It is in Pennsylvania that we see the first sign. My boyfriend is driving, and I sit with my feet up in the passenger’s seat, gazing out at the long stretches of farm country: the flat golden hills, the occasional steel-sheeted silo, barren trees, modest farmsteads. We are taking a road trip through the South to visit my boyfriend’s brother outside of Nashville for Thanksgiving, my first time below the Mason-Dixon line. In front of a small shed, three sides of a trailer are plastered in the blue and red signs, the broad white letters arrogantly oversized: TRUMP PENCE 2016.
Seeing the names hits me harder than I thought it would. In the two weeks since November 8, I have marched in protests, cried with friends, families, and neighbors, and suffered through a series of recurring dreams in which I learn that the election had never happened. I only knew three Trump supporters in the flesh; the rest seemed like an ambiguous mass, bound together by hatred and fear, that I thought would disappear after the election. I still cannot bring myself to believe that anyone actually voted for him. Several weeks ago, the battle lines were clearly drawn: racism and tolerance, nationalism and progressivism, and I was on the right side of history.
Now, the boundaries of my moral universe are blurring. I am finding it hard to separate my feelings from my logic. I live in New York, where it is easy to avoid thinking critically about the concerns and realities of voters who would be drawn in by Trump’s message and to condemn them for their lack of compassion. But I cannot square this truth with the severity of the betrayal. I have been seeking empathy, but only from those to whom I can also extend it.
From that point on, the signs come every few miles: a flag waving on a local golf course, hand painted letters across a cargo crate. A few bumper stickers. A massive sheet with the President Elect’s smiling face next to an orange banner with the former Secretary of State dressed in prison garb, “Hillary for Jail 2016.”
The closest statement of opposition I see is written into the dust on the back door of a semi. “Please vote not for Trump!” someone had traced. “Trump, hell no!”
The protest is so mild, so impermanent, that I have a hard time believing it is the work of the driver. I do not think the fact that it has remained unwashed for several weeks can be taken as any sign of tacit approval. Instead, it seems incidental, destined to disappear entirely once it finds itself in a rainstorm or carwash. How easily, I think, hope can be washed away.
About four hours in, it’s my turn to drive. I make it onto the highway, but I can’t bring myself to drive above 60. “Are you okay?” my boyfriend asks, after I swerve into the shoulder for the second time. I nod, too afraid to unclench my jaw to speak.
I’ve started to have panic attacks when I drive on the freeway. For the past several years, there has been something about the combination of velocity and expansiveness on the two-, three-, four-, five-lane highway that makes my throat constrict and my breathing go shallow.
I recently had a student point out that I have the tendency to dispense value judgments too readily. “Is that a good thing?” I had asked her. “Or a bad thing?”
She looked at me calmly. She was showing me something she had written about the outcome of the election that dealt with the aesthetic presentations of the two parties. “I try not to ask those questions of my own artwork. It doesn’t matter if something is good or bad, the important thing is just that it is.”
This was as revelatory as anything I have ever paid a therapist to tell me. I realized that I feel most comfortable in a world of binaries, the exact kind of black and white that I am always telling my writing students to take issue with. There was something about the way she said “just that it is” that sounded vaguely Buddhist, in the way I am always thinking I should be. Since then, I have been trying to stay aware of this impulse in myself and to mitigate it.
I think it has to do with the same feeling that is responsible for these panic attacks. It’s about the possibility for the loss of control, the awareness that at any moment I could throw up or black out or stop breathing and kill myself, the realization that all I have to go by is a thin dotted line on either side. There is simply too much freedom on the road.
I drive for about 45 minutes before I pull into a Starbucks parking lot, scraping the bumper on the curb as I park. “I’m going to get some coffee, and then maybe I’ll drive for a little,” my boyfriend says gently. I nod. Both my hands are still clamped on the wheel.
We stop for the night at a farm in Virginia. At a red light on the outskirts of town, I look up to a window on the second floor of a home. It looks like a teenager’s room, a small TV and fairy lights. But on the wall, where there would normally be a poster of a band, a celebrity, or a Sports Illustrated swimsuit centerfold, there is a large confederate flag.
Later, in a gift shop run by a sweet lady who tells us about her son who is stationed at a Marine base near my home in California and wishes us a blessed evening, between several rows of porcelain angels and decorative spoons, I find a whole wall full of confederate paraphernalia. We drive past the Stonewall Jackson Inn, and through a whole lot of streets named for General Lee. This election, it strikes me, is a harsh reminder of the dangers of living in the past.
For the second time that day, I feel a mix of surprise and anger. To my mind, there is little difference between the confederate flag and a swastika: both commemorate cultures built on hatred and racism. Both are shorthand for violence. In Germany, representations of the swastika are illegal. I lived there a year and a half, and the only one I encountered was half-heartedly etched into the back of a bus seat. Only a losing side declares its aims so quietly, in half-hidden graffiti or in dust.
When we finally pull into the farm, we get out of the car and stand there, watching our breath catch in the air. The stars sit heavy above us, resting on the thick cold air. “Listen,” my boyfriend says. “Can you hear that?” I turn around to look at him. There is nothing to be heard, no wind, no crickets, no cars or people. Just silence, silence of the type it has been years since I’ve heard. I suddenly become aware of a dull ringing in my ears.
Trump won rural voters by a high margin, while Clinton carried urban areas. To generalize, many Trump voters are the ones who live out here like this, on top of nature, not just as a holiday getaway but Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, through Sunday. I would think that living with an awareness of the earth would make you more empathetic, which I would equate with progressivism. But then I think that maybe it is the opposite: maybe it is the city, with all its oppressive smells and sounds, that breeds tolerance.
There I go again, with the value judgments. We take our bags from the car and head into the house. I need to work on letting things be.
We make it to Tennessee late the next night. By that time, I had stopped counting the Confederate flags and the Trump signs. The following day, Thanksgiving morning, we do groceries and take a drive around the area. My boyfriend’s brother is stationed on a base just across the Tennessee Kentucky border.
On Route 41 in Hopkinsville, I see a sign: “Trail of Tears, Original Route.” “Pull over,” I say, and he takes us into the Trail of Tears Memorial Park. The site is largely a parking lot, surrounded on one side by a grassy hill and on the other a creek bed. I get out and walk over to the log built “heritage center,” which I find is closed in November except for a two-hour story time on Saturday mornings. There are trees planted in honor of the tribes who were victims of the forced relocation. Above, a line of plaques tells the story of the Trail of Tears, leading to the fenced in gravesite of Chief Whitepath, a Cherokee war hero who died on the route from Nashville.
I walk through, taking pictures and shaking my head. Of all the days to stumble upon a Trail of Tears memorial, however small or imperfectly maintained, it is Thanksgiving. I am grateful for the obvious poignancy. I think of the men and the women at Standing Rock, just a thousand miles to the north, who are spending the holiday fighting to protect their land from the reach of the US government. Looking around at the empty park, I think of the confederate flags, and wonder if living in the past isn’t the problem but perhaps a solution. But that’s wrong too. I am so tired of these false equivalencies.
Later, on our way back, we pass a rusty old farm on a winding two-lane road. In front, an animal is toppled over, its legs erect, almost spread eagle. It looks to me like a taxidermied bear. We pull over. It’s a dead cow, its face pockmarked by insects. There is no obvious sign of injury. I can’t imagine how she died like that, how rigor mortis left her legs in a perfect standing position. It is as though she went on for a while grazing through the fields, unaware that she was dead.
Photo Credit: Levi Mandel
The tears come easily on Thanksgiving. They have been coming a lot more in the past few weeks, more this year than others. I have always felt thin-skinned, but these days, I feel more like a walking open wound.
I find it harder and harder to pretend to be a Buddhist. I think that’s true for many of those heartbroken. This election has made me more of an evangelical than anything else.
On Thanksgiving night, after the food has been eaten and the dishes have been cleared, the small group of us sits around playing Texas hold’em and drinking Moscow Mules. I have just won a hand when one of the guests mentions something about women using abortion as a method of birth control. As I hear him proving his point, something inside of me snaps. I find myself speaking out, clearly at first, and then muddled by tears, my voice rising. I find myself talking about Trump, about my fear for my body, my fear for my family, my fear for people who I haven’t met yet. I hear myself bring up the confederate flag, the Trail of Tears, Black Lives Matter. I find myself suffocating in my own words.
I leave the conversation and lay on the guestroom bed, sobbing drunkenly to myself. A part of me feels how wrong this is. Several weeks ago, I would have let mistruths slide for the sake of diplomacy. I do not have an argumentative disposition by nature, and I don’t believe that anger is a productive way to change someone else’s mind. But I no longer have any room in my life for arguments that don’t deal in real human experience, that prioritize logical ends and abstract truths over lived realities. I demand a world in which emotions are treated as facts. But I also know that this is the exact way of thinking that elected a man who trades in fear, suspicions, and a willful disregard of scientific, sociological, and historical truths.
I don’t know if I am being brave or selfish. I don’t know how to listen to a voice that seems to be in opposition to my own, because I don’t know how to separate the personal from the political anymore. I don’t know how to exorcise the anger that seems to live at the core of my being, or the fear that has suddenly taken such a human form. I don’t know if I even should, or if it would be better to hold onto these feelings like a coat of arms. I see the world changing in front of me, and I no longer feel so sure about what is good and what is bad. I don’t know how to empathize right now. And that frightens me.
My boyfriend comes in to comfort me. As I give myself into his arms, and his assurances that I was the right, I believe him, but I am not sure I feel anything that resembles victory.
On the way back to New York, my panic subsides. I can drive for whole stretches of time without anxiety shooting to my gag reflex, meeting whole swathes of 3-lane highway at 70 mph, reaching a state that is almost meditative. Things are beginning to feel like they could be normal.
This time, we drive through Kentucky, where the air stays a stable 45 degrees. It is a windless cold that seems to blanche the landscape of its color. But then, every once in a while, between miles of empty branches, there is a tree whose leaves are the deepest crimson red or the starkest canary yellow. They are beautiful. I hold onto the sight of them like diamonds along the road.
We see no more Trump signs on our way home. For whole hours at a time, the past month seems like it could have been a bad dream. But then, little reminders—a DJ on the radio, the crossing of state lines, the weariness we both carry. I breathe in. Something inside of me feels steely and resolved where before there was softness.
The panic isn’t all gone. I stop breathing for a few seconds when my boyfriend goes to sleep, for he has gained trust in my driving. At one point, I look down to see that I am going 90 miles per hour. My heart beats faster. And then, ever so gently, I push my foot down on the gas pedal.
Julia Bosson is a writer and educator living in Brooklyn. She received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Columbia University, where she has taught in the undergraduate creative writing program. Her essays have been featured in Tablet and the Grief Diaries, among others, and she is currently at work on a project about memorials. During the school year, she teaches at the Cooper Union.
Featured Photo Credit: Levi Mandel