November: The Surreal Month

Everyone has a story about election night. I was in Prague as the ballots were being counted, and in Moscow as the news of Trump’s victory sunk in.

As the votes came in, I had just finished a two-day pilot storytelling workshop for the Greenpeace Czech office, and was settling in at a nearby bar with my colleagues to have a few pints. In that basement bar, we talked about activism in Czechia. About the debacle of the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Prague — when expressions of support for Tibet were stifled throughout the city. We debated about whether or not we could make compromises to our principles in order to “exist” in difficult states; we talked about the post-Soviet psyche and the decline of activism in Czechia.

And we talked about the U.S. election. It was just a quick check on Twitter. It looked good for Hillary. Good. She’ll win, I thought, relieved. A woman would finally be in the White House.

I had an early flight to Moscow, so I said my farewells, left the bar, and walked back to my hotel to prepare for the next workshop. I went to sleep, thinking only of my narrow concerns: How will I recognize my Russian driver? Will we be able to talk to each other if we get lost? How will I know if people like the workshop?

At 6 am, I had just climbed into my shuttle to the airport when my driver asked me if I was American. Yes, I said, to keep it simple. He asked what I wanted first: the good news or the bad news. The “good,” I said, “only the good.”

_______, he said.

I have no recollection of the good news, because the bad news is the only thing that stuck.

“You’re kidding,” I repeated over and over, feeling the tears come. As we sped through a pre-dawn Prague, as I checked into my flight, as I watched people laugh and take selfies in front of the airport televisions showing Trump accept the highest office, “You’re kidding,” I repeated.

But my reaction had little currency so far from America, and I got on with my work. The training in Russia was the best one yet. And to my own surprise, I fell in love with the place, with their intensity, their smiles — which felt truer because they weren’t mandated, their history, their bleak sunless November skies, the sounds of their language, the expansiveness of the land.

Russia, you go on and on, and here I am at your edge.

But all that’s over now. And here we are now. Here is limbo. A recount in process. A President-elect building a shadow government. An America that seems more confounding than ever.

I’m back in New York City now. In a different America than the one I left. I mourned the election only after I was back. But people here also seemed kinder — at the airport, at my grocery store.

Or maybe it was just what I needed from them.

I hope 2017 brings us back to our humanity. I fear we may move to darker spaces. I fear we may alienate each other. I hope we talk. I hope we listen. I hope we do not compromise our principles.