On an unseasonably warm November day last week, my wife and I tackled the one autumnal chore I really don’t enjoy: we raked leaves. We used the biggest rake we owned, even borrowed a neighbor’s leaf blower, but still the task went on and on and on. In fact, it soon became apparent that for every leaf we raked or blew, ten more came drifting down from the sky, and even though the pile at the end of the driveway grew to mountainous proportion, the blanket of leaves still covering the ground never seemed to shrink.
But there are some tasks that just have to be done, no matter how daunting or impossible they seem. So we raked on, perspiring in the warm November sunshine, focusing on building our leaf pile and not worrying about all the leaves littering the ground, let alone the ones still raining down from above, or even the ones stubbornly clinging to the trees overhead that were laughing at us.
Later that afternoon, the grandkids came over and as all kids are wont to do, they saw the leaf pile not as the end result of Kiki and Geep’s Herculean efforts on the lawn, but as their own newly installed playground. Kids and leaves just pair well, and soon they were all running down the hill and jumping into the pile, disappearing into its inky depths, somersaulting or tossing handfuls of leaves into the air or at each other, shrieking with delight. One fearless little monkey even decided he would ride his bike down the hill and into the pile at full speed. We cringed, but some unseen hand kept everyone safe and whatever might have gone wrong, didn’t. By dinner time, the pile had compacted into a gooey mess, but everybody was accounted for, albeit with so many leaves in their hair that they all looked like harpies.
And that’s when it hit me: raking is hard work and leaf piles are, by nature, messy places. Kind of like democracies.
Today is election day, time to rake our political leaves yet again. I have no doubt that this year’s leaf pile will likely result in a particularly messy, even potentially dangerous, pyramid of dead leaves. In the days leading up to this moment, we’ve been bombarded with myriad slogans and ads that, to me, only seem to underscore the deep divisions that lie underneath our body politic. People could get hurt—have already been hurt—jumping in, playing too rough, undoing all the hard work that has been done ever since we became a nation.
The presidential election of 1864 was another particularly contentious affair. Our nation had been fighting a deadly Civil War for four long years and the incumbent President, Abraham Lincoln, imagined he might well lose the election to his Democratic rival, General George McClellan. Even before election day—another Tuesday, November 8—President Lincoln went so far as to state publicly that should he lose, he would bend to the will of the people and work graciously with the new President-elect to ensure a smooth transition of power. After all, that is the way democracies are supposed to work, isn’t it?
Of course, that didn’t happen. Lincoln won in a landslide and would remain in the White House to oversee the end of the Civil War, only to be assassinated by a deranged southern sympathizer who shouted “Sic semper tyrannis!” at the moment of murder. Lincoln went on to be one with ages, but by some miracle, our fragile experiment in democracy survived.
Like raking leaves, there are just some tasks that have to be done, no matter how daunting or impossible or endless they seem. Whatever the outcome of today’s election, ensuring a fair process that preserves this democracy is one of those. If you haven’t already done so, jump in and vote.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine. Two collections of his essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”) are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is www.musingjamie.net.