub and a balcony off the master. Hybrid vehicles lined the street, and children left scooters and bikes and sixty-dollar helmets on front lawns, and no one stole them. The woman’s closet was so full that when, in a fit of tidying up, she impulsively stuffed five garbage bags full of clothes and hauled them to the thrift store, she still had more than she could possibly wear. At night she and her husband sat together in the white gazebo behind their house, which overlooked a meadow and a fishing pond. They talked about work, close friends, or their kids. Sometimes they didn’t talk at all. She just stared at the water and marveled at this life they had created together, which seemed more secure than either of their childhoods had been, and she dreamed of what the future might bring.
That woman was me.
My neighbors here in liberal Carrboro, North Carolina, leave canned goods on their porches for the food pantry and raise money for the March of Dimes. Any one of them would pick up my son or daughter from school, or feed them dinner, or let them spend the night if necessary. They teach their children about the importance of giving back to their community. During the presidential primaries one neighbor volunteered to register voters, and another strung small white lights on the Bernie Sanders sign planted in his front yard, so that it gave off a welcoming glow after dark. After Bernie’s prospects dimmed and were extinguished, this neighbor replaced the sign with a new one that read, VOTE MEGATRON: ALL HAIL GLOBAL DOMINATION. At first I found this funny — the idea that a corrupt robot from a science-fiction movie could take over the world. But as November 8 approached, the mood of the campaign grew ominous. Trump attracted the support of white supremacists, casually incited violence, and refused to share his tax returns with the American people. When a recording emerged of him bragging about sexual assault, his wife — who appeared to have mastered the slightly hostile and surprised expression of most supermodels — dismissed his claims as “boy talk.” She even took up the cause of preventing online bullying while he berated, demeaned, and threatened people on Twitter. After the election, as Trump assembled his inner circle in the Manhattan tower that bears his name, I thought about that sign I had passed every day for months. Now I saw it as foreshadowing.
I had overlooked other signs, too. A few weeks before the election, on a work trip to San Francisco, I spent the night in an art deco hotel near Fisherman’s Wharf. It featured neon-colored furniture, an all-night game room, and a reminder on the nightstand that I would be charged if I trashed my room. The hotel felt like a playground for adults. Exploring the tourist attractions on the Thursday of my arrival, I saw a cafe where I could sip oxygen; a storefront spa where I could get a ten-minute water massage for twenty bucks; and a venue where, for several hundred dollars, I could have my photo turned into a souvenir figurine by a 3-D printer. As the temperature dropped and the sun slipped lower in the sky, people gathered in tight, boisterous clusters at waterside bars and drank fifteen-dollar cocktails. Joggers wearing colorful spandex and earbuds ran up and down the boardwalk. I stood on a busy corner, studying restaurant ratings on my iPhone, then turned in the direction of an Asian-fusion restaurant.
As I strolled along the boardwalk, I noticed sitting on the grass to my left, just a few feet from heavy traffic, a man trying to comfort a crying baby. A stroller beside him overflowed with blankets and plastic bags. A cardboard sign propped against it read, Homeless Dad. Anything helps. His arms were covered with tattoos, and his hands looked grimy, but his voice was gentle as he murmured to the child. I knelt in the grass beside him, reached out my arms, and asked to hold the baby. He passed her to me, and I turned her so I could see her face. She had plump pink cheeks and ocean-blue eyes and downy brown hair that stood on end. Cocking her head at the sound of my unfamiliar voice, she gummed her tiny white finger and drooled.
The man said her mother was an addict who had burned through their savings to maintain her habit. Once all the money had been spent, she’d disappeared. Now he was trying to get to Oregon, where some people he knew said there might be a job for him. Sleeping on the streets with his daughter was not easy. The nights were cold and wet and dangerous. He had recently been attacked. He pulled up one sleeve to show me a blue-black bruise on his arm, then lifted his pant leg to show me another across his calf. It looked as if he had been struck with a heavy object. His baby’s name was Brooklyn Summer.
I went to buy the man some soup and bread from a nearby diner. When I came back, his face was turned toward the ground, his eyes were closed, and he was rocking back and forth. He startled at the sound of my footsteps, and Brooklyn Summer began to cry. I handed them the food, and we talked for a moment. After we said goodbye, I stood at a distance and watched him soak small pieces of bread in soup and slip them into his daughter’s mouth. I wondered what else I could do. I wondered if he had lied to me, then realized it didn’t matter. His bruises were real. Her hunger was real. The rapidly dropping temperature was real.
The next morning I woke before dawn with their faces in my mind. Unable to go back to sleep, I slipped from my bed and returned to the streets, which in the dark appeared empty at first. But in doorways, on benches, and beneath awnings were mounds of filthy blankets, bags, and newspapers. Each sleeping person looked like a pile of trash to be taken away while the rest of us slept. I didn’t find Brooklyn Summer or her father, but I did find a cafe that made a good five-dollar latte.
“How is your husband doing?” people have been asking me. They imagine that since Ismail is a Muslim immigrant, he must be taking the election results particularly hard. The fact is he was disturbed by the outcome, but not shocked or dismayed. He did not lose sleep or become paralyzed with dread. He has not given in to despair. Long ago, while growing up in Libya, my husband developed the skills needed to endure a Trump presidency. Living under Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi taught Ismail how to survive a narcissistic, sociopathic leader. My husband is as matter-of-fact about the election outcome as my favorite cashier at our grocery store, a Christian from Gambia who wraps her hair in plain black cloth and wears men’s running shoes that appear to be a size too large. Her dream is to buy land to farm back home. She and her husband, who is working in Europe, are sending as much money as they can back to their children in Gambia. She has worked in this country for more than a decade and hasn’t seen her youngest child in seven years. This is her second job and, at nine dollars an hour, her highest-paying one. When she asks how I am doing, I usually tell her about my marriage, my work, or my parenting struggles. She has advised me to insist on respect from my teenage daughter, Aliya, but also to listen to her well, because adolescence is not easy. She offers her advice as she rings up my purchases, her words punctuated by the beep of the scanner.
I passed through her checkout line the other day, and she insisted my son, Khalil, call her “auntie” and come around the counter to shake her hand. When I made a comment about the election results, she lowered her voice so no one else would hear. “Of course Trump won,” she said with a hint of impatience. “God is not sleeping.” Stuffing my purchases into thin plastic bags, she added, “God sees the suffering America has spread around the globe.” She felt Trump would be a fitting representative of a rich country that pursues its interests with callous disregard for vulnerable people at home and abroad.
I wondered if, when she looked at me — with my consternation, my cart full of produce from all over the world, my failure to bring my own bags yet again — she saw the face of this country. I wished for some of her pragmatism and resilience. I’ve seen so many dismayed white, middle-class faces this past week — including my own every day in the mirror — that I can’t help but reflect on how my privileged existence has undermined my fortitude. Immigrants, refugees, undocumented workers, African Americans, and others more experienced with oppression could run workshops to teach white, middle-class liberals like myself how to adjust to life under Trump.
On Election Day, friends posted pictures online of themselves pointing to I Voted stickers on their chests, as if that were all we had to do to fulfill our civic duty. I told a colleague that I could not shake a sense of foreboding. Wise and compassionate and older, he often reminds me that things are not as bad as they seem. When he smiled kindly and told me how confident he was that Clinton was going to win, I felt better. He knew more about politics than I did. I decided to have faith and wait.
But the anxiety came roaring back around 9 PM, when my sixteen-year-old bounded down the stairs and into the kitchen to tell Ismail and me that Trump had won two more states. There was an edge to Aliya’s voice. Justice is her religion. As a member of a group called Youth Against Rape Culture, she documents sexual harassment and assault on her high-school campus and has helped build a website where survivors can share their stories. She is active in the LGBTQ and mental-health communities. She uses social media to advocate for #BlackLivesMatter and spread the word about the murders of young black men. Early in the election cycle she convinced her dad to buy her a Feel the Bern sweat shirt, then embroidered Bernie Sanders’s name onto a piece of cloth and hand-stitched it to her backpack. She and her friends blocked traffic in front of the governor’s mansion after a bill passed in our state that denied transgender individuals the right to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity. To borrow a phrase her friends use, she is woke.
That night I saw an expression on her face I hadn’t seen in a long time. I caught a glimpse of the terrified girl who used to wake screaming from nightmares. I’d rush to her room and find her curled into a ball and clutching her sheets. I had to approach her carefully or else she would confuse me with a monster.
Now I saw once more that child who needed to be held and reassured that she was safe. But I could also see a young woman who would not stand for this. Her face was full of fear but also outrage and disbelief. Not only would she and her peers have to restore the environment previous generations had destroyed, stop wars we’d started, and fix the economy we’d broken — they might also have to deal with the narcissistic sociopath we had elected. If this was the best we could do for our children, we might as well pass the torch to the sixteen-year-olds now. Feeling sick to my stomach, I decided it was time to go to bed. I slept deeply, but the next morning I woke abruptly just before 5 AM, reached for my phone, and got online. I imagine that, at the same moment, hundreds of thousands of other hands across the country were also groping in the dark. Hundreds of thousands of other eyes squinted and read the unexpected headline.
I bolted upright. “Holy shit!” I exclaimed, so loud I woke my husband. He followed me downstairs into the kitchen and sat there in his underwear as I made coffee. There was a stony silence between us. I had been satisfied to support Hillary Clinton, but he had chosen to do so reluctantly and at the last minute, because he felt the candidates were equally undeserving of his vote. Ismail’s intense dislike for Clinton made some of our liberal friends call him sexist, but he was appalled by how little concern certain white feminists showed for the lives of darker-skinned people in other countries. None of them mentioned the mind-boggling number of innocents who had died as a result of foreign policies Clinton had helped to shape. As far as he could tell, our friends who supported Clinton seemed unconcerned about our government’s use of drones or that his home country was one of several that had collapsed into chaos while she had served as chief foreign-policy advisor. After Gaddafi was overthrown with help from the United States, Libya had descended into civil war, then become a failed state. The Democratic Party had hoped to keep the chaos in Libya out of the news during the election, but I was reminded of it each time Ismail spoke to relatives in Tripoli. His cousin was kidnapped and murdered. His mother’s neighbor was killed by shrapnel. His sister saw someone shot in the grocery store. They sent us photos of long lines for gasoline, and even longer ones for bread. In their most recent conversation, my eighty-year-old mother-in-law, whose strong faith and steely determination had helped her endure decades under Gaddafi and years of civil war, had said to her son on the phone, “Forget about this hellhole. Don’t ever come back. All hope is gone.”
© James Carroll
A few days after the election, I put on my exercise clothes after work. Winter was approaching. Soon it would be dark. I needed to get moving before night set in. Running helped me shake off the paralysis I’d felt since Trump had been elected. My phone had gone quiet following his victory. There had been no calls, no e-mails, no text messages from loved ones. It was as if the breath had been knocked out of everyone I knew. In my office I had been stacking and restacking the same papers, eating doughnuts, and staring out the window.
I set off jogging down the narrow dirt trail that leads into the woods across from my house. As I thought about upcoming deadlines and did a mental inventory of the food in my refrigerator, my left foot hit a rock buried beneath brittle leaves, and the ground came at me fast. The fall was unexpected and disorienting. One moment I was in effortless motion, feeling strong, and the next I was on the ground, staring up through fiery leaves at a bright-blue sky, with a throbbing pain in my hip.
This was how Trump’s election felt to me. There had been a nearly effortless forward momentum in my life, and then suddenly I slammed hard against a painful reality I never saw coming. What I had thought was a campaign unraveling was actually a campaign gaining momentum. What I had assumed Americans would never accept, they had embraced. What I had imagined happened only in foreign countries was happening in mine. What I had believed was enough compassion and concern on my part was nowhere near that. What I had thought was a stable life I now saw could change at any moment. Suddenly I was paying attention.
It took me a moment to get back on my feet. Then I limped home, watching every step, more vulnerable than before. I could tell I would be hurting for a while.
Not long after that, I received an e-mail from someone whose name I did not recognize. The subject line read: Solidarity. The sender had read my memoir and wanted me to know she stood in solidarity with my Muslim family. If we were required to file our names in a registry, she said, she would do the same. I reread her words as conflicting emotions came over me. On the one hand: how kind. On the other: how surreal and unsettling. How would Trump ever find all the Muslims? Did he imagine they all had brown skin and Arabic names and wore head scarves or beards? What about me — an outspoken, athletic woman from California with blond hair and blue eyes who never goes to mosque and wears bluejeans and T-shirts and wraps her head in a scarf only when she kneels to pray in the privacy of her bedroom? Would my daughter, who has a Libyan face and an Arabic name and a strong aversion to any type of religion, belong in such a registry? What about my friend the college professor, an American Muslim who never misses a prayer and sometimes smokes weed, which she believes can be a form of worship? And then there are our Jewish friends who converted to Islam, who go by Mohammed and Fatima and Osama and Karima at Muslim gatherings, but Seth and Sheila and Greg and Elana everywhere else. Does Trump imagine that a test could be devised to determine if Islam runs in our blood; that our hands could be swiped for traces of Islam the way they are for traces of explosives at the airport?
Friday evening after the election, there was not much to eat in our refrigerator, so my husband and I drove to the grocery store. The radio was off. We did not speak. Silence is nuanced in our marriage. There is the silence of a wordless argument in front of kids or guests; the silence of a raised eyebrow that is the foreplay that precedes the foreplay; the silence of exhaustion that hovers dangerously close to anger. In the car that night the silence was of relief at being with the one person in the world who requires no words. We held hands, and I felt the grief rising that I had tamped down at work and around my kids. Pressing my palm against his, I noticed how his hands, once as warm as an electric blanket, have been growing cooler as he ages. It’s a subtle change, one only I would pick up on. I find it unnerving. I squeezed his fingers tighter and briskly rubbed his skin.
At the entrance to the grocery store, passing the flower display, he said, “Why don’t you pick out some flowers?” I forgot everything but the bright petals before me as I pored over bouquets like a kid studying flavors in an ice-cream shop. Finally I selected a bunch of tulips wrapped in brown paper. A brilliant color between pink and orange, they were tightly closed. At home I cut the stems, stripped excess leaves, and arranged the flowers in a glass vase. Early the next morning, when I came downstairs to make coffee, they greeted me with a flash of color, the blooms a little more open than the night before. When I returned home from work, they’d stretched even wider.
Over the next few days I exclaimed so much over the flowers that my children began to roll their eyes. “Look at them!” I said. “I know you saw them yesterday, but have you seen them today?” Each day the tulips revealed more of their essence. Sickened by the failures of the Republicans and the Democrats, I thought that I might join the Party of the Flowers. Their platform was the only one I could trust these days.
On the morning of Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, we awoke in North Carolina to several inches of fresh snow. Sunlight streamed through my bedroom window. I bundled up my kids and took them sledding, cutting the first tracks down a hill behind our house. That morning the world felt pristine. I made a pot of chili and invited friends and neighbors over. We turned up the heat, crowded into the kitchen, and celebrated with a toast. Then I continued to float through my life. I got a promotion at work, found a new day care for my son, went to my daughter’s piano recitals. We moved to our current home, and my husband recovered from a serious illness. I met deadlines, planned vacations, shopped online. I thought I could let Obama take care of the rest. I hate to admit it now, but if Clinton had been elected, I would probably have continued doing the same. But that is no longer an option. My effortless momentum is gone. I am done trusting someone else to get things done. There is no one wise or compassionate enough to restore my sense of security. All I can offer in the face of uncertainty are my attempts to pay attention, to resist complacency, and to find ways to give more and love better.
Humiliation brought on the Arab Spring. A poor young man in Tunisia who sold fruits and vegetables from a wooden cart to support his large family was told to surrender his produce and then was allegedly slapped by a policewoman. No longer able to bear the humiliation and powerlessness of his poverty, he set himself on fire and ignited a wave of protest and revolt that rocked Arab nations. Now the humiliation and powerlessness of disenfranchised Americans have brought a season of change to my country. I wonder where Brooklyn Summer and her father are today, and what he thought of Trump’s towers and Clinton’s two-hundred-thousand-dollar speeches. Did he buy either party’s slogan: that we could “make America great again” or that we are “stronger together”? Before I said goodbye, he offered me his phone number. He made me repeat it back to him to ensure I got it right. “Call me in a few months,” he said. “Call me to see if I made it.”
Krista Bremer’s essay “American Winter” [February 2017] caused me to cry at work. The tenderness she and her husband show toward each other made me miss my own husband, who passed away six years ago. I’m glad he will not have to endure a Donald Trump presidency, but I do wish he were still here. The love between two people is sometimes all that can get us through difficult situations.
David Budbill’s poetry in the same issue opened my heart even more. I’m sorry he has passed on. The world needs poets like him, with a clear, simple style that speaks the truth.
I could hardly be more different from Krista Bremer. She is female, and I am male. I am probably twice her age. My children are grown and have children of their own. I did not marry someone born in a foreign country or with a different skin color. But her reaction to the 2016 election [“American Winter,” February 2017] expressed my feelings better than anything else I have read. I thank her for helping me handle the election of our so-called president.