In the wake of Tuesday, November 8th, 2016, I have so much to feel I don’t know where to start. It hits as one emotion, a swirling mess of grief and battle rage. But it doesn’t strike once and get it all out there and let me settle. Every time I take a deep breath, there it is again, swinging.
There is also so much to do. We are seeing hate crimes in the streets, angry racists assaulting their fellow citizens in the name of our new President-Elect. We are watching our soon-to-be-leader appoint a cabinet that lacks both experience and common sense, while his reluctant conservative collaborators dodge questions about such “nitty gritty” considerations as whether women’s access to hormonal birth control will be restricted in the regime they envision. How to act in the face of all of this is complicated, too, but I have a glimmer of a foundation here: begin with empathy.
It’s anger and fear and very real pain that fueled the election of a man with no experience, no moral compass, no consistency, and no shame to the highest office in America. His election has already caused even more pain to many: people of color, Muslims, and immigrants face threats and assault, and this man, Donald Trump, half-heartedly tells his more extreme supporters to “stop it, if that will help” — only after days of furious, heartbroken, pleading demands from private citizens, the press, and a few brave public servants. Those who threaten and attack know what they do, and they do evil. Yet they did not make this choice for America alone. We all did it. Some more than others, I’ll grant you, but we all participated in sowing the seeds.
The majority of those who raised this man to power are ordinary, decent people. We don’t like to listen to what we think of as their backwards institutional racism, but they have a lot in common with us. The ranks of the oppressed and the disappointed and the lied-to in our country are swollen with black, latino, native, and white, with working class and wealthy and utterly poor, with women and men and people whose gender identity goes unrecognized or mocked on a daily basis. Their anger is deeply valid. Their pain should sound to all of us like a cry for understanding and for aid.
I’m a bleeding-heart liberal, of course, and my heart has never bled as it does in these dark days. I hope this is the worst of it. My hope is thin as the snow crusting on the street this dark December evening. It’s sticking, though.
I have more hope for the long run, and I place it in our ability to rise up with justice as our compass, ask hard questions with understanding as our goal, and listen when the other person answers. Whatever else I think about letting a book of scriptures run your country, I find enormous wisdom in the injunction to love thy neighbor. This is what love looks like to me.
The catch is that we have to do it individually, and we have to do it daily, and we have to do it forever. Our anger won’t stop swinging. We have to catch its fists and hold them gently, like the hands of children, and we have to do that every damn day. I’m exhausted just thinking about it.
Particularly because I’m crap at it myself. The fact is, I hate my neighbor.
Like all stories, it’s more complicated than that. But it boils down to bare facts easily enough. I don’t do well with extraneous sound; her house is a New Year’s noisemaker in training, and she doesn’t care who hears it. We’ve lived in adjoining homes for 3 years now, and I listen to her family’s heavy shoes on the stairs and screaming fights and uncontrolled dogs almost daily. I’ve lived in conjoined housing my whole adult life, and never known an inescapable proximity so ugly and sour. Hatred is not a seed that germinates easily in my heart. This is some fertile soil we’ve been tilling.
It’s been snowing hard since 2pm – not a regular event in Portland, so the traffic’s getting uglier every hour. I dig out my snow pants – last seen climbing Mt. Hood in my mid-twenties – and take to the slippery streets. Anything is better than waiting for the house to shudder beneath their repeated door slams. My home is my refuge, except when it’s not.
Off the main road, quiet rises from the muffled streets. More footprints than tire tracks mark the way to the river. All are filling in fast. It’s well below freezing, but a deep breath out here doesn’t strangle. I stick my inadequately gloved hands in my pockets and pretend I’m entirely warm.
Removed from the situation, I can mull it without boiling my blood. Keeping calm sucks all my bandwidth while my house lies open to an invasion I am powerless to stop.
Three years of constant low-level conflict, punctuated by regular stilted knocks at the door, asking them to stop kicking the soccer ball in-house, have taken their toll on all parties. My neighbor and I live on either side of a wall, encountering each other only by accident and with barely contained civility. The irony of that divider does not at all escape me.
I’ve made what I consider a serious effort to see eye to eye. Her refusal to meet halfway is enough to send me seething from the house, or sometimes pounding furiously on walls, confiding to my living room in an angry whisper that my neighbor is a heinous bitch. That this isn’t kind and also doesn’t help me cope is something I’ve known from the first utterance, but I convinced myself for a couple of years that I was just letting off steam. Sometimes instead of wall-pounding, I’d sing the first few lines of One Tin Soldier while gleefully flipping off her side of the building.
I have a very western idea of personal space, which seems only to have emerged into the light when I bought – for reasons equally of love and economy – a slim townhome in the downtown portion of a very small city. It extends not only to aural insulation, but also visual space and personal privacy – I’m less than tolerant of folks who walk across my back porch to get to their own. But there’s no riding off into the sunset until I can recoup my investment and figure out where to go from here. I’m fixed in place, trying to create mental and emotional space to love the most unlovable of neighbors. Also to breathe.
The river remembers this. It exhales and inhales with the tide, and I imagine it tilting its ruffled face gratefully, when soft summer breezes and thrilling winter winds rake the surface.
She isn’t, of course. Unlovable. Everyone deserves love; it’s me who can’t seem to give it.
One time her teenagers were bolting up and down the stairs, slamming doors and yelling at each other. Hands fisted in my hair, I quiet-shouted “Shut up and die, would you!” They couldn’t notice, but I froze. I was twelve again, the words unretractable and shouted straight in my mother’s face: fuck off!
To wish another’s distance or death is a curse, in the original sense, and I am conscious of a fundamental wrong. It’s not that I believe my ill-wish has an influence over my neighbor’s health (or my mother’s decisions.) But it holds a massive influence over my own mind, and from there, it infiltrates my speech and behavior. That stuff leaks.
I see that out here. It’s maybe more accurate to say that I can hear it, a soft counterpoint to the dry pop of snow underboot, the tick of flakes falling all about. A cormorant’s silent sweep upriver ends ungracefully in a raucous, waterpark landing. I crack the quiet myself, laughing for joy.
Right around the accidental death-wish, I’d started doing a lot of reading on compassion. Karen Armstrong, a scholar of religion whose work fascinates and often surprises me, had launched the Charter for Compassion – a worldwide, multi-faith movement to promote peace and understanding – and it inspired me. I listened to her book twice. I practiced, over and over, the hardest thing: imagining my neighbor standing in front of me, and extending pure, unjudging love straight at her. I practice this today with people who frighten and enrage me, people like Stephen Bannon and Michael Flynn, and it’s not so hard. With her, I failed. Every time.
I gave up the daily visualization after a solid month of effort. I’ve never been good at meditation anyway. Instead, I changed the way I spoke, started refusing to call her names, even with only the cats to hear. It’s not been a miracle cure.
You read about hatred. I’ve never understood it. I’ve had rivalries and betrayals and the occasional frenemy; I never hated any of those folks. I feel helpless, choking anger when I hear of Muslim women assaulted in our streets, head coverings ripped off and hateful words splashed in their unprotected faces. I feel both disgust and compassion for the perpetrators, and a burning need to call out what they have done and make sure it’s understood as the crime it is – but I don’t hate them. That takes something closer to home, I guess. Something infinitely less horrible, in my case: just some ultimately harmless people living their lives in a way that intrudes daily on my own.
I haven’t said it out loud. I’ve written it here – I hate my neighbor – to see if it’s really true. It isn’t. But I don’t get to congratulate myself. Compared to what so many go through, it didn’t take much to bring the word surging toward my lips, over and over. The river in spate.
Last month, I was wrestling with these thoughts when I heard a yelp from the walkway below. The voices of my neighbor’s children, nearly grown now, rose on a panicked edge. It was only afterward that I thought how I might as easily have stayed inside, pretending not to hear. Her injuries were minor, but she was in pain, and still shocked by a hard fall on harder cement. Her daughter had the situation in hand, but both kids’ eyes were huge, their voices shaken. I had no role, except to make sure they had my number and assure them I’d be by the phone. I didn’t do anything. Except put that hate behind me.
Not a miracle, either; maybe not even a watershed. You can attribute it to adrenaline, and the basic decency calmly and relentlessly demonstrated by the family that raised me. Some habits I’m glad I can’t shake.
The next time I saw my neighbor, we were both marching in our town’s impromptu Love Walk, a celebration of love and diversity organized by the school district both her kids attend. We met by accident, and she smiled at me through her black eye, and I smiled back, unthinking, and asked her how she was. I looked for symptoms of false solicitude, but we were just two women taking the time to talk. Each of us thought the others’ life important enough to ask, and to listen.
Weeks later, they’re shouting through the walls again and I’m checking my anger just enough to send a politely worded text, instead of putting my boots on and stomping up and down the stairs. Progress isn’t linear.
It moves, though. The ironic detachment I affected long ago thaws with every year, retreating to its proper places, which are few. As this year closes, I can almost touch a new freedom: my heart determined to fight hate with empathy, or at least with a civil word.
There’s a lot out there that seems like it might be worth hating. That jerk who killed a dozen innocent people in Berlin. That boy who brought a gun into a church in Charleston and murdered nine. What happens if I hate those people? I don’t know, because I can’t. I suspect it might harden my heart, and make it that much easier to go ahead and hate my neighbor.
I’ve been missing the point of that song, quite on purpose. It’s a protest song, its theme unmissably expounded. Hearing such a message is the easy part. We usually translate the next step as “understanding,” but that’s too mental for the point it’s trying to make. I don’t understand anything until I get out of my head and do it. And then do it again, whatever the status of my last effort. Most of mine just barely pass muster. Is that success? There’s no laurel-resting with the practice of compassion. No prizes, either.
Might be a better world in it somewhere. No telling, unless we try.