The Courage to Heal

Written Sunday morning, the day after:

We won. My side won. I don’t think it would be hyperbole to say democracy won. Decency won.

I was out on my daily walk behind Simpkin’s Swim Center when I heard the news, drinking in the chlorophyll of all those trees, my eyes sweeping over Schwan Lake and beyond it, the Pacific. My feet padding in the dried dust beneath them. My double-sided cotton mask around my neck, ready to be lifted up if other hikers appeared.

I had my phone with me, of course, my constant companion during this endless week of waiting. And despite the fact that I’d forced myself out the door for my daily self-care—out in nature, exercising—I kept lifting that smooth blue rectangle up to my face and checking.

It was on Facebook that I first heard the news, the single word, “Pennsylvania” followed by three exclamation points. And then the alerts and celebratory messages started pouring in.

I couldn’t stop crying.

It was a slow walk home. I kept stopping to read, to text. On our family What’s App thread at 8:35 AM, Eliza posted from Amman, “AP, NYT, and all the major outlets have called it for Biden!” My cousin posted from LA, “I can finally wash my Hillary T-shirt that I’ve been sleeping in all week.” My friend Hollye posted, “BIDEN IS PRESIDENT.” I watched Van Jones sob on national TV in relief for all the people whose lives would now not be as endangered. I cried with him. His relief was my relief. I posted the song “This Joy” from the Resistance Revival Chorus, that I’d held in reserve for this moment.

For several days, I’d been confident that we would win, so the waves of relief that coursed through my body surprised me. My response was so physical. The relief so big. I hadn’t recognized the extent of terror I’ve been carrying in my body at the possibility of his re-election. And waves of relief just kept building. They built all day. Layer upon layer of, “Oh my God, what could have been. What almost was.”

Back at home, I searched for Karyn. She wasn’t in the house. She wasn’t in the garden. The car wasn’t gone. She was still teaching her private yoga student on Zoom in the yurt behind our house. She didn’t know.

I settled on our purple fainting couch in the living room and unlaced my sneakers. Tiny bits of sand and dirt spilled out on the floor. As I swept them up, I opened my laptop, turned on the TV. I scrolled through my phone, reading congratulatory messages, then turned on MSNBC and a few minutes later, switched over to Fox. Even there, on Fox, the anchors were confirming it. That’s when I really knew. Joe Biden, a decent man with empathy from Scranton, Pennsylvania, was now the President Elect of the United States and Kamala Harris, the first woman, the first Black woman, the first woman of East Asian descent, was Vice-President Elect.

We had done it.

While I waited for Karyn to finish up with her student, I texted friends around the world. I shared half a dozen celebratory memes flying around the Internet. The Dance Theatre of Harlem dancing in the streets, masked. John McCain and John Lewis fist-bumping in heaven. And my favorite: a grid showing all the vice-presidents of the United States, tiny black and white images of old white men in monochromatic squares, with Kamala, in full color, standing tall, her arms crossed, as tall as eight of their puny squares. I watched huge dancing crowds spill out in cities across the country, mostly young, mostly masked, people of every race and ethnicity. Part of me wished I was in a big city, dancing in the street, though the more cautious part of me did not.

Congratulatory messages from world leaders started pouring in. Church bells rang throughout Europe as they did at the end of World War II. This victory wasn’t ours alone.

And I couldn’t stop crying.

It was as if I was breathing for the first time in four years. As if I’d been holding my breath since November 2016. The relief came in waves, just like grief. A wave of what could have been. What almost was. Then another wave. It felt like my body was letting down for the first time in years.

All day long, I stayed glued to my phone. I cried with Karyn, we watched TV. I followed Twitter threads and text threads and shared my joy pandemic style. The celebration was glorious. Phone calls peppered my day. “I just had to hear your voice. Isn’t it amazing? We did it!” We were awash in jubilation.

At the end of it all, after car-honking and fireworks celebrated Kamala’s speech in suffragist white and Joe’s promise that he would be a president for all Americans, I sent out the text message, “I think this is one of the best days of my life.”

I don’t deny the immense challenges and impossible complexities that we are certain to face in the days, weeks and years to come. But I set those aside, allowing myself the pure pleasure of the moment. I knew that for the rest of my life, people would ask, “Where were you when Pennsylvania was called?” And that everyone would be able to answer that question. Just like 9-11. Just like when the Challenger crashed. When Martin Luther King was shot. Or when I was sent home from second grade to find my mother staring at Walter Cronkite in front of a hand-made ashtray full of Parliaments, her mascara running, because President Kennedy had been shot.

That time, in November of 1963, the news united us. One country, united in shock and horror. One nation grieving together. But not this time. Yesterday, as relief washed my shores, I knew my surging joy wasn’t universal. The news that was lowering my blood pressure and allowing my body to relax for the first time in months was having the opposite effect on millions of my fellow Americans. They were grieving. Desperate and terrified and angry. The thing they dreaded most had come to pass. Just as I was certain that the United States now had a chance, they were certain our country would be ruined. For them, democracy had been dealt a fatal blow. History had turned one way for me and another way for them. It was as I had sloughed off my coat of dread and fear and its mantle sild onto their shoulders.

Throughout my day of celebration, I thought of them. The millions in despair. Those who were disappointed—losing an election is never easy—and those in desperate despair. Those who were angry, convinced that they’d been robbed, the election rigged. I thought about the lone Trump supporter I saw driving on Soquel Drive yesterday, in a big SUV with a giant American flag and two giant Trump banners flying in defiance through blue, blue Santa Cruz.

Although I loved spending the day in celebratory communion with my peeps, a lot of what I saw online didn’t sit right with me. The posts that gloated. The posts that demeaned. The comments that denigrated and shamed folks as devastated and heartbroken as I’d been in 2016.

And now, the morning after, that is the question living in my heart today. How to cross the divide. If it’s crossable. If healing is possible. I’ve been thinking a lot about Daryl Davis, the Black R&B musician who convinced multiple Klan members to leave and denounce the Ku Klux Klan. And Derek Black, former teen leader of the white nationalist movement, who went to college, was taken in by a diverse group of students who didn’t shun him, and ultimately broke free of his racist indoctrination. I’d read their stories with avid interest. And then I thought about Braver Angels, the organization formed in the wake of the 2016 election, whose mission is to bring Reds and Blues together for civil discourse and to find common ground. These efforts are not for everyone, but a seed for them is growing in my heart.

One of my favorite memes yesterday was one of Joe Biden sitting with a ripped American flag on his lap, steadily sewing it back together with a needle and thread.

May it be so.

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