We were packing the car when the news of Charlottesville was breaking, heading off on the camping trip that we now refer to as our Annual Screen Sabbath (because evidently, it now takes a five-day provincial park permit and a weak cell signal to pry us from our devices, but that’s a sad story for another day). The timing was good: my low level but ever-present anxiety and frustration at the state of all things that began on that fateful Tuesday night last November had taken a toll, and I had been wrestling with the tight edges of fatigue and disheartenment for several weeks. Low on patience and empathy for things I normally valued, I hoped that a few days under the stars, my phone turned off and my beach reads lined up, was just the remedy.
And in some ways, it was. I got some much-needed sleep, restored my suffering reputation as the household queen of Dutch Blitz, and on one crisp morning, sat in my favourite canvas chair watching a half-crazed chipmunk scamper back and forth across our site for so long that my daughter actually got concerned: “Mommy…are you, like, okay?
But, by day two, I was aware of the silence being oppressive, a slow burn in the deep woods, lying in wait. It wasn’t just because it had been a really long time since my phone and I had spent this much quality time apart (that turned out to be far less painful than I anticipated), or that the beach reads I hastily selected from the drug store turned out to be, well, the kind of books that one hastily selects from the drug store. It was more that my internal message to “take a break from the heavy stuff” just wasn’t working. I kept telling myself that our vacation was not the time to ruminate endlessly about Charlottesville, the Orange Man, or the many, many ways in which our world felt broken. If only for a few short days, I wanted to take my lead from my children and bury my head, or at least my toes, in the cool, wet sand. It would, I reasoned, all be waiting for me when I got home.
Halfway through the trip, I was listening to my kids playing in their tent while I prepared dinner. We’ve been rationing our screen time lately, and the new routines have sparked a welcome resurgence of creative role play. So, I wasn’t surprised to hear my daughter giving her older brother explicit instructions for the next scene in their impromptu performance. I was drifting in and out of listening, but I stopped chopping my onion long enough to absorb the plot essentials: my daughter was playing the President, and she had just issued her first executive order to move all the stuffies to one side of the air mattress. “It’s time”, she said blithely, “to build the wall.”
For a moment, I could barely breathe. I briefly considered interrupting them to explain why this wasn’t really the stuff of play, but I forced myself to keep listening so I could make sense of how much she actually understood about what it all meant. (As it turns out, the wall’s singular purpose in this particular administration was to protect the White House’s supply of macaroni and cheese). Still, it was striking to realize that my attempts to shelter them from the divisive and frightening rhetoric of the last year hadn’t been as successful as I imagined. It’s not that we hadn’t engaged the issues at all; we’ve certainly had many conversations about Trump’s election. My son has a decent grasp of our major concerns, and I’ve watched him wrestle thoughtfully with how notions of inclusion and exclusion play out in his own world. They’ve both asked us good questions, and we’ve done our best to answer them honestly without burdening them with excessive fear or anxiety. But standing outside their tent that night, I was struck anew by the realization they were citizens of the world in their own right, and that no amount of rationing their screen time, careful re-direction or family dialogue could protect them entirely from having to contend with darkness in places where they’ve only ever known light. I think it was the start of accepting that my job was no longer to try to hide it all from them, but to find ways to take their not-so tiny hands, and start walking through it with them.
Later that night, my husband and I finally dispensed with the illusion of getting away from it all and had a good long talk about Charlottesville, Trump and our fears, but also about how to stand with awareness alongside our children without losing our sense of hope, or our sense of humour. We didn’t come up with any clear answers but the exploration made us both feel a bit better, and left us with a renewed determination to find ways to work at things meaningfully, even if only in the small reaches of our daily lives. I’m still unsure about what this all really looks like, but I do know that the uncertainty feels better than despair or complacency.
On the close of my 45th birthday, I am sure of a few things. I am sure that whether you understand fascists mobilizing in Charlottesville to be an overture for something far more ugly, or see it as a critical breaking point in this vile and dangerous Presidency, there is no longer enough sand in the world in which to bury ourselves. I’m sure that while it’s tempting to insist that there is nothing to be done on this side of the border short of waiting and watching in horror, and maybe hugging our loved ones a bit more tightly, it’s frankly just not enough. I’m sure that you don’t necessarily need an official title, a pulpit or a even a blog to start naming hate where and when you see it, even when it feels terrifying. I’m sure that if you are, like me, a white, straight, able-bodied woman living a largely middle class existence in one of the safest countries in the world, there’s probably a ton of stuff you could be doing in the wake of Charlottesville, but that sometimes the most important thing to do is just shut the hell up and listen to people of colour so that you understand what is needed. Finally, I’m sure that it is only when we begin to truthfully acknowledge and talk about our own complicitness in the systems and structures that perpetuate the racism that defined Charlottesville, that we can even begin to imagine an alternative. If nothing else, it’s a decent place to start.