On the day after the presidential election, I vacillated between bewilderment, denial, and complete despair. Suddenly I was living in a country I no longer recognized, a country determined to imperil every principle I hold dear—and many of the people I love, too.
It’s not like I hadn’t seen it coming: this blog itself is a work of despair, a project I started during the ugly primary season to remind myself that the earth is still beautiful and timeless. To remind myself to pay more attention to the world outside the window, a world indifferent to fretful human mutterings and naked human anger, a world unaware of the hatred and distrust taking over the airwaves and the Internet and, at times, my own supper table.
People are fundamentally more alike than not, even when they appear to have little in common, and so I assumed that the foulest voices of this election were isolated, transitory, faint and fading—definitely not the voice of a nation. It was all a show, it seemed to me: the media, relishing a pit fight, had sought out and amplified the meanest, most ignorant members of the electorate. Once their fifteen minutes were up, surely we wouldn’t be hearing from that minority again.
But on November 9th, it hit me: like King Lear on the heath, I had ta’en too little care of this. The ugliness isn’t temporary. And there are only two ways to respond to the election of a president who embodies the worst elements of that minority: Resist, or retreat.
On Inauguration Day, I left the house while it was still dark outside. Just by happenstance, it was my first tutoring shift at a Nashville public school that serves refugee families—a commitment I volunteered for the day after the election because I knew our newest neighbors had just become even more vulnerable. (Also, honestly, because it’s practical: a way to help out that gets me to work by 9 a.m.) The sun was just rising as I started toward campus, a little nervous about my first day back at school in decades. But when I walked through those doors I felt instantly at home. While I signed in, two students wearing hijab hugged each other goodbye in the bright corridor, and the flowing stream of humanity parting around them—staff, teachers, the lone security guard, even the teenagers themselves—seemed more cheerful than I have ever felt at 6:45 in the morning. Those beautiful young people don’t need me at all, it turns out. I need them.
An hour and a half later, after helping with a unit on the Harlem Renaissance, I walked back to my car humming. I wasn’t thinking about the country. I was thinking about Bessie Smith singing “St. Louis Blues.” But when I started my car, the radio came on, tuned by then to news of the inauguration. Two red lights later, my happiness had already worn off, and that’s when my vow of resistance finally yielded to the appeal of retreat.
When I came to the third light, I turned left instead of continuing through it, and I drove to a little lake in the woods where I often walk. There wasn’t time to take the perimeter trail, but I spent a few minutes on the dam and watched a Great Blue Heron fishing in the clear water, and I listened to the invisible songbirds high in the treetops, and I watched the cold turtles climbing slowly onto fallen branches to warm themselves in the glory of a sunny day in January. For a few minutes, I felt hopeful again. Ready for whatever comes next.