A Rising Tide
For someone who’s spent a lot of her life on Cape Cod, I’m what you might consider a New England failure. The prime ingredient in my clam chowder is oyster crackers, and my short-lived sailing career ended the day the wind changed directions unexpectedly, so I tied the line around my waist, jumped overboard, and attempted to swim my way back to shore with our small sailboat in tow. My Dad, however, is an incredible sailor and seafood chef. You might be thinking he went to prep school and played touch football with the Kennedys in Hyannis Port. Nope.
My dad learned to dig for clams with his bare feet from his immigrant grandparents who barely spoke English. He taught himself to sail as a teenager and offered to teach others as a way to earn extra cash after school. He mowed the lawns of wealthy summer residents and thought deeply about how to earn enough money to one day support his family and ailing father whose blue-collar labor left him struggling with asbestos exposure and multiple cancers.
He put himself through night school and met my mom in their law-school library when he asked her for help finding a book. He embarked on the uphill battle of entrepreneurship because he could no longer stomach working with entitled assholes. Growing up, I don’t think I ever saw my Dad play a round of golf or grab a beer with the guys. Work hard and put your family first — that was his motto.
Over the last decade, spurred on by my mom’s tireless passion for social justice, my parents have marched on Wall Street, rallied for common sense gun reform, supported Black Lives Matter (BLM) in 2013, and took the streets again for BLM in 2020 despite my plea that they stay safe at home amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. I figured their continued activism was a remanent of coming of age in the 1960s in which a generation adopted protest as a powerful tool for communication and change. But I’ve come to realize their lifelong activism is driven by something deeper — a core belief that the equality, health, safety, and success of all people in the United States is what makes for a thriving society, and the thriving of others doesn’t threaten or undermine our own.
As I grew into a financially anxious young adult, I asked my dad why he voted Democrat even though voting Republican seemed like the better deal for someone who would benefit from pro-business policies. I was in my early 20s and starting to realize that money did not equal happiness, but it did give you options. By the looks of the recession and rising interest rates on my student loans, I worried I would have little of either. “It’s simple,” he said without hesitation. “I vote the way I do because what’s most important to me is that people don’t fall through the cracks. That’s the sign of a failing country. The candidates I’ve voted for understand that when people’s basic needs are met, we all do better. Equality in all forms means everyone is better off. A rising tide lifts all boats.”
This phrase came rushing back to me a couple years ago when I found myself nervously chewing on my pen in a Virginia voting booth trying to think through a local ballot issue. I was struggling to decipher a restriction on property tax exemption for surviving spouses of service members and was consumed by two thoughts:
1) How is it that you review military family research all day for your job and you have no idea what this means?
2) Why didn’t you review the ballot early like you knew you should!?
I walked up to the pollster and asked if he could help me understand a particular ballot issue. This seemed like a logical course of action, but the pollster looked at me wide-eyed and confused as to how I could so brazenly break a cardinal voting rule. He gestured to a small wooden table covered with pamphlets and said I could review the ballot material off to the side. I asked him repeatedly if I was in trouble, and he eventually escaped to the other side of the room. I signaled to my boyfriend that he may want to go ahead and leave without me.
I sat on a wooden chair in the corner of an apartment complex basement-turned-polling place and read for about 20 minutes. Ok, I think I get it now, let’s do this thing. I resumed my place at the booth and attempted to mark a “yes” to lift the restriction. Obviously, anything to support a surviving spouse got a vote from me. Obviously.
I felt my hand freeze up as I touched my pen to the paper.
Wait… is this actually fair?
What the hell are you talking about? Of course, it’s fair. These are widows. They’ve already lost enough.
I could feel my breathing become short and shallow as an anxious, defensive, protective instinct started to spread from my chest to the rest of my body.
But what about you? What about your family? You work really hard, why should others get a break?
Ok, Emily, where is this coming from? These people aren’t getting a “break,” they’ve gone through literal hell. Also, what does it matter if some aspect of their life gets better? What bad thing do you think will happen to you? You’re feeling angry, which typically means there’s untapped fear or hurt lurking underneath that anger. This really isn’t about a specific group of people. It’s about your own anxiety. What are you so scared of right now?
That the things I’ve worked hard for will be taken away from me. That it’s not fair if others get more than I do.
My chest opened back up and I took a long, deep breath. Ok, Emily, I can understand those feelings, but let’s do some reality testing. A vote to help make someone’s life a little better doesn’t mean something will be taken away from you. I believe that a rising tide does lift all boats, but I get that feels impossible to trust sometimes when we’re scrambling to patch up the leaks and keep our own boats afloat.
I marked “yes” and walked away feeling like I had just coached myself through a possessive panic that I didn’t know I was capable of. Looking back on that moment, I now realize that many of the achievements I fiercely regarded as “mine” and “earned” were infused with some form of privilege from the start.
Yes, I worked really hard to go to college, and graduate school, and get my job. But I was also really lucky to have parents to help me with homework or advise me on school and job applications. I was lucky to have health insurance that enabled me to access the help and support I needed. I was able to grow up in a neighborhood without a looming threat of gun violence or the fear of not knowing whether a police officer would help me or hurt me.
I am who I am today not only due to individual characteristics, but a community of support. I was buoyed by a rising tide. That’s the type of country I want to live in.
I’m sharing this story even though I’m scared of appearing naive, selfish, or wrong. But I think it’s important to share the process of noticing and challenging our assumptions and biases, even when they’re ugly, when called to do our civic duty. This country doesn’t work if we simply pit individual right against individual right. This country works when we realize we’re in all the same boat.