The day after the election, my sweetheart, who lives in North Carolina, asked over the phone for my hand in marriage.
Sitting in Ohio on my $50 sofa surrounded by mounds of used tissues, I mustered a smile and asked, “Do you think when they make gay marriage illegal again that they’re going to grandfather us in?”
“It doesn’t work that way,” I said and started crying again because I didn’t think gay marriage would be the first target. It would be the civil rights of transgender teenagers trying to use the bathroom at their high schools. And the civil rights of my sweetheart who has been called out in the women’s bathroom for not conforming to feminine norms.
And I was crying on a $50 sofa the color of sand because once upon a time the Colombian women in my family were undocumented and now the country had elected a man who demonized families like ours. The fact that my Cuban father had voted for this candidate sat at the center of my mind like a bruise.
The used tissues accumulated on the sofa. Still on the phone, but now with a friend in her late 50s, I listened to her fears of losing Obamacare, of having no safety net of any kind if she got sick. Another friend, a rape survivor, began to disassociate as she realized the country had just elected a man who bragged about sexually assaulting women. A student whispered in class, “It’s been hard.” My therapist nodded when I told her all this, then confessed, “A number of my clients are struggling.” I looked up from the chair in her carpeted office and realized I was one of them.
Refuge. That is the word I have been contemplating since the election, since I turned off the cable news and the two political news podcasts I had followed daily for years. Some days, refuge is silence. I listen only to the ticking of the clock, to the ladder propped against my apartment building because it is November and the dead leaves have gathered on the roof and two men in baseball caps have come for them.
Other times, refuge is the dharma. I listen to a Buddhist podcast as I wash dishes. I read a book my sister bought with a title like Buddhism For Beginners. I lie in bed listening to a dharma teacher in Minneapolis who reminds me to stay with the bruise, and I notice that this time I am able to do it. The first two times I listened to his post-election talk, I thought: I can’t. Everything hurts. The only yoga I could manage was child’s pose. Now, after a few weeks, I can be with this sensation of my throat closing quickly and furiously, this mind jumping from memory to imagination, screaming that the world is an incredibly unsafe place. I can feel my chest contracting and I am able to stay with it. I am able to stand it.
I begin to take refuge in being reminded that the Dalai Lama is in exile. That’s right, I say to myself. The most well-known face of Buddhism knows firsthand what it means to be targeted, to lose your country. If he can do it . . . But when a friend reminds me that many people around the world live under dictatorship, I stifle a sob and manage to say, “Yes, but not us.” Always critical of American exceptionalism, I discover I am deeply attached to it.
Inspired by a woman on Instagram, I make a protest sign that reads: “You voted for him because you’re afraid of people like me.” I stare at the words. Would the Buddha have written this? A friend and scholar told me that the Buddha deliberated with monarchs and advocated for peace. I stare at my sign. I don’t know what the Buddha would have done. I know what I am doing. I take my sign downtown to the protest in Cincinnati and stand next to a young white woman whose multicolored sign reads: “At first they came for the Muslims but we said: BACK OFF.” I decide she is enlightened.
One of my favorite teachings from the Buddha is one in which he tells his students that friends are not half the holy life—they are the entire holy life. We take refuge in the Buddha and the dharma, but the sangha, our communities, is a refuge too. I have been lucky in this regard. When I lived in Oakland, California, I sat with a people of color sangha and later when I moved to South Florida, I found a Colombian-born teacher who ran a Zen center where we chanted in Japanese, heard dharma talks in English, and told stories in Spanish over green tea.
Now, having moved to Ohio for a teaching job, I am part of a white sangha. Sitting together for a discussion of a Tricycle article after the election, I listened carefully. I admired these practitioners and their commitment to the dharma. I was surprised, though, to not hear anyone mention their material vulnerability in the face of the election results. I listened some more. Then, I shared too much too deeply, my voice catching in my throat, and as these moments about race tend to go, I wound up feeling guilty and exposed for having shared too much too deeply in a place that could not offer me refuge.
I recalled my first job after college 20 years earlier. Those were my first days in room after room filled with white people whose lives were either nothing like mine or who didn’t speak about their lives in any way that I could understand. Back then I had not known what to do. This time, I did.
Back in my car, I called a Buddhist friend in New York. Her family is Hindu and Muslim. “I’m getting my Canadian passport lined up,” she said.
We remembered 9/11 together: the registrations, the attacks on anyone thought to be Muslim. We wondered why this felt more terrifying than the aftermath of 9/11. We decided it’s the words.
We had both grown up aware that we belonged to immigrant families and that we were considered outsiders, and in that childhood in different corners of the United States, we learned the weight of words. We learned how certain verbs came before the start of white flight. How demonstrative adjectives acted as borders in the mouth: those people, that neighborhood. We learned to never trust personal pronouns. We, they, you, I—the slenderest words could bruise.
This election cycle had been a condensed version of everything we had learned to fear in our childhoods. The difference was that along the way we had decided to investigate Buddhism, to learn how to be in this world with the violence of words and also their emptiness. We had taken refuge in the dharma, in the possibility of waking up. Now my friend wanted to know how I was finding refuge during this time. She wanted to know what was working. Sangha, I wanted to tell her, but instead I said, “You. I’m on the phone with you.”
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