Consider Your Neighbors (All Over the Country)
Jami Attenberg on Finding Empathy Across the Backyard Fence
The morning after the election, still anesthetized by the liquor I had consumed the night before, I got up early and took a bath. As I soaked, I started writing a novel in my head. It began with a woman taking a bath the morning after an election, still anesthetized by the liquor she had consumed the night before. “Staring disconsolately into space,” I imaginary-typed.
I realized: Anything I wrote before today is irrelevant. I must write anew.
Then I walked the dog, dragging my feet through my neighborhood. Everything seemed quiet and suspect. I got a coffee at a café near my house, and my favorite barista (an aspiring writer) and I spoke quietly for a moment, unable to utter anything more than the basics, the admittance of depression and fear and anger. “Godspeed,” she said to me when I left, and she touched my shoulder.
At the dog park there was a four-month-old puppy named Lulu, who tracked dirt all over my jeans as I stroked her soft face. One of her owners sat, alone, on the ground, at the edge of the park. Staring disconsolately into space. I talked to his girlfriend for a while, and she said, “We sobbed the whole way here.” But still I think we all felt better talking to each other, and that puppy sure was cute.
By the time I got home, I needed to do something with my hands, do something, do anything. I didn’t want to sit at my computer yet. I knew I would lose the day to it. To speeches and blame and hot, salty emotions. So I decided to spend some time in my backyard, weeding and watering my plants. It always feels good to make small acts of progress with the earth.
All over America, backyards are where we relax and read, take naps on hammocks, sip from beer bottles at the end of the day while the sky changes before our eyes. Backyards are a place to sneak cigarettes and watch our dogs dig in the dirt. We can be quiet in our backyards, so quiet, the better to hear the birds chirping. And backyards are where we can hide when we need to clear our heads.
It had rained the last few days, and the ground was soft. I dug in quietly, methodically. Soon a door slammed, and, over the fence, I heard one of my neighbors and her girlfriend start talking on their back porch. My neighbor was on fire, both angry and mournful, electric in her pain. She spoke about how she had so few rights as a gay person, to start with, and now, probably soon, even less. She talked about not knowing what would come next.
And then I was crying – the first time I had cried about it, because I had been so numb all morning – and then I was struck by this really specific vision: I was suddenly eavesdropping in backyards all over the country, on all the people of different colors and ethnic backgrounds and sexual orientations and physical abilities who feel threatened right now, pacing on back porches, wondering what will happen to them.
My neighbors, I thought.
It is our responsibility to take care of each other as citizens of the same country, and as human beings on the same planet. This is what I believe. I’m all in on this. We have to look all around us, at our neighbors, and imagine the conversations they must be having. Now is when we call on our empathy, now is when we imagine what the other person must be going through, now is when we must listen. Now is when we make small acts of progress with the earth.