I woke up early on Saturday because I was teaching in an intensive all day. I flicked through the news as I got dressed. The first hints of the chaos of the Muslim travel ban, signed by Executive Order and implemented at 430 am.
At a light, driving across the empty streets, I googled “call the prime minister.” (Who knew, but you actually get a number you can immediately poke). I poked it and held the phone to my ear while driving — I never do that — and was amazed to have a person answer at 8 am on a Saturday. I said “I would like to leave a message for the Prime Minister’s Office. It’s about what’s happening with the travel ban in the US.” And unexpectedly, I burst into tears and couldn’t stop.
I couldn’t figure out at first exactly what I was so upset about. Why tears, why now? The only other time I’ve actually cried in this whole cycle was watching Hillary’s resignation speech, when the camera panned out to the young girls. I’ve felt upset, and anger, and fear, and worry, and exasperation — but not actual tears.
In that moment, I flipped from cognitive and empathetic concern and anxiety about Everything That’s Happening, to a pure, childhood reptilian fear. I realized that by dialing the PMO, it felt like a last resort, a desire for some authority figure to Do Something, invoke some form of protection. In the face, I realized, of another, bigger authority figure in the world bullying vulnerable people. Asking “my dad” to come out and stop that big kid who’s older than everyone else in his grade from punching younger kids.
It didn’t work, of course. Justin responded with pics of him hugging little Syrian kids, sunny hashtags. #WelcometoCanada. He didn’t denounce the bully, didn’t change anything. I felt like he was distracting us — “come on over to my tree house! I have lemonade!” No mention of bloody noses on the little kids or the fact that the rungs on the ladder are all slippery (I’ll stop tormenting this metaphor any moment now). I read that tweet, and I got mad.
I have direct lines to the childhood fear that all of this evokes. My parents — perhaps unwisely — took us to a museum in a Nazi labour camp when I was about 8, and I then read obsessively about the Holocaust. I became fixated on books about people in hiding, people fleeing, people getting ready to flee by packing rucksacks with everything they might need. Somehow my fear translated into the action of packing a bag and hiding it in my closet. I knew I wasn’t Jewish and that it wasn’t 1941 in the Netherlands, but part of me reasoned “if kids leading perfectly normal lives could suddenly be snatched from their homes, I need to be ready.”
I grew out of keeping a bag packed and ready in my closet, but I developed a whole new layer of fear when I read The Handmaid’s Tale as an undergrad. I read and re-read it, chilled every time. It became a basic “interpretive repertoire” for me when I later studied communication theory and thought about the possible extreme outcomes of the “culture wars” in the US, the hints of nascent theocratic impulses, the systematic dismantling of access to reproductive rights in different states. A niggling anxiety underneath everything as the world unfolded in apparently “progressive” ways. Progress for women, for queer and trans people, is temporary, I always thought. Be vigilant.
This Saturday, I was texting with my friend Joanna in breaks while I was teaching, and she mentioned an art installation that included an adult blankie fort you could pay to enter. I started googling adult blankie forts, self-mocking my own sense of fear. Recognizing it as primal, not a response to an actual immediate threat. Decided I needed a day of hiding, and spent Sunday doing a jigsaw puzzle, drinking tea, eating macaroni and cheese and watching a whole season of the Mary Tyler Moore show. I only went outside to pick up the pizza from my Uber-eats driver. Metaphorical blankie fort, off grid, settled down.
Then the news of Quebec City filtered through my calm via a banner notification from the NY Times. (“You pay to have them upset you?” asked Susan).
I knew the smug illusion of the Safe Harbour of Canada would be blown, but I didn’t think it would be so immediate, so obvious. I also didn’t expect that the White House would blatantly, unbelievably claim that the attack on Muslim immigrants BY A WHITE CANADIAN RIGHT WINGER justifies the alt-right perspective that Muslims are the dangerous ones. And I didn’t think that Trudeau would so easily be bullied, would refuse to make the direct links between policies that actively position Muslims as evil and that lead people to attack Muslims in Canada. Would uphold the right of individual countries to make their own policies even when they are discriminatory and harmful.
Now my fear is toggling with anger, and it’s the kind of anger that I have to find a way to shape, to contain, to make sense of, because it’s squirting out, both on Trump supporters and on the people who “think both sides are overreacting.” I know the danger of outrage fatigue, and it scares me.
I have about 10 posts brewing in me about what I know about bridging conflict in polarized discourses. But I know I can’t even begin to be creative in those terms if I don’t make some peace with my fear, if I don’t give into anger or outrage.
My friend Joanna (the one from the blankie fort) wrote a post the other day about an experience we partially shared 27 years ago when we took our young naive selves to Oka to try to Do Something.
It was kind of a mess and what we did was not helpful. (Though I get all sorts of cred in a certain circle for having been hit by a soldier). The one sensible force in it all was a Quaker woman who brought some light to the mess.
Joanna wrote about how that woman has echoed for her lately. I’m trying to pay attention to that. Patience, witnessing, presence. The drunk uncle has overturned the Thanksgiving table and there’s no dad who’s going to make it all okay. But there are ways we can respond to that that make us more human than others.