Thursday, November 04, 2004

This Is What We Do Next

12:48 p.m. Wednesday, November 3, 2004

I'm typing this into my laptop as I ride back to Chicago on the day after the election. John Kerry and John Edwards must feel like their whole lives are lying around them in pieces, everything disrupted and pointed towards a White House win that didn't happen. Didn't Edwards give up his congressional seat? I wonder what he'll do now.

I guess I think about Kerry and Edwards and their families at this moment so I won't think about how I feel. I'm so disappointed in my country right now. We are that scared. We are. I didn't want to believe it, but we are. I feel ashamed before the international community. This is my country and my president and I have to own them. I am a part of this and there's no living in denial about it, as I have for the past four years. I also feel despair, like I'm trapped inside a nightmare that I used all my energy to try to escape.

On election day I canvassed and canvassed, three shifts of hustling up and down residential streets, knocking on dozens and dozens of doors, searching for any Kerry people who hadn't voted yet. I canvassed until it was dark, until a light rain began to fall, until the vague tiredness in my body became achyness and then an almost flu-like exhaustion. I squinted at darkened houses, trying to make out addresses with a flashlight and knocked on the doors of residents were still at work or already at the polls. I hung dozens of pro-Kerry door-hangers, hoping they'd be part of a Kerry win and faced stone-faced Bush voters in between the Kerry supporters. I believed and I hoped and I believed and I thought I knew.

Finally, unable to squeeze any more work out of my body, I returned to headquarters. At the Wausau victory party I used my daypack as a pillow and laid down to watch the early CNN broadcast. Tables and chairs were set up and many people crowded the free-beer-and-soda bar, but I lay myself right down on the hardwood floor because I really felt sick and didn't even want to sit up anymore. With my physical strength depleted, discouragement and doubt overtook me. I pitied myself for working so hard when it was all about to fall apart, and I wondered where these dark thoughts were coming from. I still had to believe that Kerry was going to win. He had to because electing the other was unthinkable.

What do we do when the unthinkable happens? Live in denial for a while, rail about it, remember again that there is no god. And then we get on with life. Our individual lives, but also life in general. On Sunday night I got caught up in a PBS biography of Robert Kennedy's life. I learned of his reaction to the violent racism of the southern whites and how he aligned himself with the civil rights protesters. I saw how he made a difference in the lives of the poor in Bedford-Stuyvesent, New York and how he supported the United Farm Workers in California. I never knew about Robert Kennedy's awakening to the plight of the disenfranchised and his determination to work on their behalf. I never understood that losing him was almost worse than losing his brother because Robert Kennedy had just taken ownership of his own life and determined its direction and was poised to begin what would have been a rich and uniquely altruistic political career.

After seeing that biography, I thought about all the things Robert Kennedy might have done and all the things that countless others could have gone on to accomplish in his absence, but didn't. Reading Anna Quindlen's observations (in Newsweek) of how little we as an American public care about the nightmares of countries like Sudan also makes me consider how much work there is to be done, so why not do it? What have I been doing with my life and my narrow attention? I consider how much time I carved out of my life to work for the unseating of President Bush, and I wonder if I'll let this political pulse die in me now that this short-term goal is over. Unaccomplished, but over.

This is my hope: that the vision and determination that we poured into Kerry's campaign, we will now direct towards everything else there is to do, from the poverty-level families in our own cities to the Sudanese that are being systematically killed and raped in Darfur. I have learned something absolutely brand new about myself in the last couple of months: in the face of crisis, once I make the connection between the situation and my own two hands, I act. I have the time to act, I have the energy to act and I have the resources to #$%-damn act. I had just never realized the connection before. I just hadn't realized that what I do as an individual does affect others and can affect the world. My potential to affect others is being wasted every year that I assume that my responsibility as a human being only goes as far as the ends of my own fingertips.

I am 38 years old and it's time to get on with it: time to get on with a global focus that takes me outside of my own lonely life. With no husband and no dependents, what else to I have to spend my time on? If I could squeeze six days out of my life to help successfully deliver Wisconsin to the Democrats, what else can I do? In my last post, I wrote that I couldn't control the election, but I could control my participation in it. Robert Kennedy and countless other activists are dead, Kerry's campaign and the Democratic plan to re-take the Senate lie in tatters, but I'm still standing. I'm still standing and although I can't control the world, I can control my participation in it. Now all I have to do is decide what to work on next.

Here's another hopeful point of view that emphasizes straightening out the anemic Democratic Party, for god's sake.

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