My son reads us the headlines aloud from the CNN ticker that updates every few minutes.
“There’s a guy they’re calling the Ghost of Kyiv. He shot down six fighter jets.”
I understand why this Ghost has captured my son’s (and the world’s) imagination. Like Snoopy’s need to fight the Red Baron, there is a hunger for hope to conquer evil. Or at least to take a swing at it. Most of us feel helpless here on the ground.
He says that folks are not sure if the Ghost is real, “or if he is an urban legend the people of Ukraine need right now.” Real or not, Twitter users are cheering the real downing of the Russian planes and helicopters. I cannot cheer, though, reflexively thinking of the mothers of those Russian pilots, whose dead bodies are not myths. Who are victims of Putin, too.
He pipes up with another horror story from the news ticker. “On Snake Island, a tiny island, eighty Ukrainian soldiers were surrounded by Russian warships. The warships told them to surrender or die.” They did not surrender.
How can this be happening? How can this carnage be real? How can missiles fall and tanks roll while I am ensconced with my family on a weekend trip to the snow, planned when the strangest thing happening in the world was Covid?
“Go to Google Earth,” I say. I need to see our planet looking like a big blue marble, insignificant, with no borders drawn on its curves and swirls.
I cannot stop madmen from starting wars. (No one can, apparently.) So I try to locate the balance between sorrow, empathy and gratitude, to allow myself to enjoy the rare gift of a conversation with my son while we traipse through fresh snow. For the beauty around us, as fragile and as temporary, as it may be.
My father’s father was born in Chernobyl, Ukraine in 1917 before the Soviet Union existed. He died in 2000 after the Soviet Union ceased to exist.
“Go back to the view of Earth from space,” I urge. “See if you can find us.”
My boys declined my invitation to vote with me; they’d done it before, many times. But Maria accepted. I wasn’t sure if she was being kind, indulging me where my boys wouldn’t, or if she was as interested in seeing American democracy unfold as I was excited to show it to her. Knowing her, it was both.
We stepped out of the house, turned right, and began the familiar three block walk to the park where our polling place was set up. I was giddy, if a bit self-conscious in my all-white attire, until I saw other women approaching the polling place similarly dressed. It was a quiet way to scream how much this vote meant to us.
There is a preciousness to a town, to a country, where the place I cast my vote is the same place I asked my parents to take me on Saturdays. Where I ran through the sandbox barefoot; spun around dizzy on the merry-go-round; and licked ice cream cones bought from the freezer of the small store, not minding the dripping down my wrist. This park is where my own kids rode their first slides and I teared up to see their first shoots of independence. Where they made me chase them through obstacle courses of their design — up the fire engine, around the swings, to the monkey bars, until I begged for a break. Where my father coached my then-7-year-old niece’s basketball team and brought the team snacks. Where my sons played T-ball and baseball and basketball and flag football, and where Christopher and I now walk our dogs and see young families playing, masks on their faces.
As Maria and I approached the park gym four years ago, two little voices rang out from the sandbox, sweet and high in pitch, “Maria! Hi Maria!” She waved and called them by their names, a neighborhood celebrity greeting her fans.
We entered the gym, basketball rims and hoops pulled out of the way above the folding table where volunteers greeted us, the same elders who showed up every election, the one woman who always thinks I am my sister until I sign my name. In exchange for my signature, she handed me a ballot.
I led Maria to a table, chest-high, with a voting machine. Step by step, I explained every logistic, huddling together to make sure she could see. “You have to press the ink hard so it makes a complete mark,” I instructed, thinking still and forevermore of Florida 2000, of “hanging chads” and recounts.
As we left, we took a picture to mark the historic day. We talked about how she would be able to vote by the time of the next Presidential election, and she said, “I can’t wait.”
The line for naturalization has slowed; still she waits. But about a year ago she told me with pride that during a visit to her cousins she had successfully gotten one, a member of the National Guard, to register to vote. They weren’t sure how to begin, and she suggested they go to the post office. When they got there, unsure of what to do next, she coached him, “Laura says if you don’t know, just ask.” I don’t remember saying that; I think she told herself.
The things our parents teach us. How to roast a turkey. How to make a U-turn. How to think for yourself. How to vote. They teach us the importance of showing up and speaking up, and that our voice is powerful. And, as with that day four years ago when things did not go as I had wanted, they teach us how to grieve and get up again. How to stand up for yourself, and even more importantly, how to stand up for others.
Election day 2020 dawned today. I put up our American flag. I am not as ebullient as I was four years ago — we have been through too much for ebullience. But I am hopeful.
I have hope for our democracy, imperfect and rattled as it is. Maybe seeing where the cracks in our system are shows us what needs shoring up, like just enough of a rainstorm to reveal where our roof leaks, but not big enough to bring the whole thing down.
I have hope for our American family, too, caught up in this crisis. Like any family rift, there comes a time to make a choice: Dig into estrangement, refuse to engage, isolate in pain, write each other off. Or, dig in for the challenge of reconciliation. Resolve to repair. Speak our truth and truly listen. Disagree with compassion. Say, “I don’t see it that way” not “You’re evil.” See each other’s full humanity and flaws. Accept that we may never be in full alignment, but know we are still one family. One country.
(Caveat: I do not know what to do with the dangerous my-enemy-drinks-blood-of-children trope. Maybe lovingly disengage for one’s own mental health. Maybe double down on love?)
I have hope for our country, our democracy. We are scarred, but we are wiser for it. Today, as we make a choice for President, may we choose to heal.
Muse. (v) To wonder; (n) A mythical source of creative inspiration.
For years motherhood was all I could feel, think, or write about. It drenched me (though sometimes it felt more like drowning) and consumed me. From the first days of feeding, changing, and tally-marking pees and poops (must make sure the pipes work), to driving tests and college applications, motherhood has been a 100% all-in operation.
But the intensity and shock do give way. We do settle into our skin. We do find a new normal. This is not a bad thing for humans, but not optimal for writers. Faded along with the initial shock and the keeping my head above water, went my muse.
I have been in the market for a new muse. While I wait, I write what’s in my heart. My grandmother’s story has a lot to say. She keeps me company — part guardian angel, part gossip partner. I’ve written about her here, here, and here; I’m sure I will write more.
And then there is Maria, who joined our family almost four years ago, just after her 18th birthday. Her story, and our joined stories, lately command my mind. She is a refugee and a role model. A college student and a pre-school teacher. She is like a sister and daughter, a cousin, niece and granddaughter; yet she belongs fully to another family. She is a confidante and a sage, a knowledge-sponge and a striver. She is vulnerable and strong, disciplined and determined, and an empathy-conduit between the worlds she straddles. She is a laughing, living, longing reminder that politics is always about real people.
Feels like the motherhood muse may have a new chapter…
Liberal, conservative, whatever. It’s not rocket science. Have a goddamn hearing. Bring the best practices to the table. Consider everything. And, in the words of a 17-year-old student from Parkland, Florida, “Go to hell” if you can’t get it done. You have blood on your hands.
As for my liberal representatives in Congress, it’s not enough to tell me about the legislation you’ve co-sponsored that has failed. You are obliged to devise a plan to make it happen. I know it’s hard. I’m here to help you. I will take to the streets. Lead.
As for conservatives, well this sign expresses a widely held sentiment, one you are invited to disprove:
And every morning, I kiss my children goodbye and cross my goddamn fingers that their school won’t be the one on the national news that night.
Waiting in line yesterday at a coffee joint in my small-town Los Angeles suburban village, I scanned newspaper headlines, and was drawn to the most catastrophic: the likely nomination of the Exxon Mobil CEO — a man with as much diplomatic experience as I (then again, maybe he didn’t spend a semester in Spain) — as America’s Secretary of State. I wanted to shout FORGIVE US THOMAS JEFFERSON! Instead I emitted a muted groan, shook my head, and looked up to see a friend and her little girl at a table in the corner. My friend was reading the same newspaper. I walked over to them, touched her shoulder, and she looked up, aghast. We cupped our hands to our foreheads. Can this be for real?
Seeking solace, we turned to her daughter, a pre-schooler carefully sipping spoonfuls of oatmeal drowned in whole milk. We let our talk turn to baking gingerbread houses and Christmas cookies, and adopting puppies, and wondering when she’ll get a dog. We talked of things that might suck the poison out of our blood; emergency triage for the soul.
We are just two of the the millions of Americans horrified by each new designated Cabinet nominee and the damage they will do to our country — to our natural resources, to our economy, to our rights — and who are pulled by a primal desire to look away. To bury and busy ourselves in cookies and sweet singing and this little girl enjoying her oatmeal in her rainbow-striped sweater, yellow floral dress, and red and white striped tights. Maybe here in this village, in this coffee shop, in this protected affluence, we who don’t depend on the minimum wage, who can buy water flown in from Fiji if the tap turns bad, who might avoid the initial arrows of hate, have the luxury to look away.
But we can’t. I’m sorry, folks, we can’t look away forever. The world is counting on us.
So let’s get R&R, let’s bake cookies and build gingerbread houses and celebrate Bar Mitzvahs, but let’s remember they are not for hiding in, but for restoring us for the fight.
My friend asked as we parted, “Is your sign still up?” I smiled and said, “Yes. It is bathed and sparkling in holiday lights.” It is adorned for the duration.
(In case you missed it, my lawn sign got the attention of a neighbor who opined in the local weekly paper that it was “silly” of me to keep it up. Thing was, I had just taken it down. After reading the paper, I had no choice but to restore it, lest anyone think I’d been cowed by the unsigned comment. Here it stands. I still think it’s pretty.)
I keep thinking about the little girl from Nevada who listened to her grandfather challenge me to explain why I supported Hillary Clinton, and then bet me that Donald Trump was going to win. The day before the election I wrote a message to her that was filled with optimism and exuberance about the impending election of our first female President of the United States. I owe her another message, so here it is:
America is ready for a woman President.
It didn’t happen this time, but it wasn’t because America wasn’t ready for a woman. Hillary Clinton earned more than 62 million votes (and counting) from men and women, more than any other candidate except President Obama, and about a million more votes than Donald Trump. (Those voters weren’t spread out in enough different states to give her the presidency, but let’s not delve into that now). What I want you to remember is that Americans are ready to vote for a woman President.
And guess what – your state, Nevada, voted for her! (Take that, Grandpa.)
Many smart, hard-working woman were elected to important positions.
Your state electedCatherine Cortez Masto, to the United States Senate, defeating a Congressman who had voted to defund Planned Parenthood nine times, cutting off access for low-income women to health care.
My state, California, chose between two accomplished, smart, hard-working women to be our U.S. Senator. Kamala Harris will join many other tenacious, brilliant advocates in the Senate, including Elizabeth Warren, Tim Kaine, Bernie Sanders, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Tammy Duckworth, to work for our country. So keep your head up. Which leads me to the next point.
Seek out people who build you up.
You will come across jerks in your life, people who think they’re better than you, who want to keep you down. (Remember, I met your grandfather.) Sometimes those people will have power; they may be bosses or teachers. But don’t let them get you down. Remember that they see the world through their own experiences. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with them, or let them define you.
Seek out people who see the world, and you, as full of possibility. We want and need to hear what you have to say.
The future is bright. And it needs YOU.
This is my most important message for you, young one, and all American girls and boys. We need you. So study hard in school. Strive. Do art. Sing and dance. Write. Express yourself. Learn a second and a third language. Leave home. See our country. See the world. Read books — novels and non-fiction. Challenge your assumptions. Talk to people who disagree with you. Develop empathy and curiosity. Strike out and make a difference. Be confident that you will make a mark.
We are ready for you to become your whole self, and to step into the world with confidence. This is my message to you this week: Kick ass, young one. Kick ass.
To my best friends’ children, my nieces (and my own kids), this is for you.
I cherish your moms. I treasure their intellect, humor, and their camaraderie. They challenge me, teach me, inspire me, and lift me up when I’m down. Together we navigate motherhood and womanhood in the 21st Century.
To my law school friends’ children in particular, you may know that during the Presidential debates, and again last night, our group texts were flowing. Yes, we stay connected through the same devices we are always bugging you to turn off.
Ours was the first class at Berkeley Law with a majority of women, and at our graduation, four years into Hillary Rodham Clinton’s tenure as First Lady – the first FLOTUS who was a lawyer and activist in her own right, and the highest ranking female role model we had – we considered giving our middle names as “Rodham” to be read aloud in succession by the Dean (a woman, who wrote the book on Sex Discrimination) as we crossed the graduation stage. It was a silly/serious idea to honor someone we admired. But we chose instead to take our first professional steps under our own names.
We used to rely on each other to study for finals or blow off steam. We still rely on each other for guidance, including how to parent you. It’s no surprise that the values we have striven to raise you with are the same values that were the heart of Hillary’s campaign: to reach for your dreams; to respect all people; to work hard and be conscientious; and most importantly, to be big-hearted, welcoming and kind. You kids paid attention to this election in your own ways – watching the debates, debating the issues with others, volunteering. We are proud of you for all of your accomplishments, and for becoming your authentic and unique selves.
There were tears last night — moms, sons and daughters alike. This morning we are mourning. But I want you to know that there will be light again.
This morning Hillary Clinton acknowledged that it hurts to lose this election, but she reminded us that fighting for what’s right is always worth it. She told “all the little girls to never doubt that you are valuable, and powerful, and deserving of every chance in the world to pursue and deserve your own dreams.” That message is just as important for you boys to understand: Never forget that you have equal partners in this job of repairing the world. You cannot do it alone, nor do we expect you to. One more thing, don’t let any bully anywhere – including that bully called self-doubt – tell you you’re not good enough. Do not believe for a second that your brain, your ideas, your hands aren’t as powerful as anyone else’s. What has always been true about bullies remains true; they speak from their own wounds, and must be stood up to, especially by caring bystanders.
Amidst the crushing disappointment this morning, there were rays of sunshine. Natalie ran for Student Body President, and won.
Thank you for putting yourself out there, for believing in your capability, and for giving me something to cheer this morning! Thank you also to Lilia, you fierce five-year-old, for getting right back up again with your suggestion of making protest signs to show to Donald Trump. Thank you to Sophia for making phone calls into swing states to get out the vote. You reached people. Stay engaged.
To all of you: Thank you for bringing out the best in us, your moms. For inspiring us to work hard to make the world a place we want to raise you. For picking up the baton of progressive activism and running with it. Do not lose heart. Yes, this is a tough day. But know there are more than 52 million Americans who share your disappointment, and your hopes. You are good, kind, smart people, raised by good, kind, smart parents, and I have faith in you. You rock.
P.S. Thanks for letting me borrow your moms for an evening or weekend every now and then. It’s REALLY important.
Barbara Kingsolver wrote in the Guardian this weekend that when she was a girl of eleven, she asked her father if a woman could be President, and he answered her with an unequivocal No. Something to do, he said, with menstruation, aversion to power, and a natural attraction to motherhood. It became for her part of the litany of things she could not do because she was a girl.
“The slap-downs were often unexpected. Play drums in the band? No. Sign up for the science team? Go camping with the guys? Go jogging in shorts and a tank top without fear of being assaulted? Experiment boldly, have a career, command a moral authority of my own? Walk home safely after dark? No, no, no.”
My parents, on the other hand, encouraged me to dream big. They said, “Yes, you can be President! Girls can be anything they want to be!” But their wishful thinking could not overpower the blatant messages I got from observing reality. Despite their fairy tale answer, there remained the persistent facts: No woman had ever been President. No woman had even been a serious candidate for President. Their encouragement was akin to them saying, “Of course you can go to Mars!” It was fantasy, in the realm of remote possibility in a far off someday. It was, “Never say never, but don’t bank on it.”
Only I didn’t know it. I didn’t know that society’s silent messages had overshadowed my parents’ answer until I was 15, and Geraldine Ferraro’s nomination as Vice President shook my foundation. A cloud lifted and an idea rang in my brain, “Oh, I guess they were right, I guess that is not foreclosed.”
Only when I saw a flesh and blood woman speaking from behind the podium, on the debate stage with George Herbert Walker Bush, answering questions of substance like any other candidate, did I sense my own personal glass ceiling break a little. Only then did I believe that maybe a trip to Pennsylvania Avenue wasn’t as far fetched as a trip to Mars. Only then did I realize that I had never believed my parents.
The disappointment of Mondale/Ferraro’s loss reverted back to “the way it is.” That didn’t shift again until Bill Clinton began making Cabinet appointments. Here were women in roles previously filled only by men in the entire history of our country. Every photo of every President, Vice President, Secretary of State, Attorney General was another gray haired man. By 1992, I was an aspiring lawyer, and when Janet Reno, who died today, was named Attorney General, I felt the same blasting away of the old truth that important jobs were reserved for men.
“An Attorney General named Janet!” I celebrated. A friend asked me, “What does it matter?” He meant that all government officials were the same, that it didn’t affect our lives day-to-day. All I could tell him was that it mattered to me, to my personal sense of worth and possibility.
Yesterday I was in Las Vegas, canvassing neighborhoods to encourage voter turnout, handing out a paper that included the local polling place. At one of the last houses on my list, I met an older man and his granddaughter. She scooted outside and sat on a jumble of red rock gravel, while he demanded in a raspy voice that I tell him one reason I liked Hillary Clinton. (Before I could answer, he railed against Bill Clinton and some business dealing in Arkansas.) When he finished, I said, “ You asked for my reason: Hillary Clinton wants to help us get more good jobs, health care, and education, and that she cares about families like yours and mine.” Then, mindful of the little girl listening to this dialogue, I added, “When I was a little girl, I didn’t believe I could be anything I wanted to be when I grew up. If Hillary is our President, all the little girls in America will know that they can.”
With that, I thanked him for his time, and turned back toward the sidewalk.
“Wait!” the girl stopped me. “Can I give one of those papers to my mom? She votes!” My heart lifted as I handed her the paper with the address of her polling place, and I spoke to her as though I was speaking to my own 8-year-old self, “Yes, you make sure your mom votes on Tuesday.” She took the paper and hurried inside.
I like to imagine that little girl walking into the house with the voting paper, waiting for her mom to come home from work and handing it to her, urging her to vote. I like to imagine the conversation they might have about it. I like to imagine that my words might have taken hold inside her head, that she will believe, “Yes, young one, you can be and do anything.” I will be thinking of her tomorrow, and hoping she gets the message she deserves.
Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable…Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
The only step we need to take tomorrow is vote. If you have to be late to a meeting, or school drop-off or pick-up, be late. It’s not much of a sacrifice compared with those who came before us.
I am sitting in the “Bistro” area at my grandmother’s assisted living home this morning. Picture a grand but casual hotel, a deluxe joint I have told her is like an ideal college dorm, with exercise classes, lectures, parties and movies, staffed by the type of kind, warm folks you’d want caring for your grandmother.
“Really? A college dorm?” she responds with a smile and surveys her surroundings with new eyes, this woman who hopped a bus to Hollywood at 18 and never attended college.
The Bistro is laid out with tables set for four, with a small kitchen offering light breakfast of fruit, toast, juice and coffee. Some residents are watching CNN. It is 9:00 a.m., and with nine hours to go before “tip-off” for tonight’s Presidential Debate, the pundits are already discussing the potential pitfalls and highlights of tonight’s clash. I am on edge. I turn away. So much rides on this.
The Bistro is awakening with activity, as men and women who have fought in wars, raised children, created industries (and ask for no credit), arrive for breakfast and tune into the debate coverage.
My grandmother sits next to me, a vision. Her auburn hair is set off perfectly by her light green jacket and pants, and her sharp wit reminds you that you can take the girl out of Brooklyn, but you can’t take Brooklyn out of the girl.
Two of her favorite friends, Addie and Arlene, join us for breakfast and conversation. Turns out the four of us have a lot in common. We talk about our children, our increasing memory loss, and our strong feelings about the election.
I pull out my laptop to show them a campaign website I had described to my grandmother last night, the one that lets volunteers reach out to voters across the country. It’s astounding how easy it is for people to get involved and to connect. I want to show my grandmother how far technology has come.
This is a milestone election for our country. It is also special for my family, but not only because we will have four generations voting for President for the first time. (That itself is cool, but mostly a testament to longevity). What’s truly noteworthy is that in this election, my grandmother, born before women could vote, will cast her first Presidential ballot that is for a woman, while her great-granddaughter will cast her first Presidential vote ever, and it will be for a woman. (And it’s not just “a woman.” It’s this indefatigable, qualified, hard-working, smart, tough, compassionate, imperfect-as-humans-are, brilliant, problem-solving, dedicated-to-service woman.)
It shouldn’t have taken so long for my grandmother to get here. But here we finally are, in a world in which my nieces and my sons, and their cousins and friends, can believe that anyone — any-qualified-one — man or woman, can and should follow their dreams, unlimited by the invisible weighty burden that “no one has ever done that before.”
Our table’s conversation turns to voter registration. One woman isn’t sure if she is registered here, or in her home state of Michigan. We do a quick search (after she asks me to “Google her”), and get her registered. Two ladies at an adjacent table come over to confirm they are registered; they are. My grandmother calls over the activities director and tells him we have to set up another voter registration day! He agrees. She gets things done.
I’ve sat here an hour longer than I expected, and if I could I would stay all day. The activities are just getting started. And with every minute, I’m feeling less anxious about our country’s future.
As we turn our national attention to Harriet Tubman today, following Secretary of Treasury Lew’s announcement that her image will replace Andrew Jackson’s on the $20 bill, it brought many questions to mind, about Harriet Tubman herself, and what meaning she has for us today.
What riotous imagination did it take to envision a life and world impossibly different from her present circumstances? To imagine freedom, having lived only slavery?
What deep well of bravery must she have plumbed to choose to fight for that life, knowing that failure meant torture, then death? And what deep wells of compassion, conviction, and still more bravery must she have had to turn around and help others do the same?
Or perhaps bravery is not required when the fight you undertake feels more like a compulsion than a choice?
And, for us…What kind of imagination will it take to envision the world we want — without war, without refugees, without hunger, without catastrophic pollution? What are we willing to do to build that world?
What if Harriet Tubman’s image on our $20 bill, a totem we mindlessly carry around getting more stuff, reminds us every time we open our wallets to act for the world we want? To use her image, our money, for products made without child labor, pollution, and –sadly, still relevant (as Kevin Bales reveals in this Ted Talk)–slavery?
[Photo: H.B. Lindsley/Library of Congress via AP]
It wouldn’t even require bravery. It would require a little bit of knowledge (hey Google), some compassion (we’ve got plenty), and — the hard parts — commitment to that image, and believing that we can change the world.
That is her gift for us: To be a ubiquitous reminder that the fight for a righteous and just world continues, that the struggle is now ours, that one woman or man can make a difference.