Nice roads in red states

In 2002, three days before Christmas, I got a speeding ticket. I was driving east on highway 50 in Sacramento, just past the Bradshaw exit, with a car full of my friends. We were on our way to look at Christmas lights, our hearts filled with the joy of being together, our conversations bubbling over with the excitement of being reunited after our first semester at college.

I’d just turned 19.

I had a reputation (and habit) of driving fast. I spent my adolescence bravely avoiding any semblance of rebellion in hopes of extending the life expectancy of both my parents, whose lives had been undoubtedly made shorter by my older brother’s tumultuous teenage years. But behind the wheel, I let the desire for freedom and irresponsibility seep through my thick wall of perfectionism, making my right foot heavy on the gas pedal.

That night though, I distinctly remember a casual and moderate cruise through the brisk Northern California darkness, maybe 4 to 5 miles per hour above the posted limit. I was too engrossed with my friends to engage in my ordinary ritual of breaking the rules of the road.

As soon as the CHP pulled me over, I felt unfairly victimized by his likely desire to stack up a few more citations before the new year and the relative emptiness of the pre-holiday highway. I protested immediately, urging him to admit to his error. I listened patiently and intently as he responded with confidence and authority, then hurriedly wrote out the ticket for “85+.”

A couple weeks later, I met the officer again. In court. He sat in a chair on what resembled a TV movie “witness stand” as the judge asked him questions about the “night in question.” I plead my own case, reminding the officer that he’d claimed he tracked me with his “odometer” despite pulling me over within seconds of us encountering each other on the freeway. The CHP, visibly annoyed by my efforts, couldn’t mount a rebuttal to my argument and the judge reduced my fine to the minimum. It was an incomplete victory, but an important one. I felt proud. and vindicated. And like years of standing up for myself and speaking my truth and doing the things girls my age rarely learn to do had finally made a meaningful, financial impact.

To this day, my best friend (who was both in the car and at the hearing) tells this story to help people understand my personality, disposition and determination, and/or, if she needs them to know (as she puts it) not to fuck with me.

I share this story as a back drop for the one I’m about to tell. To paint a picture of the type of confidence and personal will I’m operating with. To help you understand that I’m not exactly the type of woman who accepts things – information, arguments, ideas – at face value. I am relentlessly skeptical and almost unwavering in my willingness to stand up and say what I think. It is both a superpower and a liability. I embrace it as both.

Nearly a decade after my first court appearance, I went to law school.

During my third year – mostly spent learning how to cook, going to the beach and occasionally getting too drunk – I made friends with a Republican. He was handsome, tall, blonde and white. He was (is?) incredibly charming and hilarious, not to mention the type of brilliant that is both understated and effortless, intoxicating and infuriating, attractive and repugnant.

We had an instant, if unlikely, bond. We had a brief romantic relationship but mostly engaged in a deep and meaningful friendship. I loved and trusted him so much so that I spent a month traveling in Southeast Asia with him, after refusing to fly anywhere or leave the country since I was a kid.

I don’t even remember why we were talking about it, or anything else about the conversation but there was a time when he plainly asserted to me that “roads are better in red states.”

And I believed him.

He’d grown up in Colorado, which is now reliably liberal but back then was still clinging to its wild west conservative cowboy values. He went to college in Virginia, an experience I came to regard as shaping his white, conservative, male, identity in the way that my west coast public education shaped my intersectional feminist self.

For years I carried this “fact” around with me. I remember driving home (fast) to Sacramento, rolling my eyes with disappointment every time I hit a bump or dipped into a pothole. The night before Halloween in 2014, I got a flat tire driving to a friend’s house when my car struck a pile of loose debris in the middle of the road. Stranded on the side of the freeway, in the dark, I remember wondering whether I should risk my reproductive rights by moving to Arizona for the year-round sunshine and promise of smooth roads and the related assurance that I’d never be in this position again.

Two years after that, I moved to Michigan, a state where the Republican governor knowingly, and unapologetically, poisoned an entire city, disrupting and ruining the lives of thousands of his constituents. I lived in the state for 8 months. I made coffee every morning with bottled water. I put countless pounds of plastic waste into our oceans and waterways between January and August, unwilling to surrender my trust to the corrupt state government.

In late Spring, I was scrambling to an outdoor soccer game, cutting in and out of traffic on the extra-wide suburban Detroit streets when my Ford Focus veered partially onto the sidewalk, jolted sideways by a collision with a gaping fissure in the road. It was sudden and startling enough to elevate my heart-rate and bring my attention back to the moment. As I collected myself and steadied my vehicle, I thought back to that now 4 year old conversation and how “the roads are better in red states.”

I’d been driving on terrible roads in a red state for months.

I think a lot of us form views, opinions and beliefs in much the same way I came to accept my friend’s assertion about the quality of infrastructure in conservative led municipalities (my words, not his). 1. Someone we trust, admire, respect or love shares something with confidence, especially on a subject we know little about or haven’t yet formed an opinion. 2. The explanation or belief seems plausible and rational 3. We accept it, and 4. When we encounter this issue in our lives we look for evidence to affirm it.

The problem is, most folks (including me!) are speaking from our myriad experiences, biases and cultural contexts. We aren’t expressing truth or facts. We’re almost always sharing an opinion, in many cases, an underdeveloped or uninformed one. In the worst cases, these formulations are racist, biased or bigoted ones. This is especially true of the folks who have the most access and ability to assert their voice and values – disproportionately wealthy, white, men (like my friend!). To make matters worse, most of us live in segregated communities, were educated in segregated schools, and are now further polarized and isolated by social media platforms designed to reproduce, concentrate and insulate opinions and ideas that are most like our own. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with voters (especially women) whose political values and beliefs are admittedly a product of the family they grew up in or the person they’re married to. In an even greater percentage of conversations, I encounter folks who don’t think they have political values or beliefs at all.

If I had it to do over again, my conversation with my friend might have gone something like this.

“Why do you say that?”

“Where did you learn that?”

“How did you come to that belief?”

“That sounds like a generalization, what information do you have to back that up?”

We could have engaged in a dialogue that would have helped me have a starting point to further investigate. Maybe I would have challenged him to provide evidence, or helped him give a more nuanced explanation. Maybe I would have held myself accountable to follow-up and find out more, so I’d be better prepared next time I encountered this position. It’s likely that the both of us would be better, more engaged, more thoughtful speakers and citizens as a result.

I know for me, I’m most vulnerable to accepting questionable information when I’m in a relationship or situation where harmony and compliance are more comfortable than challenge, dissonance and discord. I’ve experienced this in my family, at work, in school, and maybe, most memorably, in relationships with men who pretend they like how smart and assertive I am, but really prefer I be less abrasive, and more agreeable.

I think the trick is to cultivate relationships of honesty, trust and mutual respect, and to carve out safe spaces to explore complex topics, ask questions of each other and engage in discussion, even disagreement, with courage and love. I don’t want to downplay how difficult it is to act this way in real life. It is a challenge I’ve taken on, imperfectly and inconsistently, but with ongoing commitment and dedication. I liken it to other practices and disciplines that can be painful and messy, but are worth it, especially for their long-term, sustainable benefits. As I used to tell my new power yoga students, “it never gets easier but it does get more fun.”

Back in 2012, I had the type of friendship that certainly would have endured even a heated disagreement about local governance. The friendships, the relationships, worth having are that way too. And we are all likely to be better informed, more compassionate, more engaged voters and neighbors and parents and leaders for having  them.

Life is easier, but not always better, driving (fast) on smooth, flat roads.

“He is risen”

“Did you hear the news?”

My brother and I have been exchanging the same series of text messages on Easter Sunday for more than a decade. My memory is foggy now, but I think the tradition started as a phone call. We’d both race to be the first one to call the other, and then as soon as the line connected, race to be the first to ask the other if they’d heard the news.

Like many inside jokes and obscure rituals among people who have lifelong friendships, the origin of the Easter exchange is a mystery. However it began, it remains an enduring symbol of the special bond we share as siblings, the unique sense of humor that has always connected us, and a lifetime of shared experiences that shape who we are.

Growing up, Easter was one of my favorite celebrations. My parents were both raised in the church and my grandfather was a Presbyterian minister. Despite their rich connections to the Christian faith, we never attended church regularly. Our collective values were shaped by the Christian lessons of my parents’ childhood, even if we only showed up to formally worship on the “important” Christian holidays.

Among my most vivid recollections of Easter are those of Sunrise service on the big, open, lawn of the Lafayette-Orinda Presbyterian church.  I loved the smell of the meticulously manicured landscape – freshly cut grass and impeccably well-kept flowers, bushes and trees. I loved the sensation of my body warming from almost too-cold-to-stand-it, to comfortably relieved by the bright sun creeping up over the horizon, washing my face in just enough light to remove the chill.

I’ve thought a lot this week about Easter morning. About the bright colors in the dresses lining the pews and the blossoms of Spring’s bounty lining the crowded sidewalks outside the church. I’ve thought about the story of the resurrection in the bible, and what it means to people of faith. I’ve thought about how it felt to come to life in my body as the sun fought through the darkness of the pre-dawn morning, bringing the whole world into light.

The thing about the texts with my brother is that he himself is a miraculous story of second coming.

In ways and times, some that I can’t even remember now, I’ve lost him and gotten him back again.

His story, in its truth and facts, and especially how my lived experience and adult identity have been shaped by them, reminds me that both love and spirit are unassailable. It reminds me that the darkest, most unbearable pain can sometimes give way to immeasurable joy and gratitude. It reminds me that even a glimmer of hope and waning patience can sometimes triumph over consistent disappointment and long periods of despair. It reminds me that redemption, recovery, and even resurrection, are made possible by both spiritual belief  and personal conviction.

Whether you believe the stories of the bible as written truth, or, as I do, a mythical collection that helps us understand and make meaning out of the sometimes heartbreaking complexity and inexplicable tragedy of being human, the lesson of the resurrection is the same. It teaches us about hope and resilience. It calls to mind the power of faith and truth. It helps us endure the barely tolerable chill of darkness, while we wait for the warmth of the sun to reemerge.

My favorite chapters of my brother’s story are just now being written. They are filled with the heart-opening love I have for my nephews, his sons, and the over-flowing gratitude I feel in their presence. My nephews are the incarnation of my brother’s resurrection, and an expression of the deepest joy of his life. They have his spirit, his humor, and his relentless determination- their lives made possible by his courage, his ability, his willingness to rise again.

I woke up already missing the day we would have spent together. The morning is cloudy and cold, my mood, damp and uneasy. I’m feeling the weight of an Easter without my brother and his sweet boys. But, as I’m writing, my body softens, the sun starts to burn through the clouds, and I notice a text back from my brother:

“He is risen.”

Hey, it’s your aunt (again)

To my sweet boys:

The first thing I want you all to know is that you are brave and resilient. You will all continue to shine a big, bright light into the dark world you entered. You will fill your grandparents with joy, and laughter, and a sense of purpose. You will be the reason they get through this. The image of your sweet faces, and the memory of how you smell will sustain them through challenging moments. They’ll day-dream of a hopeful future, watching the late-summer sunshine bounce off your back while you gleefully race through the sprinklers in their back yard, spinning wildly, boundlessly, fearlessly in circles, giggling and screaming. Those screams and giggles will sound and feel especially soothing, an expression of a freedom we have newly learned to cherish.

Your spirit, even when trapped behind the tiny, distant screen of an iphone, is a gentle salve for the loneliness, fear, and anxiety.

The second thing I want you know is that by the time you read this, you’ll think of me as an activist. You’ll grow up learning about social justice and civil rights and how democracy depends on our attention, awareness and participation. I’ll ungracefully talk to you about what it means to be an affluent, white male in America, and how much responsibility you have because of your identity. This will be annoying when you’re younger and awkward when you’re a teenager, but if all goes to plan it will be an important reason you grew up to not be a douchebag.

Today, though. I have a confession.

I owe you an apology.

This hell you’re living through. This confusing, terrifying, disorienting crisis that’s stripped your life of your loved ones, trapped you inside with your parents, and undoubtedly harmed your impressionable, sensitive, delicate, little souls forever, was totally preventable. And I didn’t do enough to prevent it.

You see, before Harvey and Anders were even born I moved to Michigan. I lived there in 2016, the last year we elected a President. I spent 8 months in what we sometimes call the American rust belt. I lived 11 miles from one of the most desperate, poorest cities in the country. I lived in a middle class suburb, one of the few in the region that survived the 2008 recession. To get to the Target close to my apartment I had to drive by three empty strip malls. On the way to my summer soccer games I drove through entire communities that looked like the ghost towns we visited on educational family vacations when me and my brother were kids.  I heard from locals about the culture and values of grit and hard work and blue collar ethics. I took notice that the economic recovery and progress I’d witnessed, and normalized, on the west coast, hadn’t made it’s way to the middle of the country. I listened to conversations that reminded me that I mostly occupy a progressive, political bubble. I witnessed in the structure, organization and composition of the city and suburbs, numerous, constant, reminders of the systemic racism I’d basically been ignoring for the previous three years.

I moved back to California a couple of weeks after Donald Trump officially accepted the Republican nomination for President.

Throughout the primary season, I felt haunted by a nagging, persistent feeling of dread and anxiety. It felt like a tingle in the back of my neck caused by the ongoing clench of my back teeth and tightness in my jaw. Sometimes the sensation migrated to the back of my skull and took on a voice of worry. It never got louder than a whisper but the message was always crystal clear.

I knew Trump could get elected. I never admitted it out loud and I remained openly confident as I championed my long-time heroine, Hillary Clinton, and prematurely celebrated her historic female presidency.

But deep down, what I knew from my education, earlier years of activism, and especially, those transformative 8 months in Michigan, made it undeniably possible that Trump could be President.

And basically, I did nothing.

Here we are. There are two more of you than there were when he got elected and we are living in an unimaginable hellscape. Nothing, not even the most horrifying, egregious, corrupt and inhumane policies and actions, has surprised me about the Trump presidency. Even out of my worst fears, I couldn’t have constructed this, unique nightmare. Every time I get emotional about this crisis it’s because of you. I am wrecked by the unknowable impact this is making on your precious lives. I vibrate with rage when I think about the toll this could take on how you process emotions, or engage in relationships or,  interact with the world as you grow up. I’m overwhelmed by a particular, defeating sadness when I think about your tender hearts, broken and confused by an upside-down reality we can’t explain or help you understand.

I lose my breath when I picture myself, four years ago, knowing better and sitting on my hands. I want to reach back through my historical timeline and shake myself (vigorously) into action. I want to scream in the face of ambivalence until I move myself to do something to alter this horrifying, unforgivable reality I could have saved you from.

What I can do, what I will do, is be better for you. This summer and fall, when we are hopefully reunited to dance in your grandmarm’s bedroom or chase each other through the house, I will lay myself out to get Trump out of the White House. Fueled by how it feels to be with you, I will stay committed to make sure we don’t have to be separated, ever again. Because I owe you so much more than my own commitment, I promise to engage and motivate others to understand the impact of their own inaction. I will ask them to think about the people who mean the most to them and plead with them to give up a few minutes, or hours, of their week, to help create the world they want those people to live in.

After we defeat Trump, I will squeeze you and snuggle you and drink you in. I will fill myself up with the gratitude of your being and will remind myself that this is only the beginning. The life I picture for you is only possible with relentless activism and the type of tireless campaign for change that is rarely rewarding enough to keep propelling us forward. When I feel challenged, fatigued or discouraged, I will find you on Facetime, or even better, in real life. I will look into those still bright eyes, miraculously still  overflowing with possibility and wonder and forgiveness, and remember what I promised you:

To be better. No matter what.