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Don't Be Tossed Away

Continue under all circumstances.

Don’t be tossed away.

Make positive effort for the good.

Katagiri Roshi

For a Berkeley person like me, canvassing and voter registration at the Farmers’ Market feels good. My husband Patrick and I drive to Tracy on weekends to help flip this red congressional district from red to blue. We both love farmers’ markets, the sense of community—people gathering, buying vegetables, buying flowers, people from diverse ethnicities and many countries. We enjoy the colors, the smells and tastes. But with the Farmers’ Market closed for the winter, we have been dispatched to talk to people in a shopping mall. I hardly ever shop at a mall. Can I connect with folks I meet?

Patrick and I end up in the parking lot, across the street from Walmart, each stationed by an entrance where cars enter, folks unload their groceries, and leave. Clipboards and pens in hand, we call to passersby heading in to shop and out with their packages.

“Hello, how do you think things are going in our country?” I call out.

“No time today!” “NO, I’m in a hurry!”

Or maybe they just rush past with their strollers or shopping carts filled with diapers, cans, toilet paper. I start getting discouraged.

Then along comes a tall guy with a ruddy face and Trump sweatshirt. He says, “So you wanna register me to vote?” Big guy, big smile, but not a very trustworthy smile. I pause, then say, “If you aren’t registered….” And he says, “You know you wouldn’t register me. And I say, “Well I do want to register Democrats.” He winks with a “Gotcha” sort of smirk. I continue, “But most of all, I believe in the democratic process and if you aren’t registered and want to participate in voting, I am not going to get in your way.”

He is taken aback, “Nah, I was just testing you. Trump’s my man. I’m fully registered. I voted for the Donald, and I’m damn glad I did.”

I have never registered a Republican to vote. The people I’ve registered at the Farmers Market in the past months have either been young, just having turned 18, or new citizens, having immigrated from Mexico or the Philippines. We ask: how do you think things are going under Trump’s administration?” If someone thinks things are going well, I thank the person and wish them a good day. So the people I engage in conversation are probably Democrats or independents, and the people who might be interested in registering will in all likelihood register as Democrats. I am looking for people who are likely supporters.

This Trump sweat-shirted guy is towering over me in a vaguely combative stance. A woman walks by, also tall, stacked heels. She says, “Go Trump! Go Trump!” She and the man give each other a high five. Do not be tossed away, I remind myself.

“I have a message for those Democrats you work for,” the man taunts, “We don’t want you telling us who we should like and why we should like them!”

“I will do that,” I reply, “Why don’t you say that to me again and I will write it down.” So I get out my pen and I write down his words. “Thank you for your perspective,” I say. Again, a quizzical look from him. I end the exchange. “Have a good day.”

Maybe it’s been a waste of time talking to a Trump lover. Still I don’t want to beat myself up for engaging in this conversation. I love talking to strangers and learning what matters to them. And somehow it fits my dictum. Make positive effort for the good.

Someone else comes along. I call out, “How do you think things are going under Trump?” She glares at me, “They’d be going great if you people would just let him run the show!” I ask, “So is that a top score?” “You’re damn straight.” I mark it down. “Have a good day.” I nod goodbye.

I’m getting discouraged again.

Two young people come by and I ask, “Are you registered to vote?” They both resist. One is adamant. “NO, NO, I will not register to vote!” It sounds like this is on principle: “I do not believe in registering to vote!”

Continue under all circumstances, I tell myself. Without attachment to results.

I see several women in long poplin saris. They are loading groceries into a van stopped right near where I’m standing. Their identical saris look like uniforms, perhaps some kind of habit. Maybe they’re nuns. I ask how they think things are going in this country. One nun says, “No English. India.”

A truck backs out of a space and heads towards the entrance of the lot; a man calls out the window, “Get out of my way!” I’m not really in his way, I think. Maybe this parking lot idea was a bad one. I so enjoy conversations. with people on the streets But maybe I am in the way here. Or maybe I don’t look right? I check my heavy sweater. Is it too sloppy? Is my look making people turn away? I lick my lips and feel the crumbs from my muffin in the corner of my mouth. Is that it? I’m too messy?

Continue under all circumstances. Do not be tossed away.

A young man approaches. Black hair, bronze skin.

“Hey, can I talk to you for a moment? How do you think things are going in this country?”

He stops. “Sure, I can talk. I don’t have anything much to do right now.”

I ask him how he thinks things are going. And he looks to me a little uncomfortable, grimacing, checking me up and down, sizing me up.

“Well I guess I think things are okay,” he stutters.

Should I thank him and move on? I size him up. Something in his nervous eyes tells me he didn’t truly represent his own views.

I say, “Well I’ve got a few more questions.”

“That’s fine. Like I said, I don’t have anything to do today.”

So I ask him what issues are important to him: I show him our list and he keeps nodding and pointing: jobs, healthcare, social justice. Then he adds, “Guns. War. To tell you the truth, things are really bad right now. I’m upset about the way things are.”

“I am too,” I say, “That’s why I am out here registering folks to vote and asking what matters to them. I’m here because I want to flip the congress from Red to Blue in 2018.” “Really?” He smiles, relieved.

My worries about looking too much like a Democrat are at least temporarily assuaged. He seemed to assume I was for Trump!

I say, “I care about those very same things. Do you talk much about these things with people you know?”

“Well yeah, my grandma. She’s kinda like you." He takes another careful look at me, seems to be reading my expression. “And my partner, he cares a lot about these things. He’s out of town right now.” Does this young man want to know if I will accept him if he has a guy partner?

I say, “Okay, good. It’s great to discuss these things with people you care about.” Then I ask, “Are you planning on voting in the 2018 congressional election.”

“I want to but…” he looks down away from me, “actually I am not registered. That’s why my grandma gives me a really hard time! ‘See what happens when people like you don’t vote!’”

I say, “Would you like to register to vote right now? I have the form and I can walk you through it.”

Cars start beeping at us and we step to the side of the parking lot. I fumble with my forms, drop my clipboard. I start feeling discouraged again. I don’t have it together. Do not be tossed away, I remind myself.

Finally when we’ve filled out the form, I ask, “Would you be interested in doing something like what I’m doing? Reaching out and teaching folks how to register or canvassing or making phone calls?”

He nods, “Yeah, I’d like to do that. I’d like to do all of that.” He becomes animated. “I want to do as much as I can.”

“I’m so glad to have met you,” I tell him. “By the way, what languages do you speak? “

“I speak Hindi.”

“That could be very handy.” I write it down. I think of the nuns I tried to talk to earlier.

March for Our Lives, March 24, 2018, San Francisco, CA.

Looking back on this day in the Walmart parking lot, I remember how much I love this work. I think of the story The Brave Little Parrot. It’s one of the Jataka Tales, stories from the early lives of the Buddha. I used to read these tales to my daughter Caitlin when she was growing up. I think of Caitlin, of the young people coming up, of the 800,000 dreamers, of the high school students marching against gun violence,. The Jatakas are tales of bravery, commitment, generosity and self sacrifice, like that of the deer who offered her own body as food for the tiger so that he wouldn’t devour her fawns.

The Brave Little Parrot feels particularly resonant during this year of California fires and worldwide climate change. In the midst of a raging forest fire, a parrot flies down into the river to cool her singed wings. From the forest she hears trumpeting and howling, the pounding of many feet, all the creatures who cannot reach the river. She has a wild idea. Dipping into the water, she flies up over the fire, dives down and shivers her wings. She imagines the flames below sizzling and extinguishing. She returns to the river and then to the fire; eyes smarting, lungs aching, she shakes her droplets. Again and again.

I think of my fellow canvassers.

Continue under all circumstances. Don’t be tossed away. Make positive effort for the good.

As the tale continues, some gods fly by and laugh in contempt at the parrot’s efforts. But one god finds himself unexpectedly moved. He changes himself into a golden eagle and soars down. “Save yourself little parrot,” he coaches, “You will never make a difference in this great conflagration.”

Feathers singed, feet charred, coughing through the smoke, the parrot persists. “I don’t need your advice. I need your help.”

The eagle’s heart breaks open and he begins to weep. His tears wash over the raging fire, extinguishing the flames.

I think of people like me standing in parking lots in front of Walmart and Starbucks, calling out to strangers. Many strangers will hurry past; some will be rude. But there is just that possibility that the commitment of a canvasser will inspire a stranger to join in. With countless tiny inspirations throughout the country, who knows what is possible?

I remember the young man in front of Walmart. I imagine him canvassing alongside his grandmother. Maybe he will register a Hindi-speaking stranger, reaching out in an expanding circle of change makers.


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