99 Problems

Published on November 11th, 2016 | by Shanthi Sekaran


EVERY VICTORY: Shanthi Sekaran Takes Lessons From Her Children

November 8th, 11:00 p.m. I look out at the half-moon that hangs over the bay. I know I won’t sleep that night. But I will try. I medicate with reassurance. I’ll be all right, I repeat. It becomes a mantra. We’ll be all right. I’ll be all right. This is just another election. Another governmental cycle of congressional sessions and protests and anger and small bouts of progress. Things will stay more or less the same. We will be all right.

Earlier that night, my friend, the host of the party, opened her door in a turquoise pantsuit and a t-shirt that read “The Future is Female.” I’d spent the afternoon baking an apple crumble, my own tribute to Americana and an ironic nod to a world in which one woman can bake a pie to fête another woman’s ascent to the presidency.

It was a small gathering, nine or ten adults hunched around a television and chatting at the table. Seven children ran in and out of the rooms, breathless from play. Two of those children are mine. Slowly, so slowly, the electoral college votes mounted from the tens to the hundreds. My 8-year-old, Avi, kissed me on the cheek or shoulder every time he ran into the room. “What’s the score?” he’d ask.

A few of the children there had organized and performed a kids’ pantsuit flash-mob in downtown Berkeley. Avi wouldn’t dance, but he had a pretty good grasp of why Hillary Clinton was wildly more qualified than her opponent. And he had a name for her opponent: The Butt-faced Buffoon.

When Clinton took California with its 55 electoral votes, the children erupted with joy. When Clinton took Hawai’i with its 4 electoral votes, the children erupted with joy. The numbers didn’t matter much to them, nor did the fact that California and Hawai’i were shoe-ins. Victory was victory, and every single one of them counted. Their smiles teetered on lunacy, so deeply did they feel each win. But with two children under my belt, I knew. Such passion had a flip side. The tears would be as volcanic as the glee.


The clock ticks over to midnight. I don’t check my phone for results. I will be all right, I say. I finally sleep.

The truth is, I just might be all right. I live in Berkeley. The people around me are liberal, socially conscious and so educated that my cleaning lady has a PhD. I’m neither Muslim nor an undocumented immigrant. California has some of the strictest gun control laws in the nation. I’m an American citizen. My husband is a white man with an English accent that compels strangers near parking meters to spontaneously give him change. These are the unfair facts.

Reassurance can quell worry, but it can’t dissolve grief. The grief makes me heavy. The grief helps me sleep. It isn’t myself I’m grieving for. It’s not my future. I’m grieving for the millions of Americans who have been orphaned by this election: those whose very skin is an invitation to violence; those who love certain people in a certain way and find their lives in danger; those who will be required to register as Muslims, for whom echoes of internment camps are growing ever louder.

They say that when we lose someone, we mourn old losses and re-encounter waves of grief we thought we’d ridden out. Somewhere, the electoral ticker is flipping over. In the morning, I know, Hilary will have lost. This isn’t a political loss. We’ve transcended politics. This is a personal loss.

With others, I mourn and re-mourn. I re-mourn the loss of Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin and so many others. I re-mourn the loss of Matthew Shepard and the children of Sandy Hook. I re-mourn innocent Muslims sent to Guantanamo, rounded up on September 12, 2001 and tortured. I re-mourn the loss of Humayun Khan. I re-mourn the pain of Sasha Fleischman. I re-mourn the seizing of Elian Gonzales and the wrenching of Encarnacion Bail from her 6-month-old son.

That night, I dream that I’ve woken to find that Hilary has pulled out a last-second victory.

And then I really do wake up. I don’t check my phone. I don’t look for the final result. Because I know.

At 6:30 on the dot, I hear the quick trot down the hall. Avi bounds in and elbows his way to the center of the bed. Three of us, in our cozy house, have woken to an unholy truth. My reassurance has slunk away. Who says I’m safe? With my brown skin? And my bi-racial children? With the things I’ve said on social media? With the book I’ve written? What makes us safe? Is it location? Money? The police? I have no answers.

I think of Avi, wriggling next to me now. I think of his burst of joy at California, Hawa’i, New York. For children, with their lack of perspective, big things are bigger, scary things are scarier, and four years is an eternity.

I think of his question last week: If Trump wins, will we have to move to England? And my answer: It won’t be much better in England. When I gave him that answer, I’d been certain that Hillary would win and the Butt-faced Buffoon would be banished forever. But now, what had I left him with? An unsafe home and nowhere to run.

He lunges for my phone. “Hey,” I say. “I need you to be good today, okay? Let’s be nice to each other today.”

“Okay. Why? Did Trump win?”

“Well….” I’m not ready to answer. I know he hasn’t slept enough. I remember how he sobbed, racked with sorrow, when Argentina lost the World Cup. And beyond that, I don’t know how I’ll tell him that this bad man, this mean man, will be our leader.

“Yeah,” I say, “Trump won.”

He gazes at me, piercing brown eyes. He picks up my phone. He’ll look for confirmation of this. He’ll find it. He’ll be crushed. He presses down on the button that calls up Siri. She buzzes awake. He takes a deep breath. “How did the Warriors do last night?”


And then Avi scrunches down in bed with me, his thin arm across my chest, the blanket pulled to his chin, and he tells me how he hopes the Warriors will never play the Mavericks, because Kevin Durant was traded for Andrew Bogut and Harrison Barnes, and that Dirk Nowitzki might be the greatest German basketball star in history, and that the Golden State lineup is the NBA’s strongest, and we talk about professional basketball, of which I know little, and college basketball, of which I know nothing, and I can see that eight-year-olds have a hell of a lot to think about. The presidential election is just one of those things, and for Avi, the election is over. There was a scoreboard and popcorn. There was a winner and a loser. And he’s here now in his parents’ bed, sharing his mother’s pillow, just as he did on November 8th, just as he will do on November 10th.

From his brother’s room comes a rebel yell, “Macaroni head!” Ash is awake. He walks in. He is bare-chested, my 3-year-old, wearing a conference name badge around his shoulders, a head lamp around his neck, a pair of sunglasses hanging off the head lamp. From his wrist dangles a flashlight. While I cower under the sheets, he’s an intrepid explorer.

It’s hard getting out of bed and into an uncertain world. We’re running late that morning, but it feels excusable. Eating breakfast, Ash leans his face into mine, his eyes wide, magic in his voice. “Mama,” he says. “Is it really you?”

I don’t know where he got this from, but I’m grateful to be pulled into another story, the hidden world of his fairy tale. In the car, we listen to an oldies station. “What is this song?” Ash asks. “I like it.” It’s Madonna’s “La Isla Bonita.” No radio news this morning. Not yet.

For the rest of that day and the next, I cling to these moments. My children anchor me to their games, their likes and dislikes, their needlepoint vision. What’s important to them becomes important to me. I take sanctuary in their worlds.

When I pick Avi up from school that day, I come bearing sweets. Frozen yogurt topped with gummy bears, M&M’s, chocolate rocks. I’ve never done this before. As we drive, I turn down the music. “Did you talk about the election today?” I try to sound casual.

“Yes,” he mumbles.

“Were people upset?”

“I DON’T KNOW!” he shrieks. I am stunned. “What do you want?” he goes on, in tears now. “You want me to go around and interview every single person in my class? Are you upset? Are you upset?


Oscar E. / Flickr Creative Commons

Clearly, he is upset. And of course I shouldn’t have asked him if his classmates were upset. It contradicted everything I’d been telling him—that we’d be all right, that he’d have nothing to worry about. I am confusing him. And things for Avi, for many children, process silently. He might be talking about basketball, but behind the chatter, darker material churns: the sadness in our home that day; the peculiar silence in the streets; the instinctual knowledge that something that wasn’t supposed to happen did happen. He must wonder why, if the next four years are going to be just fine, nobody can stop talking about them.

By Thursday, the news is shaping itself around a Trump presidency. My husband sends me a text at lunchtime. Don’t look at Facebook. It will crush you.

I look at Facebook. Day 1, they’re calling it. Appointments are being made. Trump meets with Obama and calls it “a great honor.” I am disgusted. Reports are popping up of swastikas painted on buildings; of Muslim women being mugged, their hijabs ripped off; of Latino high school students handed fake deportation letters by classmates. How could everything be all right?

I walk with Avi to pick up his brother. The streets of Berkeley are silent because no one knows what to say. The air itself is desolate. When I pass people on the sidewalk, we make eye contact. We don’t say hello. We want to bundle comfort into a three-second passing phrase, but it doesn’t happen. It can’t.

When Ash exits the preschool gate, he turns to Avi. “Macaroni butt-face.” The two collapse in laughter. Victory is victory. I take each small one as it comes. Going about their day, my sons bestow them on me, these small comforts.

A hard road lies a head. The dark consequences of Trump’s election are already unfolding. They will continue to unfold in formations both predictable and shocking. It’s likely we will cry again and curse this outcome. Life may become a struggle for the people I love. Life may become a struggle for me. At the helm of our ship we’ve placed a drunken captain who flouts his compass and rages at storm clouds. Where will he steer us? There’s no way to know.

I find solace in this thought: I am the same person I was on November 7th. So are my husband and my boys. So are my friends and my colleagues. We will continue to be who we are. I will continue the work I left off the afternoon of November 8th, when I shut my laptop and started peeling apples. My boys will call each other butt-face and kiss my shoulder when they feel so compelled. I will teach. My husband will devote himself to clean air and energy efficiency. My fellow writers will care and protest and say what’s true. We will report what’s happening in this new version of our world. But in a country that rewards the likes of Donald Trump, caring and truth-telling could become more of a struggle than we bargained for. We’ll do it anyway. This will be our fight to fight. Victory is victory. Every win counts, even the small ones. My boys taught me that.


by Steve Snodgrass / Flickr Creative Commons


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About the Author

Shanthi Sekaran teaches writing at California College of the Arts and is a member of the SAN Francisco Writers Grotto. Lucky Boy, her new novel about motherhood, detention and immigration, comes out in January 2017.

2 Responses to EVERY VICTORY: Shanthi Sekaran Takes Lessons From Her Children

  1. Pingback: ASK A MUTHA: What Did You Say When Your Children Woke Up On November 9th? – Mutha Magazine

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