Tell Me How to Be


by Caitlin Scarano

Author’s Note: Starting the night of the 2016 Presidential Election, I started a log on my computer that I maintained for ten days. I attempted to trace my reactions to Donald Trump’s victory, while recording other losses that were happening in my life at the time. This essay is shaped from those notes with some revisions and additions.

The night of the election, I am all body.

Later, my mother will say: My whole body is numb with an unbearable sense of grief. Later, Josh will write me: I felt it in my spine.

In a chapbook manuscript about my father’s death, I recently wrote: Try telling your story without the body. You will fail.

Finally, I can’t listen anymore. I log off and enter a surreal sleep.

The day after the election my mother sends me, my sisters, and her sister a group text. I wake up as I hear my phone go off as they each respond, but I don’t get up to read the texts. As I fall back asleep, I have a dream that my older sister moves into my studio apartment with me to finally escape the town we grew up in (later, my mother will read me the headline: “Trump Wins Big in Nottoway County”).

I am not certain of many things, especially now, but one thing I know for sure is that we are a family of women, strong women. My father died about two years ago, but he left our family when I was five or six years old. My mother, a single parent, raised my sisters and I. She never remarried. My little sister, a single parent, has a four-year-old daughter who she is raising in the same town where we grew up.

At times, these cycles feel uncanny, weighted.

In the dream, my older sister brings two pianos with her when she moves in. We push all of my belongings to the center of the room. She knocks over a cup of water and I start to yell at her but catch myself and say, I want to be better. I want to make space for you here.

Then the room begins to expand from the center out. As if just by saying it the space can change.

I wake up and the sun is bright and the people in the city are blinking against it in uncertainty like field mice surfacing from a hole in the earth.

That morning the pilot light in my oven won’t stay on. I light it and light it and it stays on shorter and shorter amounts of time.

Franklin texts me a list of factors he sees at play in Trump’s win: Connections between patriotic narrative taught in public schools, neoliberal job training, no ‘value’ on critical thinking. Patriarchy. Heteronormativity. The way white folks view equality as a oppression.

I call D. Is this real? What do we do now? I ask. He is just as much at a loss.

When I call my mother later that day, she is more upset than I’ve seen her in years. She pauses and says, Also, your aunt called. My mother is dying.

Two days after the election I go to an anti-Trump rally and we march through downtown Milwaukee. Alessandra marches beside me and I can hear her voice as the crowd screams into the night, into the country’s open side.

After the rally, I open a Word document and write:

shed your grace

shred your grace.

Writing feels stupid and gestural and I don’t attempt to finish the poem. But I fall asleep with shed and shred in my mouth.

Three days after the election, my mother sends me a text: Hospice says she will probably pass away within 24 hours. I am just planning on honoring my mother’s life for the time remaining. Staying home and keeping a private vigil.

I call my mother in Virginia. We talk about her mother and Donald Trump and the protests. I tell her about the police on horseback that blocked certain streets during the march here. Milwaukee is still roiling from the Uprising that followed the fatal police shooting of Sylville Smith this past summer. Distrust for the police is high. My mother asks me if I was safe, then she begins to cry.

I call my aunt in Maryland, who is sitting beside their mother, my grandmother. She tells me how my grandmother’s throat is rattling (due to terminal secretions, the internet tells me later).

I am trying to figure out how to be in regards to this death, her death – the woman who made the woman who made me. I have not seen my grandmother in several years, and for at least the last five or six, Alzheimer’s had rendered her barely able to lift her head, let alone speak. What does it mean for someone to have stopped remembering who they are long before they die?

I try to talk to D about it but the conversation feels forced. Our relationship is not working. I can trace the downward trajectory of it from the night we met. This was seven months ago when I was visiting a friend in Oregon, where he lives. We met at a board game night. I was drawn to him because he seemed gentle. I can’t remember if he asked me any questions about myself. At the end of the night, I said to him. Are you going to ask for my number or what? I was still drinking then.

My grandmother is dying and I feel remote. My relationship is failing and I am oscillating between feelings of panic and relief. I am trying to figure out how to process these personal losses and attend to personal needs in the scope of this larger political crisis. Everything feels trite right now and self-serving, even my fear and guilt.

That night, unable to sleep, I fall again into a blackhole of Facebook and research (later, I will delete my account but this will only last 24 hours).

Just wait, someone writes on Facebook, in four years we’ll show him!
Immigrants can’t wait, someone else comments.

I read an article on ally-ship as theater and I think about the white spectacle of grief, I think about my spectacle of grief. I close my laptop.

Four days after the election results, I awake at 6:00AM to the sound of my dog retching. I move her from the rug to the hardwood floor and we wait out whatever is trying to force its way up. By the end, it is nothing more than a handful of foamy, yellow bile. She is dejected and sleeps beside me in the bed for another two hours.

As I make coffee that morning, I wish I could write a letter to someone. A Facebook friend posts that she is writing her daughter a letter that she’ll give to her in four years.

I want someone to tell me how to be. How do we, those who do not support Trump and never could, treat those who did vote for him without being smug? Do we extend to them the understanding that some of them refuse to extend to certain marginalized groups? How important is kindness right now or in any situation? Where is the line between progressive, collective care for all other humans and standing against what (and who) is intolerable?

Of course, all of this, this spectacle and struggle with how to be, is bound up with privilege and whiteness, my whiteness.

This is the part, the race part, that I find many (not all) of the people around me are too afraid to talk about, sometimes too afraid to even acknowledge. Of course, I don’t want to say something stupid or hurtful. But one thing I’ve learned is that my dignity isn’t worth much in the bigger picture. I’ve lost it more times in the past few years, especially while drunk, than I can even count. The dignity of others interests me more now, and I am just sorry it took me so long to raise my head and look more clearly outward. If I don’t listen and then try to take part in the discussion, I won’t learn. That white people avoid this so much frustrates the fuck out of me honestly. And then I have this anger that I don’t know what to do with.

Van Jones refers to the election results as a product of white lash. (Later, he talks more about this.)
Roxane Gay speaks about this (against catchphrases like “they go low, we go high”) and how anger is justified. Her essay reminds me of the issues in tone policing and the times I’ve caught myself doing this in some form or another in the past few days (“Yes, but we have to acknowledge the suffering of rural America…”).

I’m learning how calls for civility can be dangerous.

My friend Rachel says, Now is the time we listen. And show up for these communities when we’re asked.

My oven won’t light at all now. Frustrated, I order in – cheeseburgers and fries, even though I’ve been telling people I’ve stopped eating meat. (The difference between being a good liberal and having the appearance of being a good liberal.) I tell myself, Go easy. Vegetarianism can wait. I got sober this fall. I am giving quitting smoking a real college try. Sometimes I run along this city’s peaceful, polluted river.

I really am trying to be better. Not that I should be congratulated for this; when it gets really bad, you usually don’t have much of a choice. But this is why the lack of understanding and engagement between D and I bothers me so much. But, my friend Erin points out, you knew who he was and what he was doing with his life when you met him. He didn’t conceal anything, right? Why would he suddenly be different just because you were together?

The gaps between he and I have become so wide. When we speak about who we are or who we want to be in the world, we aren’t really having the same conversation. Erin says that I might date men who are not as driven as me as a way to feel stronger and more in control. Really the gaps between D and I were always that wide. I wanted so badly to be with someone. I wanted to prove to myself that I wasn’t a bad person by being good to someone. So I ignored how he seemed intimidated by the qualities about me that should be the most appealing to someone. But now I can’t see anything else.

Be nicer to me, he says.

I want to say: What you really mean is for me stop being so intense and I will not do that. So we are at a standstill.

It is not so much that I don’t want to lose him as that I don’t want to fail at this with someone again. He doesn’t want to be alone either. We are similar in this way at least.

Five days after the election, my mother’s mother dies in Maryland at 2:00AM.

I don’t want to be kind, I realize. I want to have clarity in any given context. Though we probably cannot change the world, W.J.F. Mitchell writes, [1] we can continue to describe it critically and interpret it accurately.

My dog is sick again. I resist taking her to the vet for an upset stomach. I might be making a mistake, but I am afraid of how expensive this could be. My dog can’t tell me how bad it is. In her discomfort, she looks to me as if I can make it stop. I can’t even tell her that I can’t make it stop.

When I remember what is happening with Trump, my stomach flips. The dog’s sickness is better than any metaphor I can come up with for all of this.

I take her outside four or five times between 7:00-9:00AM.

As I work on this log, my dog gets in the chair with me and puts her face in front of mine. Then she crawls down to the rug and vomits again.

In the 24-hour animal ER, while we sit in the waiting room I realize that I haven’t showered in five days.

Six days after the election I hold conferences with my composition students. One student tells me about how their transgender partner was physically assaulted in Madison last week. Another student tells me someone yelled racial slurs at them from a car two days after the election. She starts crying as she tells me this. My eyes are sweating, she jokes.

I’m having trouble remembering what my grandmother was like, especially without her husband, my grandfather, bullying her and hovering around.

Hookworm, the vet says when I call her. My dog’s shit looks like jelly and now it is bloody. Neither of us can sleep.

That night I Skype with my D and start crying as I talk about all this. He tries to respond but it feels remote and awkward. I grow impatient. I remember I’m supposed to fly out to see him in a few days and I feel a growing panic.

Seven days after the election, I count the drops of blood in my dog’s diarrhea. I call my mother again.

Eight days after the election I wake up to my dog’s vomit and shit in the kitchen around 6AM. She whines quietly. We go back to the vet. I cancel my trip to Oregon.

Someone, please tell me: How do you be when you are with someone? How do you be when you are alone?

I read article after article on Steve Bannon. I make coffee. I look at the wall.

Today I remember that my grandmother and I both collected paper dolls.

Nine days after the election, my dog seems better but she won’t shit. She won’t even try to shit. I walk her around the block half a dozen times. I grow angry with her and grab her snout, force her to look me in the eye, as if she could help any of this.

This won’t do, I think.

That night I break up with D. I call my mother. I remember that, when I was eight, my grandmother gave me a big dictionary to collect leaves.

Ten days after the election my dog is still not shitting. When I call the vet she says, You just have to wait this out.


[1]Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation


scararano_2017_2Caitlin Scarano is a poet in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee PhD creative writing program.  Her poem “Mule” was selected for the Best New Poets 2016 anthology. She has two poetry chapbooks: The White Dog Year (dancing girl press, 2015) and The Salt and Shadow Coiled (Zoo Cake Press, 2015). Her debut collection of poems will be released in Fall 2017 by Write Bloody Publishing.

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