remembering your origin story

grey-door

It was Halloween, and we stood in the alcove of the Monastery of the Precious Blood.

My canvassing partner rang the bell. We waited. Normally we’d have left a door hanger and gone after half a minute, but we waited a long while. For as strange as we felt trying to convince sixteen Sisters Adorers of the Precious Blood to vote that Tuesday, we were shamelessly curious.

I was remembering a line from Excess of Being: “Don’t cushion your life with too much caution,” says Lera Auerbach.

No cushion here, Lera.

After a minute, a wooden slat opened. Through the grate, a woman’s face, her hairline a white and blue habit.

“Good morning, Sister,” we said.

“Good morning,” she returned, predictably a little skeptical of us two in our red shirts, clipboards at our hips.

My partner launched into his pitch, introducing us, our organization, the importance of preschool in New Hampshire, a list of candidates committed to early education, and would she allow us to talk to the other Sisters about voting this Tuesday?

“Well,” she said, “we already voted. Absentee.”

She didn’t open the door for us.

When we got back into the car, we checked the monastery off as a success. The Sisters really liked one of our candidates, and she had seemed chipper through that grate. It was our second day of canvassing, and we already had rhinoceros hides.

And for good reason. The afternoon before–my first time door-knocking–a disembodied voice had called out through a window: “Go away–please leave!” A man working in his garage froze when the door chime sounded, his sneaker gone immobile in the small gap where the garage door wasn’t fully lowered. One of our canvassers was chased down a driveway by a determined pomeranian.

There are two kinds of canvassers: those who have been menaced by dogs, and those who haven’t canvassed much.

Before I ended up at the monastery–before I’d even traveled to New Hampshire–I got advice from a coworker who had rawed his knuckles on doors for years. “Remember your origin story,” he said. The origin story, he explained, is why you do the work. It’s what makes you tireless, unflappable.

His origin story was his two young children. What was mine?

I didn’t know. Even when I arrived on the first stoop, I didn’t know, because I had no children of my own, no nieces and nephews. I just wanted to help kids.

In my first hour of canvassing, an elderly man opened his door. That day I was with another woman, the two of us complete novices. We delivered a halting, uncertain pitch, which he humored. He was smiling at us, in fact, as he told us that preschool was really just babysitting.

“Women should stay home with their children,” he said. “When you two grow up and become mothers, you should stay home with your kids. Did your mothers keep you at home until kindergarten?”

“I went to preschool,” my partner said.

“I went to montessori,” I said, surprising myself. It’s a fact I can easily forget, but it’s where my earliest memories come from: a young woman holding a picture frame out to me, the center replaced with a portion of a dress shirt that she wanted me to button. When I had done that, she switched it for a frame with a shirt with snap-buttons.

The first memory I have is of preschool. The first memory I have is of learning.

“Montessori,” he said, nodding deeply. “That’s a good education. But I still don’t support those candidates.”

That was fair, we said, and we got off his porch. I liked him. He was patronizing, entirely opposed to our issues, and he was the first (and only) person who had asked me about myself, had forced me to consider why I was there at all.

After that, not much fazed me. I had doors opened and then shut on me, dogs barking between their owners’ legs, dozens of knocks and door chimes never even answered.

I’d remembered my origin story; the rest was easy.

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