My husband and I live in Tennessee, on the edge of Memphis. One of our friends had a sign up in his yard, one of those that says, We believe: science is real, Black lives matter, women’s rights are human rights, love is love, no one is illegal, diversity makes us stronger. So we found out where they got it, and ordered one for ourselves. I admit, it sat in the house for a few days before I had the courage to put it up.
Each day that it stayed in the yard, un-vandalized, I celebrated. On the fourth day, I was gardening when two pickup trucks pulled up in our courtyard. Stepping inside to use my shirt to wipe the sweat from my face, I said to my husband, “I hope they’re not here to do something about our sign.” What I meant was, Be ready to come out and back me up.
But it was just some guys doing pest control for the neighbors, so I went back to digging.
Then one of them approached. “I like your sign,” he said. He was a young Black man, so I figured he wasn’t being sarcastic.
“Thanks!” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s not so common around here.”
I smiled. “Unfortunately not.”
“Do you mind if I ask who you’re voting for?” He was polite, tentative. He stood by a pile of weeds I’d pulled and laid in the walkway from the driveway to the front door.
“Biden,” I said, surprised. Who else would I vote for, with a sign like that?
“He—” his co-worker approached us—“said you’d say that, but I was like, naw.” The co-worker, a white kid, smiled.
“Well I was a Bernie supporter—I’m all about healthcare for everybody, among other things—but I’m definitely voting against what we’ve got.” I tried to surreptitiously wipe away the sweat that was dripping into my eyes—a hot flash when it’s 80 degrees outside is serious business.
“Yeah, he is crazy,” the guy said. His friend said, “Healthcare for everybody would be good.”
“So who are you voting for?” I asked.
“Oh, I’m not sure I’m even going to bother,” he said, looking down.
I wish I’d said what I thought of later, that I wanted him to promise me he’d vote, that he should do it because some middle-aged white lady with a nice sign asked him to. Instead I admitted that I understood it could feel futile, living in such a one-sided state, but urged him to vote anyway because we needed as many people to vote as possible, so we could help make the argument to abolish the electoral college. “So we know everyone’s vote matters,” I said.
They went back to their work, and waved when they got in their trucks and left.
A week later, our neighbors put up a sign for the local Republican candidate, running to represent our district in the Tennessee House. We’d voted for the Democrat the last time he ran—and then won in an upset that surprised a lot of folks—and planned to vote for him again. But I like our neighbors, the ones we always chat with when we run into each other out front, the ones we lend tools to, the ones who brought my little old spaniel back when she got out of the back yard, the ones who gave my stepdaughter an egg when she was baking and didn’t want to run out to the grocery store. So I looked up what this Republican candidate stood for.
Unfortunately, she stands for keeping our taxes in the hands of the wealthy, so we aren’t “forced” to support failing public schools in our area or inner city Memphis. She’s anti-abortion and for “traditional values.” And her campaign flyers have been showing up in our mailbox, literally calling her Democratic opponent a devil.
The Democrat running to keep his seat is basically for the things I believe in: making sure poor people have food and a place to live, better healthcare for everyone, oh, and maybe making medical marijuana legal. As someone still in the process of being diagnosed for chronic pain (autoimmune, fibromyalgia, who knows), I’ve recently come to care about that last one.
It’s difficult to reconcile people we like—such as our neighbors—or even care about, like family members, with such opposite political views from ours. It always has been, for me, ever since I was twelve and knew deep in my heart that I would vote for Carter instead of Reagan if I could have voted in 1980. My values were for helping the poor, supporting civil rights, regulating industry, protecting the environment. I could not understand how good, thoughtful, intelligent people didn’t agree with me.
I still struggle with that. Actually, I struggle with it more year by year, though it certainly took a huge leap in 2016. That unbelievable year, when someone who mocked a disabled reporter, said overtly racist things, was caught on video casually discussing sexual assault, and incited his followers to violence against his opponent, won the presidency of the United States.
People talk about “doom-scrolling” these days—looking through the news and social media, seeing what awful things have happened and are predicted to happen based on the extreme political situation we find ourselves in. (Not to mention the pandemic, climate crisis, widening wealth gap…) I have had to limit my exposure to news and social media for the past few weeks in order to control my anxiety. And the truth is, that closing out of the virtual world with everything shouting for attention has really, really helped.
I still know, intellectually, what’s at stake in this election. I haven’t forgotten all the information I know about the things happening in the world. But giving myself a break from headlines written to capitalize on my outrage or horror or fears has been invaluable. I live in the world of those headlines, yes. But I also live in the world where my neighbor, who disagrees with me politically, comes over to chat while my husband and I are digging up the grass in a four foot diameter circle of the front yard and asks what we’re planting, says he’s looking forward to seeing the sweet-smelling American fringe tree when it blooms in the spring.
Another neighbor, less than a block from us, put up a sign like ours after we did. Actually, theirs looks nicer, because it’s a flag hanging from a wrought-iron post, but it says the same things. Another has a sign supporting the local Republican candidate, and right beside it, a Biden 2020 sign. No one in our immediate vicinity is displaying a Trump sign.
On our social media for neighborhoods app, someone recently went on a rant about how none of us should display any political signs, because it just riles people up, divides us, and doesn’t change anyone’s mind. I understand this point of view. I want to argue that our sign isn’t really political, because it’s about values, not candidates. But of course it is.
Would I have had that lovely conversation with the two young men if we hadn’t displayed our sign? No, definitely not. So I’m glad we bought it on Etsy, glad we displayed it.
However, I think I’m going to take it down at the end of the day on November 3rd. Because after that—hours or days or even longer—there may be angry people looking for a target, because Trump lost. Or—worse—people emboldened by Trump’s win, feeling it’s their right to terrorize anyone who disagrees.
I hate that these fears will dictate my actions. I hope my fears are unfounded, that they come to nothing. I hope those young men I spoke with actually do vote. I hope we continue to be friendly with our neighbors, that we all continue to be human to each other here, in the physical world, where I live now. Where maybe the tiny sapling I planted will take root, and grow, and produce sweet-smelling blooms that we and our neighbors can enjoy.