by: Bonnie Wilkins Overcott
With a Nation tribally divided in the Age of Trumpism, one woman finds perspective and solace in nature…
My backyard is a wildlife-friendly garden as well as my refuge from the world, despite being located in the heart of Minneapolis. I don’t know if Hebrews 13:2, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it,” refers to animals, but I feed the birds and squirrels all year and make sure there are plenty of fruits and seeds for them. Filling the feeders and changing the water in the bird bath are chores that get me outside each day during the winter. Because of my generous offerings to the animal world, I am rewarded by visits from colorful cardinals, blue jays, goldfinches and woodpeckers, as well as dozens of various species of rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels, turkeys and possums, and even the occasional deer. I love seeing the pairs of mourning doves warming their feet in the heated bird bath. Each time I go out to feed them, the squirrels scatter as though they fear for their lives. I wonder who they think fills the feeders full of the black oil sunflower seeds they love so dearly, or who hangs the corn on the cob on the bungee cord for them.
Throughout September and October, the days grow shorter and I’m able to spend less time in my garden. I go into a state of depression that lasts through the dreary days of winter. Though I do find a measure of catharsis in another passion of mine that gets me through. As an avid political junkie, I always get geared up for elections, particularly major elections. My state, Minnesota, voted for Sen. Bernie Sanders as the Democratic nominee and Sen. Marco Rubio as the Republican nominee for President in the 2016 election. I expected the presidential race would be former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton versus former Governor Jeb Bush. Both were experienced, competent, and solid candidates, even though they came from established political dynasties. It was a shock to my system when the remainder of the country’s Republicans chose Donald Trump over all the other Republican candidates.
After the primaries in March of 2016 I realized that half of my friends and family were Hillary supporters, and half were Trump supporters. No one, it seemed, was lukewarm about the choices. I’d spent too many years standing in line at the grocery store reading headlines about Trump’s latest affairs, marriages, divorces and business failures on the front pages of the tabloids to think he’d make a good president, and in terms of Hillary, I was excited at the prospect of our first woman president, especially one who was one of the most experienced candidates ever. Trump supporters cited his business experience, his “Make America Great Again” message, and hoped for change and a break from the past. Before Facebook, I only suspected the political leanings of most of my friends and family. Facebook shoved their ideas and beliefs into my face every single day and mine right back into theirs.
Despite the tensions created by the election, I headed outdoors each day. My assorted bird feeders and bird baths needed cleaning and filling. Other garden chores kept me busy as well. For me, working in the garden is totally absorbing and it removes the troubles of the world from my mind.
One September day I noticed that when I went out to fill the feeders, all the squirrels scattered, but one. He was smaller than the others. He looked like he’d been attacked more than once by some monster out there in his world. His face was scarred and chewed-up looking. He had a chunk of fur missing from his tail like something at one point had clenched his tail in their jaws. I couldn’t help but imagine the terror he felt while trying to free himself from the grasp of the predator.
The squirrel looked at me in a quizzical, hopeful way. “Do you want a peanut?” I asked in the voice I reserve for children and pets. He kept his gaze upon me. “Wait there,” I said. I went into the garage, came out with a peanut and held it out to him. He came a bit closer, but was wary of getting too close. I tossed the peanut in the little fellas direction. He darted in and picked it up with his jaws and started to run off. A safe distance away, he stopped, turned and looked at me as he secured the peanut in his jaws, then merrily ran off. My spirits soared as I watched him run off with his prize.
Throughout the fall, the arguments about the election grew so heated that I began to worry that friends, some of whom I’ve known all my life, and my family would stop being on speaking terms over the fallout from the election and its lingering aftermath. We began arguing with each other. Some of the items posted on social media were cruel and vicious. I began blocking the most offensive sites, like FOX and InfoWars, to avoid participating in the arguments and tried not share offensive posts myself. I argued with people who posted inaccuracies. A doctor said Hillary Clinton had Parkinson’s disease. My father had Parkinson’s, and I’m intimately familiar with the disease. I’ve read that people argue about things like politics in order to identify themselves to others in their tribe. Americans became very, very tribal. Many people told me they feared discussing the election with their own siblings or parents for fear of sending them into a rage. Fellow citizens couldn’t even agree on what a fact was anymore. I can’t remember an election, since 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War, so contentious.
Each day in which the little squirrel ran towards me was like receiving an inoculation against the hate, anger, division and tension around me. Worries and cares melted away as my little buddy ran towards me with his eager, hopeful face looking to see if I had a peanut for him. In time, I named him “Peanut.” Often he’d run off to stash the peanut and return multiple times before I finished filling the feeders. Peanut was such a day-brightener. My husband would look out the window and tell me if he thought he saw him. Visitors to our home would look out the window hoping to get a glimpse of Peanut so they could watch him running towards me to get his treat. When the feeder was full of black oil sunflower seeds, Peanut would reluctantly leave the feeder to come get his peanut. I realized the friendship wasn’t a one-way street.
The results of the 2016 election were stunning to voters, the media, pundits, and other countries that pay attention to our elections. Even with three million more votes, Hillary Clinton lost. Those of us who supported Hillary had to brace ourselves for four years of a Trump administration. Trump supporters were elated. The negative news and postings didn’t disappear, though. It was like a never ending campaign with attacks against Hillary Clinton and even President Obama continuing. When would people ease up on their anger? Was this going to be the new normal with half us on one side of the divide and the rest of us on the other side?
Peanut didn’t appear daily, but every day he showed up was a good day. My son, who can be a little cynical, asked me in amazement, “How did you do that?” when he saw Peanut running towards me. He wanted to make a video to send to his friends. On a late winter day, I was in the back yard with a landscape designer discussing a project to solve drainage issues and provide one area specifically for wildlife feeding, when Peanut came running up to me. The designer said, “My son would be so jealous. He’s been trying to make friends with a squirrel forever.”
Peanut would approach me when I was talking over the fence to a neighbor, who was discussing setting out live traps to get rid of the rabbits. Her husband used to trap squirrels and set them loose miles from our neighborhood, and their homes and families. I think she began to soften her attitude when she saw my little critter coming up to me. By now Peanut knew that when I saw him, I’d drop what I was doing to get a peanut for him to add to his stash.
Donald Trump is our President. There is nothing that can be done to change that for four years unless the Mueller investigation turns up some wrongdoing. Half of my friends and family believe he’ll make this country better and the other half pray he won’t destroy it or start WWIII. In the meantime our lives go on. Again people are sharing photos of their cruises and vacations, grandchildren, lunches and dinner with friends and family, and celebrations on social media. Once more people post their philosophies and thoughts, their accomplishments and share stories and articles they want others to read. There are some people who continue to post political commentary, but I think I’ve filtered the most offensive sites out, and the fervor has diminished.
Psychologists tell of having clients reliving sexual assaults during this current election cycle based on the revelations of Donald Trump’s treatment of women. Bullying and hate crimes have increased. Many mental health professionals began seeing patients having difficulty coping with the stress and tension of the current political environment. One, William J. Doherty, a Professor in the Department of Family Social Services at the University of Minnesota and a therapist for over forty years, founded Citizen Therapists for Democracy. The group defines “Trumpism” and the organization’s goals are to help clients through “public stress,” “avoid toxic polarization,” as well to enable patients to remain involved in Democracy to keep it viable and healthy.
Peanut never ate a peanut in front of me, but ran merrily across the yard, climbed up the wooden fence, flew into a tree, jumped onto the garage roof behind my next door neighbor’s yard and climbed to the tip of the roof and disappeared out of sight to stash away his prize. I’d talk to him while tossing him his peanut. Sometimes, he’d run off a few steps, then turn around to look at me intently before scampering off.
In 2017 spring came again. The days grew longer. My spirits lifted. I made it through the winter and the nasty election, without therapy, thanks to a little beat-up squirrel who visited me regularly. My neighbor never put out the live traps for the rabbits. I’m still communicating with my friends and family, save one.