Diary of a Do-Gooder

After years of trying to distinguish herself, Sara Eckel considers the value of door-to-door canvassing, phone-banking, and other anonymous tasks of everyday activism.

Sara Eckel | Longreads | January 2018 | 19 minutes (4,774 words)

In the fall of 2016, I stood on the concrete steps of a mustard-colored ranch house off the New York State Thruway in Ulster County, a broken red umbrella hooked below my shoulder. The mustached man at the door — 50ish, in a t-shirt and khakis — had the stern, dry look of a high-school science teacher.

“Hi, Thomas?”

He nodded.

“Hi, Thomas, my name is Sara, and I’m a neighborhood volunteer for Zephyr Teachout for Congress.”

Thomas didn’t tell me to go away, didn’t slam the door or scold me for interrupting his day. He stoically endured my spiel about why I was spending my Sunday afternoon doing this — because Zephyr has been fighting corruption for her entire career, and I believe she’ll go to Washington and represent the people of New York’s 19th District, rather than corporations and billionaires.

“Okay, thank you,” he said, closing the door.

“Would you like some literature?” I asked, proffering some rain-dotted pamphlets.

“No, you people have sent us plenty.”

You people.

But, this was the woman I had decided to be on that drizzly afternoon in Kingston, New York. Well, hello neighbor! I’m a nice middle-aged lady who cares about the community! Can we chat for a bit about how concerned we are about cleaning up the Hudson? I’m sure we can agree that it’s very important to protect the environment!

I was surprised by how easily I became this person, this pesky do-gooder, this purveyor of obviousness. My high-school English teachers had instructed me to avoid clichés — if you want people to bother reading you, then you must find an original way to tell the story. This became a guiding principle not just in my writing, but in my speech, too, as it was for all my writer friends in New York City, where I had lived until 2012. There, nearly everyone I knew tried to obey the golden rule of conversation: If you can’t think of something interesting to say, don’t say anything at all.

But that was before the world appeared to be on the verge of collapse or — as it seemed to lefties like me in 2016 — a very hopeful course correction.

Anyway, it was better a few doors down, where a woman named Janice stepped outside in her stocking feet, closing the door to dim the sound of football. Janice had been so caught up in the presidential election, she hadn’t really been following Congress.

“Well, here in District 19 we’re in one of the closest congressional races in the country,” I said, “so your vote really counts.”

I told Janice about Teachout’s work with the Sunlight Foundation, how she intends to make companies like General Electric clean up the toxic waste they dumped in the Hudson — and p.s. her opponent, John Faso, voted to let them off the hook when he was in the State Assembly. Janice leaned against the mint-green siding, her arms folded over her long cardigan, nodding and considering. She took the pamphlet and thanked me.

***

My husband Mark and I left New York City for the usual reasons — we longed for outdoor space, disposable income, and access to swimming holes. But the move also dovetailed with a philosophical idea I was working out. In 2010, I began a Buddhist course of study, and there was one teaching that particularly intrigued me: we achieve happiness not by distinguishing ourselves, but by embracing our ordinariness. I had spent my entire life trying to prove my specialness, first, as a student with maddeningly middling grades and atrocious athletic skills, and later, after I discovered my one gift, as a writer whose name (I hoped) would appear on books and prestigious publications.

The modest writing success I had did bring many happy experiences and opportunities, but I noticed that my underlying thinking pattern had been one of inadequacy, a sense of either not measuring up, or, alternatively, being robbed of my due. In New York, there is always someone (well, many someones) doing much, much better than you are — and very often it’s someone you know well. But I also noticed that those people usually seemed just as aggrieved by their lot as I was.

In the Buddhist study course, I found myself experiencing a quiet joy from the most mundane things: listening to the sound of traffic filtering into the windows of the Manhattan center, eating a single raisin. It never lasted long; I’d be back to chewing over some personal slight or other piece of bullshit soon enough. But what struck me was the sense that this deep contentment never really went away. It was always there, should I choose to tap into it.

In Kingston, I would cultivate this. I would end my striving and just enjoy hiking with my husband and drinking a beer or two on the back deck. I would garden, and maybe even craft — a verb in my new world! Most important, I would stop worrying about being successful and just try to be useful.

At the same time, Mark and I started relaxing into our leftist politics. In our New York City social world, being a Democrat was assumed. But since we were journalists, of course it was important to show independence from anything that sounded like dogma. The intelligent and objective person soberly considered each side from the reasonable middle. I didn’t hide the fact that Mark and I marched at Occupy Wall Street, or that I had voted for Ralph Nader in 1996 (though not in 2000; I’m not crazy), in protest of Bill Clinton’s welfare reform and crime bills. But I didn’t talk about it much either.

This was the woman I had decided to be on that drizzly afternoon in Kingston, New York. ‘Well, hello neighbor! I’m a nice middle-aged lady who cares about the community!’

That is, until 2016. Most of my New York City friends were leaning Hillary, unmoved by the rumpled old man speaking of revolution. In Kingston, it was different. Here the land was dotted with sky-blue Bernie signs. Here there were others who had not forgiven the sins of 2008, who noticed that the bankers who gambled away our mortgages and pensions paid no penalties for this massive fraud — and that it was the Democrats who let them walk away, cash in hand. The unapologetic lefty-ism made Mark and me feel like two cranky hermits, blinking out of our caves as we stepped into a sunny world of sympathizers, bearing casseroles and smiles. Our long-calcified cynicism started to crumble. The people will rise! Without irony! We kept those $37 donations coming.

Even better, the most talked-about member of the Sanders revolution was running in our district. The year before, a then-unknown Teachout had run as a progressive against Governor Cuomo in the Democratic primary and shocked the hell out of the party establishment by winning a third of the vote. A law professor, her message was both inspirational and technocratic — she didn’t just talk about corruption and corporate power; she also understood the hideously complicated technicalities — the provisions, the clauses, the heretofores — that enable the economic winners to keep their kitty. Teachout saw the same injustices Mark and I saw but, unlike us, she had the chops to do something about them, having dedicated her life to working in the public interest, rather than Expressing Herself.

I was excited by the Bernie phenom, but Zephyr was my girl. I had never before felt this pure a love for a candidate, and never realized how much I had yearned to do so — how much I wanted to truly believe in a candidate, rather than simply conclude that so-and-so was far from perfect but, Jesus, consider the alternative. And with the mounting accusations that anyone supporting Bernie was un-feminist, it was also nice that she was a she.

So on weekends throughout 2016, I walked the Brookside Courts and Holiday Lanes of Ulster County in my windbreaker and boot-cut jeans, clipboard in hand. I became a regular at Teachout’s Kingston office, a woman in comfort shoes and reading glasses amid the 20-something staffers who were going places.

I joined the invisible economy of over-40 volunteer ladies, suddenly becoming aware of my contemporaries — the Barbs, the Joans, the Terris. They were everywhere: checking you in at the hospitality desk, telling you which line to stand in at the voting booth, coming early to set up the chairs, staying late to put plastic wrap on pasta salads, introducing tonight’s guest speaker — usually (though not always) a man addressing the mostly (but not exclusively) female audience. In conference centers across the nation, men in jeans and sportcoats steepled their fingers and spoke about the importance of service. But did they get calls from the Unitarian church asking them to take a shift at the rummage sale?

Unlike Barb and Joan and Terri, I was not quiet or humble about my efforts. Instead, I regularly posted pictures of my canvassing and phone-banking rounds. Come join me! I said. It’s fun! But I was no influencer. With one exception*, my invitations were met with crickets.

The Bernie-mania didn’t seem to be translating to Teachout, and the crisp white lawn signs bearing her name only popped up after The Man Himself stumped for her in New Paltz. While many of the Democrats I met on my canvassing rounds were aware of and enthusiastic about Teachout, I also sometimes heard the criticism that she was “from the city” (she had moved to Rhinebeck from Brooklyn in 2015). I did not share that I, too, was “from the city.”

Since my recruiting attempts failed, I decided to double my own canvassing efforts. This was all that mattered. Press the glowing doorbell, lift the brass knocker, tap the aluminum screen door. Then the door swings open and it’s showtime: “Hi, I’m a neighborhood volunteer…”

***

A couple of years earlier, I read from my book before a crowd of 600 in a Washington, D.C., theater with a well-known editor. Afterwards, the editor and I sat on stage in club chairs, sipping water out of bottles bearing the theater’s logo, while people in the audience lined up behind a microphone to ask us questions. But that was the past. I wasn’t that woman anymore, or at least I wasn’t today. Today I was a graying lady interrupting dinner and reciting canned phrases about “people versus profits.” That “me” was just as real as the “successful author” me. Probably more.

In 2010, I began a Buddhist course of study, and there was one teaching that particularly intrigued me: we achieve happiness not by distinguishing ourselves, but by embracing our ordinariness.

But. Sometimes a girl gets lonely. Sometimes she hops on a Trailways bus to rush back to her wisecracking city friends. Sometimes she wants to be around people talking about book deals, and scandalous affairs at writers’ conferences, and regime changes on mastheads.

I headed back to New York for every cocktail party and birthday dinner that I could. The trip usually involved three hours of travel each way, sometimes in the same day, and was always worth it. One night, I was about to leave a beautiful deck party in Brooklyn — my bus’s Port Authority departure imminent — when I stumbled into some playful banter with two people I had just met. I can’t remember what we talked about, only the lightness and crispness of the conversation, like a really bracing game of tennis. But, hey, Cinderella, the clock is running out, and your coach bus awaits.


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Of course, like all sentient beings in 2016, we also talked politics in the city. One night, at a sushi restaurant in Brooklyn, a friend asked if anyone was feeling the Bern. As the only Bern-feeler at the table, I felt duty-bound to explain my support, but I cringed as the boring lefty in me took over. Righteous phrases dropped from my lips: “economic injustice,” “climate breakdown,” “the 1 percent.” I told my friends how it was upstate — the Bernie-mania, as well as Trump signs hand-painted on barns or staked on the lawns of the 1990s McMansions I passed on my daily run. “I don’t think people realize how much anger is out there,” I said, a little piously.

But what does it matter? It has all been swept away, like an island nation after a category five.

***

On that brutal morning in November, 2016, Mark and I drove a young college student to the local Trailways station. He had flown in from Chicago to volunteer for Teachout, quietly crunching numbers in her midtown Kingston office, while I sat with the other phone-bank ladies, yakking away to anyone foolish enough to pick up in the last days before the election. During the three nights he stayed with us, the kid mostly kept to himself, coming home late and drinking beer in our guest room with the door closed. Each morning, I set out cereal and toast for him, and Mark teased me about this display of the maternal-ish instincts, which he hadn’t quite seen before. The kid always said he’d grab something on the way.

Now, in addition to that other huge rub-your-eyes defeat, the three of us were grieving Teachout’s loss to Faso, a lawyer and former fossil-fuel and financial-services lobbyist. At the bus station, I hugged the boy. “I’m sorry for my generation,” I said, my voice teary. “We let you guys down.”

He didn’t say anything. He was no doubt looking forward to just being on the bus, away from this dramatic old woman making too much of their relationship. As we were leaving, we ran into a multimedia artist we knew. He asked how we were holding up; I said I wasn’t. He said he thought there was a silver lining. He and his wife had been talking about the importance of having conversations, of getting out of our bubble. I said we had to get going.

***

I’ve always struggled with insomnia, but in early 2017 my nightstand grew cluttered with pill bottles — melatonin, Tylenol PM, and some horse-sized Chinese-herb pills that the acupuncturist I started seeing (self-care! self-care!) prescribed. In the past, my 4 a.m. panic could usually be quelled by the words of a wildly popular Buddhist author named Pema Chodron, whose compassionate and witty books always drove home a point I needed to hear again and again: Everybody screws up sometimes; you’re not so bad. This was the upside of ordinariness: the understanding that I wasn’t alone, that at that very moment many people the world over were feeling exactly as I did.

Once, this had been a source of comfort — if I was smarting over a breakup or a rejection letter, for example. Happens to the best of us, kid! Now, this sentiment was no help at all. I was fully aware that across my time zone, many, many others were sitting bolt upright in bed, that the insomnia wave was looping around the planet, hour by hour, some perverse football-stadium wave. But knowing I wasn’t alone in my terror and despair was no help at all. Yes, yes, we’re all the same. We’re all fucked.

One morning, while drinking the (now) cold coffee Mark had set on my nightstand hours earlier, I read several Facebook invitations to something called the Women’s March. “I did my activism before the election,” I said to my laptop.

But gradually I came around. It was a terrible way for it to happen, but now earnestness no longer felt embarrassing; it felt essential. I joined the chorus of people cut-and-pasting urgent phone scripts about Merrick Garland and the Electoral College. I downloaded a mailmerge someone posted and sent paper letters to every single Republican elector, pleading with them to exercise their constitutional right to vote against their party’s candidate. (An outrageously misguided effort, in hindsight.) I cut a panel from a cardboard box and wrote “NO!” in big maker letters and, on that day, blissfully disappeared into the global sea of pink hats, swelling like a massive antibody to fight the Cheeto-colored cancer. Look out: The over-40 volunteer ladies have company!

As devastating as Teachout’s loss was, living in a Republican district meant we had something to do. No mealy-mouthed “Thank you for voting to not defund Planned Parenthood” for us! We got to go to the Chamber of Commerce breakfast in our dressy pants and ask John Faso sober questions about health care and immigration policy. We got to stand outside his Kingston office in the freezing rain chanting, “Save the ACA”! That night, Mark and I folded into the crowd of grandmothers, punk rockers, and union guys. I joined the chorus of “hey-hey, ho-hos,” while Mark took pictures for me to tweet. A month later, when Faso refused to attend a NY-19 town hall meeting, 700 of us got to pack into an elementary school auditorium and chant “Do. Your. Job. Do. Your. Job” to a cardboard cutout of Faso dressed as Where’s Waldo. It was fun.

Most of my New York City friends were leaning Hillary, unmoved by the rumpled old man speaking of revolution. In Kingston, it was different. Here the land was dotted with sky-blue Bernie signs.

Oh, and we got on Maddow. At a “Save The ACA” rally in Faso’s hometown of Kinderhook, a protestor engaged him in neighborly chat. “I grew up down the road,” she said. “I went to school with your kids. Your wife was my school nurse.” Faso looked genuinely pleased to see her, his face showing recognition. Then she lowered the boom: She had a brain tumor and a spinal condition and was kicked off her health insurance prior to the Affordable Care Act. “I need you, as a human being, I need you to promise me that you will not let them take this away from me,” she said. Faso hugged her and said, “I promise.”

It all mattered. The phone calls, the protests, the knitted hats. The People. United. Will Never Be Divided. We were taking back our power. We were taking back democracy. We were making a difference! Right? Right?

Of course, it wasn’t clear. I remember feeling victorious after rallying some Indivisible contacts to call Faso about a measure that would allow coal companies to dump their waste in nearby streams. When I talked to Faso’s staffer, I adopted the tone of a sanctimonious old-timer: “Here in the Hudson Valley, we really value the land, and of course our natural beauty is an important part of the economy.” A few days later, I got an email from Faso’s office saying he voted no on the resolution — one of only 11 Republicans to do so. Victory!

Except that he ultimately voted yes, and the measure passed. A member of the Indivisible group said it was pointless to lean on Faso; the Republican leadership understood that representatives in purple districts were under pressure, and sometimes gave them permission to show their “independence” on measures where the GOP could spare the votes. And when the vote was tight, Faso was an obedient soldier. With his one vote, he could have stopped the ACA repeal from ever leaving the House. Instead, he broke his promise to his infirmed neighbor.

***

As my distress mounted, and sleep grew more elusive, I started hearing a lot of people talking about art — more important now than ever! they said. This was no big surprise; Kingston is an “art town” as described by a number of travel magazines, real estate blogs, and other designees of things “hot.” Since Mark and I arrived, we had heard a lot about the importance of supporting the arts, which was usually accomplished by showing up to your friend’s reading or gallery opening and possibly paying a $5 cover. I preferred to think of this as supporting my friends, but whatever. Whether that fiver was meant to bolster Elizabeth or some abstract ideal didn’t seem particularly significant to me at the time.

But now I was having a hard time getting down with the idea that my neighbors’ spoken-word poetry or found-object sculptures were going to get us out of this one. The grifters and white supremacists kept getting confirmed, and environmental and gun regulations were being repealed at an alarming clip. So get your shit together, modern dance.

I started each morning later and more tired. At about 10, I’d drink my cold coffee and read my cracked iPad, scrolling through the latest awful news, unanswered work emails, and Facebook messages that said, “Do you want to meet for coffee and talk about activism?” “Do you want to hand-paint postcards to send to the White House?” I did not.

I was excited by the Bernie phenom, but Zephyr was my girl. I had never before felt this pure a love for a candidate, and never realized how much I had yearned to do so — how much I wanted to truly believe in a candidate.

Lying on the acupuncturist’s table on the eve of yet-another health-care vote (surprisingly, this treatment was covered), I was particularly amped up. The acupuncturist tried to soothe me, noting that a lot of great art will probably come out of this mess. Her artist husband had been putting up some really funny stuff on Twitter — I should follow him. And last night, they watched All The President’s Men — that was a pretty great piece of art that came from Watergate.

“Art, schmart,” I said.

She back-peddled — she just meant that we don’t know what’s going to happen — this could actually be the start of something great. People are rising up! Yes, I know, I said. We rise and fight, they get their stolen Supreme Court seat, and the Standing Rock tribe burns down their camp. She persisted with the “this could ultimately be good” argument until I finally relented and said yes, maybe. I said this not because I was convinced, but because I was exhausted. Sure, sure, send that man a postcard with your original watercolor. Tell yourself that will work. I liked the acupuncturist, and loved the treatment. But the herbs and melatonin made me logy and depressed, and still wide awake at 4 a.m.

My righteous fury — coupled with the volunteer brags — got its comeuppance: A few neighbors asked me to run for the Kingston City Council. This is how it’s supposed to be of course — citizens of conscience getting involved in local politics! A whole fleet of us gathering power and steam, township by township, county by county.

I bumped into one of my would-be supporters while walking home from yoga. I explained that I had too long a paper trail — my entire career was based on revealing things about myself that others wouldn’t share publicly.

“Nobody cares about any of that,” he said. “They just want the garbage to be picked up.”

Well, exactly.

There you have it: What better way to follow through on my new Life Philosophy than to run for this important and thankless post? Surely, my work in that role could do far more good than, say, writing a longform essay chronicling my feelings about resistance. And it would be a clear bump up from cookie-baking volunteer lady. Who knows, maybe I’d sleep at night.

Problem: I didn’t want to spend my Tuesday nights debating zoning bylaws and fielding constituent ire over parking. I had other plans for myself. I wanted to write a new book, or at least some big-splash essay. I wanted to create something that would make an impact well beyond my ZIP code. And — yes, okay — I wanted to sit on a big-city stage with a well-known editor and take questions from the audience. If I did it right, surely this would be the best use of energy — for someone of my (dare I say) talent. Surely, it made sense for someone else to slog through those tax abatements and building codes. Yes?

I told my neighbor I had to go. Mark was waiting with dinner.

***

I put off making my Tax March sign because I wanted to come up with something clever, finally settling for the on-the-nose WHAT ARE YOU HIDING? Mark and I picked up poster board and a pen at CVS on the drive to Albany. Since he has better handwriting, I asked him to do the honors.

The dashboard made a bad surface for writing, and the poster pen was weird and streaky. He tried anyway, biting his lip in concentration, laughing at how badly each version came out.

Watching Mark, I couldn’t believe my good luck. How did I find this man who took my need to carry this sign seriously, who held the two pieces of poster board together while I stapled them to a cardboard wrapping-paper roll, who didn’t think I was too earnest or too negative, who agreed that we were probably fucked but still stood next to me with my hackneyed sign?

One morning I read several Facebook invitations to something called the Women’s March. “I did my activism before the election,” I said to my laptop. But gradually I came around.

As we got out of the car, I realized the sign made us vulnerable. We couldn’t scope out the scene before committing. We couldn’t decide the protest looked lame and get lunch instead. Barb and Joan and Terri would see us. And then we saw them (or two anyway): a pair of gray-haired ladies with signs.

“Well, at least there are four of us,” one said.

A young couple walked by. “What are you protesting?” said the man.

“Trump releasing his tax returns.”

“Get him!” he said.

There were more than four of us — several hundred (and of course tens of thousands nationwide). At a folding table, volunteers offered store-brand sandwich cookies and people filled out simple printed postcards urging our state’s senators and assemblymen to pass the TRUMP [Tax Releases Uniformly Made Public] Act, which would require all presidential candidates to release their tax returns before getting on the ballot in New York State. Thank goodness for the professionals, the people neglecting their personal lives and eating bad takeout in municipal buildings across the country as they perform the dull, painstaking paperwork of democracy. Our side lost on technicalities, but we could win that way, too.

“I like your sign,” said a 40ish woman in big black sunglasses. She stood next to an older woman in a blue baseball cap and purple fleece zip-up. Both carried signs that also said “WHAT ARE YOU HIDING?”

I took their picture and then wove through the crowd, snapping shots of the many other middle-aged women holding signs that said “WHAT ARE YOU HIDING?”

We marched around the Capitol building, passing a giddy wedding party, the bride raising her bouquet in solidarity. A large woman in an emerald gown danced and sang, “This is what democracy looks like!” Drivers honked their horns and shot victory fists from their car windows.

***

Is this our darkest hour, or the last glimmers of twilight before it all goes black?

If you’re like me, your answer depends on what day it is, as each hour brings news that makes the situation seem worse, then better, then back again. We’ve had moments of hard-core hope — Virginia! Alabama! — but the game of Issues Whack-a-Mole keeps going — health care, tax reform, net neutrality, immigration, racial justice, reproductive rights, gun control, misogyny, climate breakdown, Russian collusion, election hacks, thermonuclear war. Our screens present a steady stream of anger and despair: wheelchair bound elders hauled into paddy wagons, crew-cutted white men bearing tiki torches, fed-up women naming names, late-night comedians weeping openly.

The stress keeps mounting, energy flags. I wonder: Is it okay if I show you my vacation pictures? How about tonight we turn off Maddow and watch Project Runway Junior instead? But the professionals are hard at work, blocking travel bans and suing the EPA. Zephyr Teachout is now part of a legal team going after Trump for violating the emoluments clause, one of the many new vocabulary-builders the pros have taught us since the election.

***

I finally started phone-banking again in late 2017, after the Senate passed its first version of the corporate tax giveaway. “Will you call John Faso and make your voice heard?” I asked a man who picked up.

It all mattered. The phone calls, the protests, the knitted hats. The People. United. Will Never Be Divided. We were taking back our power. We were taking back democracy. We were making a difference! Right? Right?

“Do you really think it will make a difference?” he asked.

Of course, I don’t know,** but I’ve stopped asking myself that question. In midst of massive change, it’s hard to see past our kitchen windows. Heroic citizens are running for local offices, while the rest of us make our calls, write our poems, and plant our lawn signs that say, “No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor.” You can’t know if your teaspoon-digging will work. You can only know that if, in some terrible future, those fuckers really do steal everything, at least you didn’t sit back and watch.

At the end of the Tax March route, we returned to the outdoor stage, where there were more speeches and reminders. Come back next week for the Science March, and the week after that for the Climate March. On stage, a balding man on an acoustic guitar began a round of, “We shall overcome.” I raised my sign, and sang.

* Thanks, Maureen!

** Faso did vote no, noting how unfavorable it was to New York State homeowners. The bill passed.

* * *

Sara Eckel is the author of It’s Not You. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe‘s Globe Magazine, the Daily Beast, Lion’s Roar and other publications.

Editor: Sari Botton