On the last warm day of autumn my son and I were down behind the house, curious to see how a few days’ rain had raised the river, when we heard something that sounded like you, America, clearing your throat behind us. Turns out it was just our neighbor’s Harley crossing the bridge upstream, out for one last ride before winter. But it reminded me of a lesson I’m trying to learn. Ever since the shock of November’s election began to fade, I’ve been wondering how I missed so completely the possibility of such a result. I thought I knew you better than that.
After all, how many thousands of miles did I rack up along your highways and county roads between the home I left at 17 and the one I found at 40? How many nights did I roll into a tarp beside some unlucky stretch of asphalt? I have no idea—but you became so familiar to me that sometimes at night I still dream of crossing the whole of you in a single day, distance evaporating between the landmarks.
In those days I got to know my fellow Americans job by job, saving just enough pay to get to the next stop: laying shingles, tying rebar, loading trucks, digging trenches. They were good folks mostly, not so different from the ones back home. A few even reminded me of my Dad, a pack-a-day machinist who showed his love by teaching me to change a clutch, sounding nothing like the deacon he was when the wrench slipped and knuckle blood trickled down across his Air Force tattoo. Still, no matter how many afternoons my latest friends and I sat downing beers on the loading dock, I kept some distance. This was their life, after all, that I was planning to escape—every goodbye another chance to reinvent myself, leaving behind a trail of pieces that didn’t fit who I was becoming.
It took about a decade for all that coming and going to lose its charm. I stopped for college in New England and learned to question the assumptions I’d absorbed growing up American. As graduate school led me to Illinois, then to Oregon, I sought out intentional communities, living intimately with people shaped by backgrounds very different from my own. I finally settled at a small environmental college in Vermont, glad to live in the country again. I have colleagues here who hunt, and most of us grow some of our food, but we come with doctorates from places like Santa Cruz and Madison. And while our students look plenty rustic plowing with oxen, you’ll more likely find them protesting a pipeline than at the grange hall for a wild game dinner.
I’ve been here nearly 20 years now and I’ve often called this the best of both worlds—a village in the woods and a progressive community. There’s just one problem: after surrounding myself with like-minded people for so long, I seem to have forgotten about the others, the ones I thought I’d left behind.
So forgive me, America, for assuming that you were ready to keep building on accomplishments like marriage equality and the Paris climate agreement, shedding the pieces that no longer fit who you were becoming: coal-fired plants, Jim Crow, homophobia, the glass ceiling. But it wasn’t just me. Everyone I spoke with leading up to the election, face to face and screen to screen, felt the same.
Which is, of course, exactly the trouble.
It seems that the folks who stayed put while I moved on—the ones whose voices are not heard in my bubble—are tired of being left behind. Not just by people like me, or their grown kids heading off to cities, but by corporate politicians and mainstream media. By the decline in decent jobs and the value of their paychecks. And by new ideas about how they should behave, how they should think, described in caricature by talking heads on cable. No wonder we’ve seen so many angry campaign signs, even in the land of Bernie.
Throughout the fall my spirits sagged each time I passed our village green and saw one of those signs on a familiar lawn. I still can’t reconcile the candidate’s callousness with the sweetness of the woman living there, a devout soul who does so much for the community, even mentoring a young Nigerian bound for the London School of Economics. I rehearsed dozens of times the request that she remove her sign—the only one on our historic green—explaining the distress it brought my family and friends. But I never asked and a week after the election it was gone.
Then at the grocery store, the day before Christmas, she approached me in the crackers. It was an awkward moment, my usual pleasure at seeing her tripped up by resentment. And when she asked if I would be willing to speak at a symposium she’s organizing, my answer did not come easy.
I wanted to say no. After all, the candidate she supported is not just unscrupulous: he seems a legitimate threat to the stability of the world my son is growing up in. Considering his campaign promises and appointments, the surge in hate crimes since his election, it will take extraordinary forms of resistance to protect those less privileged and limit the damage done by a cabinet in denial of climate change.
But if resentment poisons my relationship with my neighbor, isn’t that another victory for her candidate, whose campaign ran on divisiveness?
I’d like to ask my students. We’ve been meeting with people who disagree over resettling Syrian refugees in nearby Rutland, listening without judgment and raising questions only to clarify their feelings. One resident, describing the sting of being labeled a racist, gave thanks for a safe space where he finally felt heard. Without such spaces it’s hard to see past our differences to what we have in common. Look, we all want to live in places where our families are safe, right? We may still disagree about strategies to meet our needs, but we can do so without vilifying each other.
Of course, as a straight white man I haven’t experienced the hatred that some of my students have—though I’ve seen plenty of anger, and sometimes a glimpse of the pain or fear behind it. It doesn’t help that we live in a time when media outlets have emerged specifically to fuel those fears, when politicians would rather let people suffer than compromise the party line. But if we turn our backs on those we disagree with, are we really any better?
Maybe my neighbor’s invitation to speak at the symposium was a gesture of reconciliation. I don’t know. But my acceptance was an act of contrition, admitting my own contribution to these divisions. It was also an act of resistance, rejecting the polarization embodied in the new administration. These are my neighbors, after all—delivering cordwood, coaching my son’s baseball team, plowing the driveway in winter. They’re the veterans who bring their families to hear us play bluegrass at the Legion Hall, and the young man reaching past me for coffee in the general store, clad in camo and bloody to the elbows.
The 2016 election was a wake-up call. By misunderstanding the mood of our country, we’ve been overlooking some of the most critical work that must be done before we can achieve social justice and sustainability—work that begins by learning to listen with enough care and compassion to transform our adversaries back into neighbors.
So, America, I’ll be seeing you around.
Header photo of covered bridge in Vermont by tpsdave, courtesy Pixabay. Photo of Laird Christensen and son by Mark Dailey.