Do Better

The father squatted down on the patch of mud and dead grass. The little boy, maybe five or six, stood beside him, watching closely as his father pushed the metal legs of the stand into the soft earth, which in January should have been bedrock. The father straightened up, stepped back, placed his hands on his hips to survey what they had just planted: a plastic blue and gold sign that read “PETE 2020.” The little boy looked up at the father, gauging his reaction—was this okay? Was this good work? Did we do it right? The father returned the boy’s expectant gaze with a short nod. He lifted his hand, palm out to invite the universal “high-five;” the little boy responded with a speed that would make Pavlov blush with pride. I watched the pair cross the street from the narrow traffic median. The father placed his hand protectively across the little boy’s back as they prepared to cross the street. Their heads swiveled in sync, glancing left and right to check for oncoming traffic. All clear, they walked over to the adjacent parking lot where they loaded themselves into a car and drove off.

The simple scene filled me with gooey hope. “When you know better, do better,” wrote Maya Angelou. This is the simple message Greta Thunberg has taken with her around the world: here is what we all know, what is proven in scientific data, what can be ignored, but cannot be unknown. Do better. I’m only finding my way to better in these last three years, mostly out of outrage and despair. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that becoming more politically tuned-up was also an attempt to alleviate the shame of my white, cisgendered privilege, which at times feels like it has subterranean depths. I might lose points for lateness, but I’m willing to do extra credit.   

When I attended the first Women’s March in 2017, I was emotionally overwhelmed by all the families I saw: Dads with little girls perched high on their shoulders, moms and grandmothers pushing strollers, all kinds of parental formations moving through the crowd, their hands joined with toddlers and tweens, converging and dividing like cell clusters in the organism formed by this massive outpouring. No one was too young or too old to sport their pink pussy hat. It was an introduction to democracy that I never had. The experience of gathering with thousands of other people to raise a collective voice in a wail containing the notes of pain and steely resilience to fight for a stronger humanity, is one I hope many of those kids never forget. I’m counting on them having the recognition that participating in democracy is both a privilege and a responsibility tattooed onto their consciousness, making advocacy as reflexive as blinking.  

My parents were politically informed, but not active on any kind of national level that I could see. Both were brought up in enclaves of whiteness and buffered economic diversity—my father from the upper-east side of Manhattan, my mother from a mid-sized town in the Hudson Valley of upstate New York, home to the Roosevelt family. Neither ever had to confront prejudice or injustice or even a whiff of class discomfort. My mother went from high school into the work force; my father was a college graduate, but if he did encounter any type of student political organizations they either didn’t make an impression or they cut into the time he spent nursing hangovers and cramming for exams in the classes he skipped.

At some young age, I had the sense that politics happened out there. They belonged to people I saw on TV, mostly men, mostly white, who wore suits and swung briefcases as they climbed the stairs to the capitol. Things happening in government seeped into our house in the crackle of a disembodied voice on AM radio tucked into the corner of a kitchen counter. They were carried in by newspapers that I hated handling for the way the filthy ink left their sooty marks on my fingers and hands. They were brought to the dinner table in color images of a place called the Gaza Strip, portrayed as perpetually on fire, a chaotic scene from an action film in search of a plot on loop. There was comfort in the displaced nature of the world, as I saw it. I simply didn’t have to care about what didn’t seem to infiltrate my tidy, suburban kid life. If my parents cared beyond being able to hold a water cooler conversation, they didn’t show it.

Yet somehow I grew up knowing the value of a vote, especially in town business. Voting for local offices as well as on articles for things like approving the budget to build a new elementary school or passing a law to preserve an area of wetland was more crucial, I learned, than casting your ballot for the sexy elections for governor or state senator.

This was driven home to me one March when there was a freak snowstorm on town election day. A No’reaster had plows prowling the streets like bloodhounds, but the polls stayed open. The 1980s were not a delicate decade nor one where a lot of common sense prevailed. My mother waited for my dad to get home from work around six. She crammed my brother and I into our snow suits, and the four of us walked the half mile in the whipping, drifting snow down to the elementary school that served as our polling place. We shed clumps of ice from our boots and gloves on the linoleum floor as my brother and I thawed out from our adventure and waited for our parents to reappear from the little curtained booths that looked like they belonged in a magician’s act.

What I couldn’t see then is my parents cared fiercely. Maybe they didn’t have a protest or rally to attend, but they showed up in an arena just as charged. They were in those stalls marking a sheet that contained the stakes of “out there” rendered in intimate terms—safer streets, better schools, more jobs—for their family and the lives of others around them.

When our political systems work (and they have, maybe it feels like in a galaxy far, far away these days), they remove the jargon and spin and hot take from the issues and remind us what they are really about: lives touching lives. When we remember that, when we help each other remember that, when we teach it to others as the model, not the exception, we all have a fighting chance at doing better.

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