Who Are These People?

“We must criticize without wounding and debate without dehumanizing our opponents. Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”

–Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Written Friday afternoon, the day before Biden’s victory was announced:

Sometime during my slog through this endless election night, after bottoming out on PTSD from Decision 2016, positive that the 2020 map was bleeding red like it did four years ago, I broke away from the TV at midnight, stoned on edibles, gingersnaps and three glasses of wine, drifting and sloshing through my wired, sleepless body. But the substances I’d shoved into my horrified mouth weren’t enough to mute the panic I felt for myself, my friends, my grandchildren, and my country. Trump again? What would happen to us? Me and Karyn and all our queer friends. All the black and brown people I know. And the ones I don’t know. The climate. The earth. The Dreamers.

Millions knew who he was and voted for him anyway. How could this be?

Staring at the TV was no longer an option. They just kept repeating the same nothing again and again. It was time for sleep or the pretense of sleep. I didn’t floss or brush my teeth that night. I just peeled off the clothes I’d inhabited for days and tossed them in a heap, pulled on my red flannel doggie pajamas, and slipped underneath the covers in my unmade bed. I grabbed the novel I’d been trying to finish for weeks but my eyes slid over the beautiful words. After six tries at the same paragraph, I replaced the bookmark, piled my good self-care intentions on top of the teetering stack of unread books beside my bed.

I’d promised myself that I wouldn’t, that I really wouldn’t this time, but I reached under my bed and grabbed my laptop, relief flowing through me as my fingers caressed those smooth metallic sides. I loved the familiar heft of it between my hands. Relief was near: plugging into the socket of anxiety, fear and discontent. Mainlining stress. Staying on top of the horror that I thought was unfolding. My lizard brain needed to stay alert to danger. As I pulled my computer onto my lap, it might as well have been a handful of pills, a needle and a spoon.

Moments later, I was doom-scrolling through the Twitter feed that had been recommended in an email from the Atlantic—a thread peopled with political reporters, journalists, authors and others supposedly smart about politics and vote counting. The thread was titled, “Actually Knows Things.” I settled back on my green body pillow and refreshed the page, all pretense of abstinence abandoned.

In the midst of tweets discussing population breakdowns and vote counts in Georgia, Nevada, Arizona and Pennsylvania, I stopped at a small video of three or four women on their knees in what looked like a parking lot, bowing down to the ground. I clicked on the video to get a better look. They were angry, bereft Trump supporters wearing red, like handmaids, and they were chanting and praying outside the counting center in Maricopa County, Arizona. The night before, the coverage had focused on pissed-off men, wandering around with guns, and that had been scary, but this was the women. As the clip repeated for the third time, I didn’t think, “They’re crazy. They’re stupid. They’re insane,” sentiments I’ve frequently heard from folks on my side of the divide. No, my heart broke for them. I felt nothing but sadness. Grief for them. For me. For us. At how divided we are.

And I was mesmerized by their certainty. By their complete conviction that they and the man they loved were being cheated and wronged. I could see that they were suffering. How they lived in their bubble, with what they considered truth, just like I live in mine. Although we couldn’t be more polarized politically, I understood these women. I recognized their passion, their outrage, their single-minded commitment to a cause.

When I was nineteen years old, I moved into an ashram in San Antonio, Texas called the City of Love and Light. I had received the Knowledge of Guru Maharaj ji when I was 15, the day I cut school and was chosen from a group of aspirants in a basement in Bayonne, New Jersey. Before I was initiated into the guru’s precious Knowledge, the mahatma—the teacher—asked if I would cut my head off for Guru Maharaj ji.

“Yes,” I replied with the passion of a teenager. “I would cut my head off for Guru Maharaj ji.” Then I prostrated on the orange shag carpeting. Four years later, at the City of Love and Light, I prowled the Riverwalk after a lacto-ovo-vegetarian dinner, in my long cotton skirt, dowdy tee-shirt, Birkenstocks, and scraggly hair to hand out copies of our Guru’s magazine, And It Is Divine, determined to turn people on to the path of satsang, service and meditation, so they could sit at Guru Maharaj ji’s lotus feet, and be saved from maya—the illusion of this world.

So, I had good reasons to understand the women in red. I understood their certainty–certainty that they are being cheated, that the election is being stolen, that Trump is their savior, and maybe even that babies are being abused by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and all the movie stars in Hollywood. If that had been the message to me when I was nineteen, a lost and unhealed sexual abuse survivor, I might have swallowed it, too.

As I stared at the clip on Twitter, I didn’t want to feel connected to women praying in a parking lot in Arizona, trying to stop the count. But I did. I understood that emptiness and pain drive a need for certainty. I know how it feels to climb out on a ledge with others who all believe the same thing, and how everyone outside becomes the enemy. Sinful. Ignorant. Deluded. Wrong.

I left Guru Maharaj ji’s ashram when I was twenty-one, and all the beautiful brothers and sisters that I had loved—my spiritual family—rejected me. I became a pariah. I belonged nowhere and to no one. It was a desperately lonely time. But I found my way to a new life, and eventually became the person I was meant to be.

But for those five years I was a devotee, I was certain that I was right and that the world was a dangerous, misguided place. So, I can’t see the women in red as wrong. They are human, unhealed, hurt and gullible, wanting respect and honor and a place in this world. I wish I could reach out my hand to them, but they would surely slap it away.

As I write this, we are close to having my chosen candidate declared the winner. But how can I celebrate when this election has revealed, more starkly than ever, that living in a racist, misogynistic world with an autocratic leader wasn’t a quirk. It wasn’t not an anomaly. It is who we are. And thing is, we can’t solve this by demeaning and excising millions of our fellow citizens.

Don’t get me wrong. I am deeply relieved that Trump will be removed, and I pray that he doesn’t scorch the earth too badly on his way out, but I see no reason to celebrate. Only to rest, to grieve and then to get ready to keep working, because there is a hell of a lot of work to be done.

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