Choosing to reply

For ten days I have faced my computer with a twist in my stomach. I enter my password, watch the hourglass flicker and fight the urge to close my eyes. My screen is not made of glass, so as the light shines behind me, no glare reflects the contours of my face. Still I imagine I can glimpse the spectral glimmer of conscience. The program blinks and I scan the names in the “sender” column.  She isn’t there. There is no relief—just the churn of resignation, sadness and a faint trail of resolve. 

Ten days ago I received an email from a friend I have known since fourth grade. She was the youngest freckled kid in a sunny family of eight. I was the oldest in a more off-kilter family of four. Our temperaments were as light and dark as our hair color but we shared enough that when I moved away in junior high we planned and succeeded in reuniting at college, rooming together on and off until she married. We have kept in touch, mostly due to her unfailing persistence: birthday calls, Christmas cards, and email. She sends me mass feel-good emails and monthly updates about her family and activities. She is like extended family, part of a framework that contains my life without really being a part of it.

The subject line of her last email was “Protect Our Families!” I did not need to read every detail of the four pages to bristle at the gist. I was being urged to call my senate leader immediately in support of the Marriage Protection Amendment and was given many different websites and arguments just in case I had any doubts as to the righteous imperative of the cause. This was not the first of these types of emails she had sent me. Usually I just delete and forget—she lives a million miles away and a million lives from mine, does she really need to know what I think about this issue?

But I froze before the click. My hands felt cold, bloodless, my heart beat too fast as I felt the adrenalin spike; my body had decided to fight long before my head had a chance to consider flight. It was a very physical reaction—a swirling mix of fear and anger. Every word of the email evoked images of white hoods. I didn’t think about the consequences, I just started typing.   

A few weeks ago my twelve-year-old and I approached a hospital with a small group of people on the curb brandishing a large sign. As we drove closer to the 8-by-4 foot Technicolor photo, we recognized the squashed-up baby parts—anti-abortion propaganda. My son, who shrieks at a sliver, was horrified. He turned to me for some kind of explanation. “Is this true mom? Do they really kill and chop up babies?” “Well, we don’t really know where those pictures have come from, they could be a very rare second trimester abortion (most take place when the baby looks like a less sympathetic brine shrimp), the baby could have been naturally stillborn, we don’t know and they don’t care, they just want us to be grossed out.” We talked about the fact that I was lucky to have wanted both my pregnancies at exactly the right time, but that individual circumstances are always unique and heart rending. I would want the choice. We talked about when babies may or may not become fully human. And what happens when there are no choices, only illegal procedures. 

Mostly we talked about freedom of speech. As long as those people on the corner did not shoot anyone or blow up the clinic, they could show whatever yucky pictures they wanted. This is what makes America great—not the flag or apple pie or jingoistic faux morality—but that all of this can be talked and written about in public. This was worth defending. My son looked dubious. It was very complicated. The graphic images played through his head. I thought of the children of the people holding the signs. Their world seems so simple: bad or good, dead or alive, blue or red. My son sits in a purple haze of grey and can’t figure out why it is OK to make people feel bad.       

I began my response to my friend with a chatty paragraph–why I was late writing her back, that we should call soon. Then I started a new paragraph.

I hope I do not offend you, but please do not send me any more (email) on this particular topic. I feel this amendment is morally wrong and potentially abuses and denies rights to many people that I love and support . . . To me protecting families is to protect the right for anyone who loves each other to commit to a permanent relationship . . . I feel (this legislation) is exclusionary and takes time and energy away from real issues that are continually ignored in this country.

I ended with something banal about “agree to disagree” and political discourse. I read it over and over. It wasn’t exactly eloquent or sophisticated, I had read better in the “letters to the editor” in the newspaper. I sent it with a shaking hand. It was so small, this little note of passion, yet I was tense, as if chaining myself to a tree, challenging bulldozers and not a lifelong friend.

I wasn’t always so nervous standing up for a cause. When I was in third grade I drew a picture of myself with my hands on my hips and my heels clicking together—a scrawled purple message along the bottom read: “Peace on earth darn-it!” It was 1972 and the project was to use crayon on a length of fabric, then iron it to melt the wax into the cloth so that it would last forever. My artwork did not reflect my parents’ views or the small Michigan town where I lived at the time. I illustrated the Vietnam War as I saw it, night after night on the news, colored by my own ideological soundtrack. 

The year I was born Peter, Paul and Mary sang “Blowing in the Wind” at the Washington Memorial. Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez all warned me of inequality among people, and assured me that I could change hearts and minds if I took action. I pressed my ear to the upholstered front of the credenza-style stereo, listening intently to every string and harmony, weaving profound opinions about the way the world worked. When my parents tired of them, I took the records to my room and played them on a red suitcase turntable, scratchy but true. Steeped in the politics of folk music—from the loss of love to the loss of freedom—I grew up preternaturally awake to layers of injustice and the possibility of protest. I was liberal before I could read.

My friend usually answers my messages almost instantly, as if waiting for me to respond. This time, there has been nothing. The next day I sent her a note telling her how much her friendship means to me and that I hoped we could talk about it. No reply back so far. 

What did I expect? Certainly not a conversion, but perhaps acceptance: “That is really interesting, let’s talk about it.” I did not think it through. I was so put off by the rhetoric in my inbox that I behaved on an uncharacteristic gut level. When is an act of dissent an attempt to initiate transformation? When do you ratchet down and just hope to build awareness? And when is it about preserving identity, as Toni Morrison says, gently asking to lay down your story alongside everyone else’s? Whatever my intent, I did not expect to lose her. I couldn’t help but feel a little silly and wonder if it was worth endangering a 30+ year relationship for a belief. 

Then the irony of this question hit me. Having the option to question my choice to be honest or not is the dilemma of a privileged woman. At the core of true activism is the lack of choice. For someone who is marginalized by some combination of law and society, speaking out is about survival; disguise is at best a luxury, at worst a denial of self. At the core of true activism is looking in the mirror and seeing a flesh and blood person with voice and weight and movement in the world. At the core of true activism is a human being whose only choice is to be human in a way that makes sense and even music to their own soul. At the core of true activism is the desire to be connected to those who know you and to be real to those who want to ignore you. At the core of true activism is a shout in the silence.

It is a small victory over inertia, to respond to hateful diatribe over a screen—one that in the scheme of war and famine and discrimination seems almost trivial. And who knows, I could be over-reacting; my dear friend may be on vacation. She may be gathering her thoughts. She may never write me back again. But the longer the quiet, the more meaningful my tiny act of truth. As I wait for her reply, I empathize with so many others who, having revealed their deepest longings, wait with anxiety ten times squared—speaking, writing, singing, walking day after wrenching day, doing their best to name their own future and their own relationships, seeking to expand even as others constrict, the definition of love.

12 responses to “Choosing to reply”

  1. please tell me that you still have that “peace on earth, darn it!” banner somewhere. can you scan it? i want that on a t-shirt.

    one of my grandma’s brothers used to send out family update emails to his whole extended family, including us. little by little they’d become politicized. this was in the late 90s — the middle of the clinton impeachment. one day he just sent one out celebrating the impeachment. he referred to clinton as “the great adulterer” and went on and on about restoring dignity to the white house. i finally sent him back an email saying “we don’t all share your political views. i appreciate the family updates but would like to be taken off your political mailing list.” i haven’t received anything since, political or not.

    your last paragraph had me a little teary eyed. you pretty much kick ass.

  2. Missy says:

    I loved reading this. I can absolutely relate to the “revelation” of disparate politics and then the silence, and I’m sorry for the sadness you must be feeling, the deep disappointment that you even had to send the message in the first place. Loved the detail of listening to the music with your head resting against the cloth-covered stereo speakers.

  3. Scott Godfrey says:

    It seems that the plan to polarize us has been pretty darn successful. The thing about this that troubles me most is that if you look at who benefits from separating us, it is all of our leaders, left and right. We buy into these non-issues and allow them to keep us from connecting on the most human levels.

    In reality, most of us, no matter how we feel about same-sex marriage or abortion want the same basic things out of life: a decent job, a home, family, and community. Of course, if every one got these things there would be little reason to vote for politician X, Y, or Z. Sadly, the manufactured “issues” will perpetuate our political discourse for the foreseeable future, as will the war for oil.

    What a sad post.

  4. PB says:

    Sad for the country yes, for me, there is a nice epilogue.
    Yesterday I finally got an email from my friend–another mass email on charity work for women in Iraq. In the subject line she wrote: “(I hope this one is OK).” Not exactly discourse, but I am so happy and relieved to see her name. So was all this a neurotic over-reaction? Sure. But as Stephanie W. says, it is practice that makes us strong. In the space, I did a lot of thinking. Maybe she did too.
    Today email, tomorrow I make more crayon drawings.

    And yes Bryan I do still have the picture–I will see if I can find it–Christmas is coming . . .

  5. WW says:

    I thought about your post all weekend — about your well, courage. I suspect you’ve inspired many small victories over intertia….

  6. MF says:

    About seven years ago, I had a very similar interaction with my twin sister. We had, for some time, been moving in different philosophical directions. I found it difficult to sound my point of view, or even to whisper it. I feared rejection. I feared the loss of my most treasured relationship. But I also knew that in my silence I could not be loved. In my silence I was slipping away from her. I was becoming no one.

    In a small such message, I became a person again to her. Not without some of the same treacherous silence. Not without some of the same pensive days between discussion.

    It’s worth it.

    M

  7. Lisa Parrish says:

    Pandora, good for you for responding to her initial email the way you did. There’s no reason to “wonder if it was worth endangering a 30+ year relationship for a belief.” You didn’t endanger anything. If she had chosen not to reply, she’d have been the one that destroyed the relationship, not you.

    So many of us have been in this situation and felt bad for sending even gentle responses like yours – even though those sending us the initial emails don’t feel bad at all about foisting their (often intolerant) opinions on us. Of course we should respond in kind. And we should never feel bad about it. Good for you!

  8. Marion Bishop says:

    I have been a fan of yours for a long time, and this post only confirms why. Keep writing, girl. You enrich us all.

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