My legs pump the footpads of the elliptical machine while I snake headphones into my ears. I’m at the Y on a morning a few weeks after the 2018 midterm elections. I spent so much time canvassing before the elections that I haven’t been in the cardio room for over a month, but at least I have something to celebrate—my year-and-a-half of volunteering with a local political organization helped flip my congressional district from red to blue.
I take a sip from my water bottle and hear the trainer in my workout app pipe up over the dance-pop music of a beginner routine.
Set resistance to three and move your legs to the beat.
I feel my heart rate accelerate after only a few seconds as I push my reluctant quads to match the tempo. Then, as my body adjusts to the movement, my mind goes to a phone conversation I had the day before with my friend Carol.
“I saw your posts about canvassing,” she said. “Thanks so much for doing that.”
“Sure,” I said. “It kept me from going crazy.”
“I wish I could have done more,” she said. “I went door to door a little in my neighborhood, but not as much as I wanted.”
Let the music fuel your body forward.
My arms glide back and forth with the hand levers, the synchronization with my feet making a satisfying rhythm.
“Sometimes I just feel so depleted,” she continued.
Ever since Carol and I met, when our now college-aged girls were in elementary school, she has been dogged by one physical ailment after another: breast cancer, lymph complications, silicone implant ruptures, carpal tunnel, and arthritis so painful she had a knee replaced earlier in the year.
“… and then the whole Kavanaugh thing happened…”
Observe that resistance. Maybe you add another point.
I punch the resistance up a notch, feel the new strain on my legs.
In quiet moments we’ve spent together over the previous ten years, Carol has gradually revealed to me that she was molested as a child, abuse she only started to remember in her twenties.
“I’m so sorry that happened to you,” I said with every new revelation, my heart cracking open. “I can’t imagine.” I could feel her rawness as she uncovered each layer of her wound, testing to see if it was safe to leave the bandage off in front of me. I wished I could do more for her than simply bear witness.
Know that you’re strong enough to handle this moment.
A new song comes on with a faster tempo and I feel perspiration breaking out in the hollow between my breasts.
The perpetrator was an extended family member. He’d raped her in her own bed in the middle of the night. The final crushing detail: her mother had opened the door, must have seen, must have known something was wrong, but then quietly closed the door again, and never said anything.
“There’s not a lot of people I can talk to about this stuff,” Carol told me once.
She has tried opening up about her trauma to people she thought she could trust, but some friends distanced themselves or chided her for not “getting over it” when her story didn’t fit neatly into a survivor narrative. They didn’t want to hear how the twin poisons of abuse and silence seep their way into the body, how even the most processed trauma lies latent.
She said she was on edge throughout the entire Kavanaugh hearings, feeling like she needed to be hyper-vigilant.
“It triggered a lot of things. And it was during the Anita Hill testimony when I first started to remember, so this was—well, it was difficult.”
Now take that resistance down, lighten it up just a touch. But keep on top of that beat.
I breathe hard, struggling to maintain my pace even at a lighter load.
When she thanked me for canvassing, I’d squirmed a little. Because while I had wanted to flip the district, I’d canvassed mostly to quell the rage attacks I’d been having since the 2016 elections. Walking door to door methodically ticking off addresses from my walk sheet gave me a satisfying sense of agency. The day of the Kavanaugh confirmation, I was canvassing, relieved to have that routine to occupy my mind and body.
Use every muscle and use every second.
My heart beats even faster and then a surge of anger floods my chest. I imagine my friend’s unwilled reaction to those Senate hearings on the other side of the country—her body, understanding neither separation of distance nor time, only the presence of a threat, trying as it had tried for years to save her from being hurt.
I want you to add that resistance back on. You can do this.
I ratchet up the resistance, my legs burning.
“I just had to keep reminding myself that I’m not four years old anymore,” she said.
Four years old. I instinctively shut my eyes, as if blocking out the light could block out the stab of pain on hearing her words again in my head. In this darkness, I am running toward something, my feet pumping the footpads, pushing as hard as I can through what feels like heavy sand. My chest grips inward on itself as an involuntary sob catches in my throat. My jaw drops open as ragged breaths fight to escape, and my eyes squeeze tight against sudden, piercing tears.
You are strong enough. You are in control of this moment.
I need to run, just run faster, run harder. My body, understanding neither separation of distance nor time, trying to reach that four-year-old.
Let that resistance mean something to you.
I keep pushing, harder than I think I am capable of, power in my legs building as my lungs suck in air and blood pulses through my veins.
What do you have left to give?
In this moment, I know at a level below language, feel it in my sinews, that as women, we filter the political through our bodies. I realize that all those mornings I spent canvassing hadn’t been solely to make myself feel better. I’d been out there for Carol, and every woman like her. Women whose bodies were hijacked by trauma, then ambushed again as our leaders mocked and silenced survivors like them.
That was incredible.
The music stops and I open my eyes. Coming back to the present, I slow my pace and wipe the sweat from my face.
I could not keep my friend from being hurt. But I can offer the work of my body on her behalf. And knowing this makes me stronger.
* * *
Many thanks to “Carol” for generously allowing me to include portions of her story in this piece.