How we survived the American election (2004)

This is one of our “classic” articles; published in 2004 and somewhat dated in terms of the current events that it refers to.  Older readers with long memories will recall that 2004 marked the middle of the George Bush era in American politics.  Serena, an unrepentant Democrat, takes her politics seriously.  This is one of several essays, published over the years in the Island Word, where we wrestle with having a passion for political activism and a determination to stay connected and open to others who think differently than we do.  We also struggle, as does anyone who cares deeply enough to get involved with political action, with disappointments and defeats.  Being an activist means learning to take our losses as well as our victories, and to be emotionally healthy through both. 

One of us (Serena) is an ex-patriot American (as are, we have observed, many of the best Americans). Being an ex-patriot is, for Serena, like being an ex-Catholic; you never really do leave it. Pledging allegiance to a flag may be a strange ritual, but it seems to have gotten under her skin anyway. She takes her pledges seriously.

The other one (Monika) grew up in Germany. To her, patriotism and nationalism are too closely related. Monika is more comfortable thinking of herself as a citizen of the world.

Both of us love Canada dearly, as our adopted home. We give thanks regularly for the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and dream of long car trips across the country. None of this, however, comforts Serena on the day after the American election.

Part of the problem is a childhood attachment to a place and a people. She can draw a map from memory of Humeston, Iowa, population 540, where she learned to read and spent barefoot summers until the age of 12. Now, when the American National Guard is called to active duty in Iraq, she recalls the farmers and shop keepers of her small town who did guard duty on weekends to make ends meet for the families of her childhood friends.

But Serena has also joined the world community. She knows that the Middle-West of Middle America is not the center of the world. She knows the pains that every parent takes to keep a child alive, safe, and learning to be a good person every day, anywhere in the world. She loves the planet and the human race in all of its poignant beauty and frailty. George Bush engenders in her a mother bear’s wrath for his reckless endangerment of these things, and his single-minded sureness of the moral superiority of his version of the American way of life and corporate profits.

Perhaps every immigrant knows something of the pangs felt for a homeland in deep struggle. Frustration, helplessness and guilt are common reactions of an ex-patriot who longs to set things right, even when she knows that she’s now an outsider to that childhood home. This week, we tried to come to terms with an election result that we had expected, but not absorbed before Tuesday morning.

Leaving the clock radio set for the 7 am news was the first mistake. The vote swayed by a vote for right-wing family values? That spoiled the appetite for breakfast. Online, we heard from American friends, who titled emails with phrases like, “Any good job postings up there?”, and “I’m serious about coming to Canada”.

It was up to Monika to remember the basics of emotional first aid. “Get some exercise! Put on some music, so you can dance. The rhythm will do you good.” After wild dancing and plenty of shadow boxing, we made a list of people to call. These included some who live in the US, some Canadians with ex-patriot roots, and some who reliably make us laugh. Our dear friend Sandy offered the silver lining that became our mantra. “Think of the wonderful immigrants we’ll get; well-educated, broad minded people will be streaming over the border! How we’ll welcome them!”

All week long, there were moments of relief and moments of pain. Work provided a focus outward that was useful. We also allowed time each day for the inward focus that moved us along toward acceptance, and toward more rational decision-making than Serena’s first “Head for the hills!” reaction (“Serena”, says Monika, “we’re already on an island. It’s better than the hills.”) Serena has been encouraged to picture Earth from space, a beautiful blue planet that measures its history in millennia, not four-year segments.

We remembered other times when one of us feared Armageddon, and the promise that made then: if the end of everything came, we wanted to meet it while taking ordinary and faithful care of the plants, animals and people in our immediate circle that depended upon us. We both renewed that promise, because it is a good one and it allows us to keep moving on.

We keep reaching out to loved ones, and spending at least a small part of each day in vigorous physical movement. We take care of and laugh about our assortment of pets. We practice gratitude and, in our odd multi-faith and sometimes-unorthodox way, we pray. We look for constructive action that we can take to help counteract some of the Bush administration’s shortsightedness toward world economics. and its bigotry toward gay and lesbian people. We join the forces working for good changes, and we try to conserve energy and take care of ourselves for the long haul.

These are the basics of emotional self-care, whether it follows a personal tragedy, a natural disaster or a political one: One needs both movement and calm, some outward focus and some inward focus. Enough sleep and good, healthful food. Connection with loved ones who are supportive and nonjudgmental. Laughter. Music. A plan for constructive action. Time to weave words into stories to make sense of things. Time to quilt or fish. Balance. A gentle, tender acceptance of one’s own fragility. A deep faith in one’s own strength. Belief in something bigger than us. Lovely living things, like our pets, our gardens, our families, and our jobs. The farmer’s market.

What will the world look like in four years when the next American election takes place? We don’t know. Given the profound impact of the United States on the whole planet, perhaps every woman, man and child in the world should have a vote; but they won’t. Despair and cynicism are tempting places to go to in response to deep injustice. But we will resist. We are getting strong and getting ready for what comes next, be it a flood of wonderful American ex-patriots, a new war, more suffering in the current wars, or (and this event is certain) the refilling of a hungry pet’s supper dish. Big circles and small circles interconnect. Our task is to continue to care.