Suzanne Westhues: The Dystopia is Real, And It’s Everywhere

“I suppose you’re also in support of Planned Parenthood?”

“Yes. I am.” I wanted to say “Aren’t you?” – but I didn’t. My voice sounded small and ridiculous.

There’d been little clues about Julia that I hadn’t added to the narrative. I had seen what I wanted to see when I looked at her. I wanted to see a liberal – so I did.

 

Finnish-Saunas-2

I’d always loved to be at Boston’s Finnish sauna at sunset, particularly in winter. After dark always seemed too late while afternoon was too early. I’d recently become Facebook friends with the people there: Most everyone on the women’s side came from the former Soviet Union. In the sauna, no one usually talked politics, but it’s such a respectful place that sometimes you got a different picture and people weren’t who you expected them to be.

I met Julia in July of 2009 when our daughters were still little. My family and I had only been back from Finland a year when we happened to go to the Boston sauna. Julia’s daughter and my daughter were fast friends that day. Julia was a single mom living in  a hip neighborhood in Boston known for its artists and musicians. I was a stay-at-home mom, passionate about literature and art.

“It’s like love at first sight.” Julia laughed as our daughters walked long-limbed out to the rocks that jutted out from the shore of the lake.

Everything I knew about Julia seemed to suggest that she was open-minded, particularly about women’s issues.

She homeschooled her daughter, and even though they were ethnic Russians from the Ukraine, she wasn’t raising her daughter bilingually. “There’s only so much time. A child needs to be exposed to art, music, and dance. I learned English when I was twenty-one. If she wants to learn Russian, she will.”

For years, Julia and I kept the conversation going: we both loved to be in Europe in places that inspired us. We discussed prospective trips as well as past trips we’d both taken. It seemed we had the same views on everything until this past year. It was first through Facebook that I realized we were on different sides of the election. I was for Bernie, then for Hillary. She was an ardent Trump supporter. She even posted articles I’d never seen about Muslim women and conservatives who were for Trump. When anyone questioned her stance, her response was defensive. I still didn’t really believe that this was the same person that I knew. We happened to be talking about the subject in the sauna, just recently.

“I went to the most inspiring thing at the Boston Public Library.” I pulled my dark hair off my neck. “It was for writers and teachers in Boston. The whole thing was so civilized.”

“Was the whole thing really civilized?” She massaged the top of her right foot.

“Actually, no. In the middle of it, something really weird happened. There was a break. A super loud audio recording from The Bible. Kind of weird.”

She smiled. “I’m not surprised.”

“It was just a technology glitch. The tech guy just came on a few seconds later, put it on silent and the Writers’ Resist program continued.”

“Technology glitch? Do you really think that? Many of Boston’s creative and literary people all together in an auditorium and a Biblical passage is just a tech. glitch?”

“What are you talking about?”

“People sometimes just don’t know what’s good for them.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“I mean the new president is finally going to take charge of this country.”

“Do you really think so?”

“I’ve had a different life from you. You’re so blind. I suppose you’re also in support of Planned Parenthood?”

“Yes. I am.” I wanted to say “Aren’t you?” – but I didn’t. My voice sounded small and ridiculous.

There’d been little clues about Julia that I hadn’t added to the narrative. I had seen what I wanted to see when I looked at her. I wanted to see a liberal – so I did. Sometimes people don’t turn out like you expect them to be.

The dystopia was real. There were many people out there who had personal reasons to want a change in ideology – a change in leadership. Julia’s expectations for a leader weren’t like mine. She voted for a different thing than I did. She’d been through politics in the former Soviet Union, and to her, maybe good outcomes came in ugly packages. The sun had now set in the winter sky, and nighttime fell all around us.

marchAbout a week later, I planned to march the day after the inauguration with some old friends. The morning of the women’s march just felt like an occasion get-together rather than subversive action. I dressed comfortably in warm layers and sneakers. We were all middle-aged women, except for my friend’s fifteen-year-old son, Kelly and his girlfriend, Nick.

I thought to myself that all of this just felt like a nightmare drawn out, not as intense and quick as 9/11 but slower and more unpredictable. We arrived at the same time as two buses from Wellesley College. Everyone cheered and waved. The mood was light. I felt like I was nineteen again, surrounded by the like-minded, but somehow this was the resistance. Posters with pictures of Trump were paraded through with the word “Dicktator” on one side and on the other “Pussy Power.” Mothers were there with their daughters of all ages. It felt right yet strange.

We didn’t have signs. I’d bought paints and poster boards, but I couldn’t come up with one single slogan. Why wouldn’t I be marching? Someone had come to power in my country out of hate, fear, and corruption. The country that I thought I lived in wasn’t there. The talk of false election results, wall-building, anti-immigration, anti-black, anti-LGBTQ seemed like the stuff of the Cold War that my older Czech students had said existed before the fall of communism. Everyone I talked to seemed to think it was wrong, yet no one really seemed to be able to stop him. Everything seemed weirdly usual and yet not usual at all. The Massachusetts politicians, Elizabeth Warren and Marty Walsh got up to speak, someone from the NAACP, someone from Planned Parenthood. We sang “America, the Beautiful” and “Amazing Grace.” It was all of the stuff I had been reared on and taken for granted as being American. If so many people (almost two-hundred thousand) had shown up and knew this man had bad intentions, how come we couldn’t stop it?

After the march, our group found a Dim Sum restaurant in a theatre in Chinatown. To combat the awkwardness, we ordered a lot of food.

Although I was on the side of the table with my friends, I listened to the two fifteen-year-olds, wondering about their reaction to the day. Nick began to twist her black and green highlighted hair, while Kelly pushed his shoulder-length hair behind his ears. For some reason, I wanted to talk to them, rather than my same-age friends, who didn’t quite see me for who I was. My friends only knew worked as a part-time professor of literature, but not all of what that meant. My whole career has been to encourage young people to challenge things that aren’t just – it’s not just reading and writing – it’s learning how to question.

Dim Sum

“So, what do you do when you’re on social media and you realize that someone you know is a Trump supporter?” I directed the question to Nick, who was the same age as my own daughter. It’s funny how much easier it was to talk to a fifteen-year-old girl when there’s no mother-daughter tension. “I have the most unlikely people in support of him. People I thought I knew who I didn’t actually know.”

“Well, since I’m a Jewish and African-American woman of color, I automatically assume that that person is against me.” Nick knew how to talk to adults. We talked more about past presidents. She was so articulate. And I wondered – did my daughter express herself differently around other people?

“But don’t you kind of want to know what they’re up to? Isn’t that important, too?” I challenged.

“Anyone who could be in support of the stuff we’re going through is clearly misguided.”

“Yes.” After the meal and drive back, we eventually reached home and hugged goodbye. It all seemed excruciatingly normal. We got home, checked Facebook, and saw the crowds of the like-minded in every city. The demonstrations were peaceful and organized yet sickeningly crazy, too. How could freedom be the resistance?

That night my husband and I went to Redbone’s a meat and potatoes restaurant, to have dinner with a family who didn’t think it would do any good to march. For us, it seemed important to march, and yet also didn’t seem to lead anywhere. We all seemed more entrenched with the like-minded. If freedom meant expressing ourselves and getting out there, then shouldn’t we be doing that very thing? Facebook was full of rants – but what good do Facebook rants do when they were just to the like-minded? What if that was all we had?

I know women who don’t support Trump who would never march. They believe in “moving on.”

I also know women who teach in higher education who would never converse with their students on the subject. I’ve said my share, maybe it’s not enough, but I’ve said things where I possibly could. I’m not naïve though: if history can repeat itself in terms of dictators – then it can also repeat itself in terms of keeping subversive types away from higher education and the arts. I haven’t forgotten the stories of my students who didn’t get to be the people they wanted because of dictatorships and dissenting views. I think of my friend, Julia, who is willing to accept Trump. At home, anxiety grips me as I keep teaching and writing. I don’t know where this is all headed. My poster paints and poster board remain unused. I wait.

08greenline04That night I dream I’m riding the Green Line to Boston. I know it well – it’s the D line that shuttles college students from Boston College, the Fenway, and Boston University. It’s filled with medical workers going to Longwood and the Harvard University School of Public Health. I’m dressed in a deep-red knee-length coat. It’s a path I’ve taken a thousand times before. The sky’s dark, and I look out onto Fenway. It’s so familiar. There’s an older white man sitting, reading a book on race relations. Everything seems usual. It’s the first day of a new semester, typically filled with nervousness. I’ve been assigned my usual three classes at College A. As usual, I arrive an hour early to mentally prepare – but I’m unexpectedly greeted by my boss and another professor in the department.

“No enrollment for any of your classes.” The secretary says. “It’s a glitch.”

“A glitch?”

“Well, you know we’ve lost a great deal of international students already. The news from the States hasn’t been good. Parents turn on the news and they see fighting, agitation, a dictator. Nobody wants to send their child to that. Enrollments are down.”

“Your classes don’t have enrollment. We’re so sorry.” My boss says.

2016_Reunion_insdiegraphic_642x428I don’t know what to say, so I don’t say anything.

“There has just been too much fighting. People don’t accept things as they are.”

“We’ll call you after the last placement test. I’m sure we’ll have more students then.”

But the phone call never comes. I begin the semester at College B, where there again, my enrollments have suddenly changed. I have a short conversation with my boss.

“I’m really teaching all developmental writing classes? I haven’t done that since my first year of teaching.” I say.

“I know you like teaching multicultural electives, but we thought this was more appropriate.”

Again, I don’t speak, but in my mind, I’m transported back to the Czech Republic twenty-two years ago – hearing how politics in a country affected people’s careers.

Had I been naïve to express my political views online? Had I been expressing my freedom of speech? Or had it been for nothing – just at a cost to my livelihood?

“Besides. You’re a writer, aren’t you? More than a teacher?” My boss challenges.

This is supposed to make me feel something – relief? I don’t know. I just stand there cold. Teaching was the way I earned money – not writing. I’m not a published writer. I’ve never been able to write loudly enough for anyone to listen. I can, however, teach literature classes. And despite everything, being a part-time lecturer in Boston is still something. I want to quit. I want to run. I try to speak but nothing comes out of my mouth.

“I have to quit. I can’t do this. I have to do more. I’m sorry.” These are the words I want to say, but I don’t. I need the job: any job, even if I have been recast in my role in higher education. I need to be there.

But suddenly I wake up.

 

073114_WesthuesS_PortraitSimple (2)

 

Suzanne Westhues has been a writing and literature teacher since 1995. She grew up in Manchester, New Hampshire, but she has split her time between Helsinki and Boston since 2003. She is working on a novel.

One Comment

on “Suzanne Westhues: The Dystopia is Real, And It’s Everywhere
One Comment on “Suzanne Westhues: The Dystopia is Real, And It’s Everywhere
  1. This gets close to home. For smdiiferent reasons, I m an unemployed educator in my 50s, who has also felt the sting of cancelled classes due to dwindling numbers.

    It’s dystopian. We felt empowered by an exhilarating campaign for Hillary, and now we wonder if we spoke too soon, if all our loud, outspoken protesting will have negative consecuences in our careers. Like in the Venezuelan dystopia of Chavez regime, those who raised their voices lost their jobs and were blacklisted. Years laters unable to make a living they left the country.

    It’s real and it seems we are in it for the long run.

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