Echoes of 9/11 from 11/9

Where were you on 11/9? There’s a question we’ll be asking ourselves when we look back years from now on the election of 2016. I left home that night around 6:00 Pacific time for my office in Menlo Park to Skype into a jumbotron set up in the Wellesley College field house. Some 3,000 Wellesley women from near and far had gathered in anticipation of a joyous celebration of the return to the White House of our illustrious alumna, Hillary Rodham Clinton, class of 1969. We felt a gravitational pull “home to the mother ship” to watch the ultimate glass ceiling come down. As I left, my husband, who was glued to our small screen, suggested that I might want to modulate my remarks. The returns are not encouraging, he warned. I winced and went out the door.

Small wonder, then, that the loss of the election felt personal to me. I was President of Wellesley College, my alma mater, during the 14 years through which Hillary’s career spanned the White House as First Lady, the Senate, and then the Cabinet as Wellesley’s second Secretary of State. Hillary had been a freshman my senior year and when she lived in the White House, my husband and I spent a night there, in the Queens Bedroom. She made several trips to campus, one for Chelsea’s first college tour. We interacted in other settings and became friends. And I worked to support her campaign, as did thousands of Wellesley women. It was personal — to me and throughout Wellesley as the field house celebration spiraled downward into disbelief and then despair.

The thing about this loss, though, is how personal it has felt to so many people — women and men — who still say they feel like they’re moving through stages of grief. What is it that we have lost? Not just an election. Not just the long-deferred dream of a woman president. Not just the forward momentum during the Obama years toward greater equality, dignity, justice. Not just the hopes Hillary carried for the future; the aspirational vision of our nation struggling, to “mend her every flaw,” words from America the Beautiful, penned by Katherine Lee Bates, a Wellesley professor and alum. Perhaps we have lost the sense that “our nation” actually is “ours,” with all that might signify.

It has been humbling to acknowledge how insulated we are from so many people who voted for a candidate we literally could not imagine holding out any appeal to thoughtful fellow citizens. It has been sobering to realize that if “our side” had won, the “other” would be as devastated now as we are, as angry and alarmed at the prospect of what may lie ahead. It has been unnerving to feel viscerally the currents of fear that propelled this election forward to its stunning conclusion with roughly equal numbers of “blue” and “red” voters glaring across an unbridgeable chasm. What does this portend for the American experiment?

The next morning — 11/9 — I, and others, began imagining the way forward, how to double our efforts on causes we care about, in my case education, health, and climate change, all now in peril. At the same time, we spoke of reaching out to Republican voters to see if we could find some common ground. First I had a commitment in San Diego, a symposium on contemplation and compassion. Surely a place to begin finding a way forward and it was.

On the flight back from the meeting, when the plane was ready to take off, a Spanish-speaking mother, with two small daughters, arrived late and was unable to find seats together. Two women gave up theirs to create an open row of three; one of them took the middle seat in my aisle. The flight attendant offered her a free drink, which she declined.

It was a short flight and we were both reading until we began to land. I closed my book and thanked her for her generous act. It was the least she could do after the divisive election, she replied. And then she added, “He really is a classy guy.” I froze. Clearly she was referring to Trump’s victory speech. Without thinking, I blurted out what I firmly believe: “He was just reading the teleprompters. Someone wrote those gracious words for him. They are not who he is.” Before she had time to respond it was our turn to exit the plane. We gathered our things and hustled off, both glad to end the encounter. So much for communication and compassion across the red-blue chasm.

I’ve been asking myself since that incident what triggered my curt response. Hillary Clinton and Barak Obama encouraged us to open our minds, give him a chance, see ourselves on the same team, presume good faith. I was unable to find that place in myself. The stakes felt too high.

It has been said that the things we care most about will always break our hearts. And the broken-heartedness will carry us to thresholds we don’t know how to cross. Or we are too afraid to admit the costs of crossing. And so as I continue to devour the cascade of post-election writings — brilliant analysis, wise counsel, pragmatic advice — I find myself needing still space to absorb what crossing this threshold asks of me.

In the weeks after 9/11 many of us noticed that we were interacting differently, that we were gentler with ourselves and each other, that time had slowed down and our hearts had opened up, connecting us in a web of caring. That was a trauma we Americans experienced as an existential blow to our country. It brought us together.

What if 11/9 is equally a blow to the very foundations of who we have thought we are as a people? A blow that has revealed how frayed we have allowed our connections to become. What if it is calling us to get over ourselves, look beyond our small selves to larger patterns in the dangerous world we have made for our children? What if it is inviting us to look in a mirror, probe within ourselves, see and come to terms with the stranger within, so that we can emerge in time with the courage to see and connect with the strangers beyond?

We need to be vigilant for sure, to resist the forces that will try to erase the memory of what happened in this election, forces that will work to overwrite the memory and normalize the Trump presidency. We should remember that he lost the popular vote. We can hold him accountable for the contemptuous values and policies he espouses, values that a majority of the electorate roundly rejects. We can organize and resist. We can cast our lot with others who are providing support to those most vulnerable to the kinds of changes that may be in store. We can and will do all of that. And I hope we will continue to hold open a space where we can reflect, alone and together, risk ourselves for a higher aim, be willing to be touched by the mystery and the magnitude of this moment in our collective life as Americans in a complex and fragile world.

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