Sunday Morning ~ The Hearts of Our Neighbors
Mtima wa mnzako n’tsidya lija. ~ The heart of your neighbor is on the other side of the river.
~ Chewa proverb
August 23, 2020
The first Democratic convention I listened to in it’s entirety was in 1984. I felt like everything was at stake in that election. We were renting a drafty shack of a house where the dog’s water would freeze on the kitchen floor in the winter. I was making six dollars and twelve cents an hour as a visiting nurse in the slums of Holyoke, Massachusetts. I had three little kids and was putting my husband through school. Life was hard, I thought. When my husband came home from class he left our old Volkswagen running in the driveway. I’d be standing with my coat on in the doorway ready to run out to go to work. We couldn’t afford a babysitter so he took morning classes and I worked evenings. One time we were talking with one of his professors and he told us about his days of being in graduate school when he and his wife lived like us. All elbow patches and pipe tobacco, living in a comfortably heated large home in Amherst, chuckling as he spoke, he said to us, “You know, my wife and I often look back and say those were the best days of our lives.” I looked at him in horror and said, “Please don’t tell us it’s downhill from here.” I prayed that election would bring more equity to people in our situation. We had to borrow the money for Joe’s education, couldn’t buy or even rent a comfortable house, couldn’t afford child care, and we fought a lot. We got through it, but it wasn’t quaint or romantic. Our kids are probably still scarred.
I’d recently been to my tenth high school reunion and was shocked at the number of my classmates who were supporting Reagan, someone I considered the antichrist. My big focus was the ERA and with that some reasonable child care and decent pay for me. I could not understand how any woman would vote for a candidate who did not support that, let alone actively block it. I remember the convention night when Mondale spoke. He was a good man, not charismatic, but a smart decent man who would have made a smart decent president. We didn’t have a television; I listened on the radio, the idea of live stream was science fiction. Ted Kennedy spoke before Mondale, riveting and passionate, speaking for everything I believed in. I paced around the room pumped by what he said. I worried Mondale would fall flat after that. It was as if his speech was going to win the election. He was trailing in the polls by huge numbers and I wanted to believe this speech alone would turn things around. He didn’t let me down. He spoke from the heart about how he could help the majority in our country and I surely thought anyone listening would agree. I was sure the polls must be wrong. Everyone would surely climb aboard the equality train.
Well, after that depressing defeat I remember looking at my perfect little children, those faces I just wanted to smother with kisses all day long, those cuddly little bodies tucked into crooks in my elbows as I read to them. I’d look at them and try to picture them as adults and think, “What if they turn into republicans?” I mean, I don’t vote like my father! Holy shit! I was not going to let that happen! We took them to marches for women’s rights in Washington, played only NPR on the radio, had elevated conversations at the dinner table as they grew, and felt confident they’d mature with open minds and hearts. But still I worried. All those outside influences. Raising them Catholic brought questions from friends of mine who focused on the church’s stance on abortion and homosexuality. We’d spend many Sunday’s driving home from mass telling the kids we didn’t agree with what the priest said. They’d ask, “Then why do we have to go?” We’d explain that even though we don’t agree with everything, there are many aspects of the Catholic culture we value and don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. No one has to buy the whole bundle. We told them when they turned eighteen they could decide if they wanted to continue to go to church. No one would force them or even persuade them. There is a difference between religion and cult. We have a choice. We can leave if we want to. We can question and criticize, understanding that change comes slowly to ancient traditions.
When we lived in Samoa our neighbors and friends belonged to a religion we struggled to understand. They told us they were questioning their faith and one Sunday they decided not to attend services. By eleven a.m. there were six cars in their driveway with maybe twenty people pouring out of them. They circled their house to find out why they hadn’t gone to church. Those cars came every day until they returned to services as encouraged (instructed?). Whoa man. That gave me some insight into why people continue to follow what they’ve been taught. Freedom vs coercion. Those people went back to their church and I struggled to understand why. They described themselves as libertarians, didn’t believe in immunization, thought breast cancer was a hoax, and yet, they belonged to a church that controlled so much of their daily activities. We were friends and I really liked them! They were loving parents, smart, generous toward others, but had been brought up with a belief system they could not extract themselves from. Participant or hostage? I don’t know what happened to them. We lost touch after we all went our separate ways. It seems though, as they started to question, they may have begun the process of moving on. I wonder. In my research about cults I learned the first step in leaving is questioning. I’m focused on this now as I believe so many in the republican party now belong to a cult. It’s fascinating.
I watched the Democratic Convention this week. I’ve listened to all of them since 1984 except for 2008 when I was in Congo. I thought about how different my life is now, how comfortable I am, how grateful I am for that. I wondered how anyone in my position would not want that for their fellow citizens? I was so proud to be under this diverse umbrella. The stakes are so high now it makes 1984 quaint by comparison. I let myself go down the fantasy track of what the world might be like if the ’84 election had turned out differently. I wondered why I was so focused on an election that turned out so badly. Am I prepping myself, I wondered? I felt the same anxiety for Kamala Harris as I did for Mondale, having to follow a speech as powerful. As I watched and listened, I slowly let out the breath I’d been holding. I thought, why was I so nervous? I already support her. I admire her. She can handle herself. I realized it was because I was worried about enduring the incessant criticism, the scrutiny, the sound-bite pettiness, the woman-bashing, the audacity of anyone different claiming their justified place at the front. I am under no illusion that this convention turned the hearts of those who disagree. If my brothers watched it, it was only to mock what they saw. I’m torn between the enthusiasm I feel for those willing to put their lives out there to help our country move toward justice and equality and the sadness I feel for those who promote the hatred. We don’t know the heart of our neighbor, really. But we can question what in life brought us to where we are and whether that is truly who we want to be.
Love to all,