Learning to play nicely in the sandbox

Mary Jo Groves, M.D., is a writer who lives in Springfield.

I sing in public. I also manage critically ill patients, and lecture on topics as intimate as sex, and as delicate as dying. But self-assurance deserted me when I recently canvassed for a candidate for state representative. Doorbells were intimidating; knocking, a conundrum — too loud? too soft? When someone actually opened the door, I stammered like a teenager on a first date.

I can’t blame my trepidation on my candidate’s team, who’d prepared a trove of data, including a script and instruction on personalizing it. “Why was I doing this?” the campaign coach nudged. “That’s what matters to people.”

Why indeed? I wondered myself.

She handed me a packet — 43 names, 34 houses, a tangle of streets. “How long will it take?” I asked.

“How fast can you walk?”

In the ’70s, I fell in love with a liberal. It wasn’t until years later, after the divorce, that I realized how deep the river of my own beliefs ran. It was 2002, when, if you’re smart, you don’t cement a relationship until you’ve dissected your partner’s intimate history. So after “the conversation,” I said to my new love, professor of political science, “I have one more question.”

“What?”

“Are you a Republican or Democrat?”

He raised an eyebrow. “Can’t you tell?”

“No,” I said. He kept his leanings close, practicing neutrality for the classroom. Didn’t display yard signs, didn’t spout dogma. I said I couldn’t see myself in a relationship with someone who didn’t share my worldview. That, for me, political affiliation fundamentally reflected how we felt about, and treated, others.

“Well,” he laughed, “I’ve been asked that question before, but never like this. Fair enough,” he added quickly, judging my evil eye. “I’m a Democrat,” he said. We’ve been married 14 years.

I paged through my voter list with dismay at all the R’s next to names, and the U’s, for undecided. There was only one “D.” I was petrified of these people whose paradigms were different from mine. In this endless election season, I’ve yearned to elect a new citizenry more than a new president. What if they slammed the door in my face for interrupting dinner? Imagining a glut of abuse, I drove to my site.

It didn’t help that when I parked, the first thing I saw was a sign: Private. No soliciting. Violators will be prosecuted. Emergency call to headquarters, hoping for an abort-mission command. No such luck. You’re not selling anything, I was told, so no worries. Right. I felt a lot better.

I got out of the car, ashamed to return without completing my assignment, and worked up some courage in this: If we couldn’t agree at the top of the ticket, perhaps we could agree at the bottom?

The next two hours turned out to be harmless. I knocked on door after door, less anxious each time. Elderly women in nightgowns did not threaten me, nor did young mothers brandishing spoons coated with mac ’n’ cheese, or burly men in work boots. The only peevishness — “I don’t discuss my views with anyone!” — was my only Democrat. I said I was delighted not to discuss her views, but could I leave her a pamphlet, and might we count on her support? I had plenty of time between houses to contemplate the kindness of these strangers. Had I been this generous to people who knocked at my own door?

I’m not eager to canvass again. It’s way more unnerving for me than wielding a scalpel or taking the stage, but I’m no longer afraid of my neighbors. My stammering continued, though what I lacked in polish I made up for with sincerity. I believed in my candidate, a young man who worked his way through college, and returned to try to make his community a better place for everyone. That’s what I said to my fellow citizens, and they cheerfully agreed. I’m not going to marry them, but I think I can live with them.