Monday, November 21, 2016

Alone in Middle America

Tulsa Airport

On Tuesday, November 8th I boarded a plane to Tulsa for a conference. It was election day, a tense time for America as our future president would be decided that evening. After years of campaigning and drama we would finally have closure. But on Tuesday night, I had no idea what the rest of that day and the days to follow would bring. 

This excerpt from my diary was written in my hotel room that evening. It was just before the electoral votes were counted. 

"Once the plane began descending into Tulsa I looked out the window and saw an ocean. Deep blue with frothy white waves. But we were in the middle of America, nowhere close to the sea. What I was looking at was a low-hanging layer of clouds. When we finally submerged ourselves in the clouds I could see nothing. We had entered into a snow glob. Finally a faint specs of light appeared in the distance, twinkling like fireflies in a displaced memory. The outlines of the city slowly came into view. Tulsa was drawing itself line by line until the lines became streets, houses, cars, buildings. Trees. It was twilight when we landed and the trees outside the airport shook at the weight of hundreds of black birds."

When the votes started appearing online, I turned my phone off and tried to sleep. After tossing and turning for a few hours, I turned my phone back on at midnight and learned the results of the election. I was stunned. Here was one of the most important moments in US history and I was alone in a hotel room in Tulsa, Oklahoma. No one could witness my tears. No one could talk to me. I opened Facebook and read post after post from terrified and depressed friends. I put out a cry for help. Some people answered. Their words didn't comfort me because no one was even capable of comforting themselves. I might have drifted to sleep around 4:00am. I left the curtain in my room open and when I awoke at 6:00am the sun was rising. A new day. The darkness of night always pressurized loneliness and depression, but usually the morning brings with it the literal and symbolic promise of a new beginning. 

Not this time.  
there was a ton of alcohol in this tea

Tulsa at dawn is calm, quiet, unassuming. It should have been a soothing view. But the world felt different. I felt betrayed. At the conference everyone seemed normal, if not a little reserved. Finally I mentioned something casually to a friend at the conference. She hugged me. 

"It's not going to be ok," she said. Finally, someone willing to tell the truth. 

That night I drank enormously and ended up at a bar down the street from my hotel room, tired of being alone and "trying to eavesdrop hard enough so that I will feel like I am a part of something."

By Thursday evening I could not hold my emotions in any longer. I went to a restaurant alone in the evening and cried as soon as my salad arrived. Then I left and walked across the street to a cafe. When I arrived "I looked around and every seat and table was taken. There was one large round table with 5 chairs and I asked the guy there if I could sit with him. Just as I was hanging my coat and purse, a small bar counter in an enclave opened. If I moved there, I would be looking at the wall. It would be private and secluded, perhaps the most private and secluded place in the cafĂ©, but I chose to sit where I was. I felt like being across from a stranger. I felt like sitting on an island table, between conversations and counters. Where I can look over both the staff and the customers. Where words fly past me without touching. I didn’t want to be in a lonely corner again. I want to be around people. They are the cure to my loneliness, these strangers."

When I was finally able to step out of my own head, I began to really listen to what the people around me were saying. Tulsa is a polarized city in very red (Republican) state. The black, Muslim, and Native American people at our conference were very verbal about their fear and mourning. Outside, the Tulsa veterans day parade was almost exclusively white. A celebration of America. 

How do I make sense of all of this? How do I live in this works where such different truths exist. 

On the final day of the conference our closing keynote speaker Jack Condon described his Wednesday at the Liberty bell in Philadelphia. Dismayed at the results of the election, he and his friends wanted to be in a symbolic place. And though the Liberty bell and its famous crack never held any fascination for him, at that particular moment he realized something about it:

"No one knows why the bell cracked, but what they can all agree on is that is was flawed when it was made."

Despite being depressed for days, when I woke up on Friday morning my thoughts were my own again. I started talking to people again, not just listening. My last meal in Tulsa was fired mozzarella sticks, the only vegetarian dish on a long menu of items, and a warm apple pie. I will probably never come back to this part of the country. But it hold 4 days of my fear and sadness and friendships and struggle. 

There is something symbolic about being in the middle of the country at this polarizing time in history. 

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