PACKING FOR AN OVERNIGHT AT THE STATE CAPITOL
by E. A. Farro
Minnesota State Capitol May 2018 the last weekend of the legislative session
No one likes conflict, but with the smack of a fist I am a million particles of brilliant light. However, tonight, I’m taking the punches. The letter is a direct threat, a blunt whack to the nose. I haven’t been home for dinner in days, and I can’t remember what it feels like to help my boys into their pajamas. I’m tired and mad and for a moment frozen in place. It’s Friday, well past the mid-May sunset. As the Governor’s advisor, my life has been reduced to a countdown to the end of the legislative session Sunday at midnight.
I jump up and look into the hallway of quarter-sawn oak doors. Realizing I’m barefoot, I grab heels from my bottom desk drawer.
The door cracks open: Tenzin’s long black hair and heart-shaped face. She pulls me in.
“When we look back, won’t it be obvious this was another Flint?” I say.
“We shouldn’t negotiate,” she winds her arms into the thin wool of her white shawl.
I smile, relieved that at least she and I won’t be battling each other.
Tenzin grew up as a Tibetan refugee in India, where she pulled water from a well that ran dry in summer. I don’t have to convince her that safe drinking water is a choice we make over and over.
When she immigrated in high school, I was finishing college. I admire her political instincts, and though she’s my younger sister’s age, she mentors me. In our jobs advising the Governor, our peers are our best mentors. It is too hard to trust the motives of anyone else.
“Their constituents don’t believe drinking fertilizer can kill babies?” I ask.
“It isn’t about that,” Tenzin shakes her head. I notice the big circles under her eyes. I wonder if I look as worn out as she does. Maybe worse.
“Studies show links to cancer in adults, too,” I say.
“They need a win,” she says, and hands me a bowl of candy bars. All I taste is sugar and salt. I picture the House and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairs dragging dead carcasses down their main streets.
The letter offers the Governor the choice to either sign today their bill that guts his signature buffer law protecting rivers and lakes or, if he doesn’t sign, they will kill his new rule to protect rural drinking water.
Our phones buzz and we look into our palms. The Governor. He wants a draft response.
“I’ll take the first shot,” I say and run out. Agriculture is Tenzin’s portfolio, but the miasma of Buffers, a regulation that doesn’t go far enough for Enviros and goes too far for Ag—that is mine.
I dash downstairs into a deserted hall of the Capitol to sit on a bench. A gargoyle on the base of a lamp gives me a I-just-bit-a-lemon face. To get close enough to knock the wind out of them, I write longhand.
“I am shocked and—” I cross out the words. I used that phrase only a month ago.
“I’m appalled that you are holding a hearing so that you can deny rural Minnesotans their rights to clean and safe water.” The words flow now from the ether of the building.
I run back up and edit as I type. Print. Read aloud. Edit. Repeat.
Tenzin sits at my computer adding her own words. We pass the keyboard back and forth, no laughter, no swears. We’re channeling something deeper. Together, our fists joined for ultimate impact.
To pack from the kitchen: Cut fruit, cut veggies, cheddar cheese. Note: Slicing these gives a sense of control.
I’m tired. I hurt like I did a double shift of my high school waitressing job. I’d woken at five a.m. churning the hundreds of faces I passed in the rotunda yesterday, the tens of people I met with, the endless emails I pounded out responses to. Now, I take in the sounds of my young boys playing a game of sea creatures. I take in the smell of coffee and toast. I need to go back to the Capitol. It is Saturday morning, and I’ll likely be gone until Monday. I have to pack.
“I found the Lego!” my younger son runs into my room. He looks at me, his face falls. He’s been warned not to wake me. I motion with my hand and pull him close, breathe his warmth. As far as work-life balance goes, right now it’s all work. He rubs his cheek against mine like we’re bolts of silk.
My older son comes in, “Mama?” he says, but the question in his voice dies off. I sit on the edge of the bed. Both boys hold onto me. I lean into their wild curls sticking up in all directions. I’m tethered. There are things I pack without realizing it. Tenderness I will discover later and marvel at, but that kind of unpacking won’t happen until I leave the job.
“When did you get home?” my older boy asks.
“Late,” I shrug.
To pack from your room: Sweatpants to go under suit dress, toothbrush, and toothpaste.
I transform before I get out of my car. Last minute item to pack: my smile. Really, most facial expressions. Along with these I pack my desire for a family bike ride, a video call with my niece, coffee with friends, curling up with a book.
I’m usually quick to smile and quick to cry. Good news or bad, it hits me like vinegar on baking soda. But at the Capitol I keep to a narrow range of emotions. The rest I put in the trunk of my car.
To pack from the camping section of the basement: Sleeping pad and pillow.
An invisible umbilical cord reels me down the hill. The sun is out, and the white marble of the building almost hurts to look at. The circle of eagles around the capitol dome look ready to break free.
I start up the wide marble stairs to the main doors, realize it will be like an airport terminal in a snowstorm. The waiting lobbyists and activists will want updates. At the Capitol, information is currency. Its distribution forms and breaks bonds. I weigh the balance of engaging versus avoiding. Engaging could avoid misunderstandings, keep the lines of communication open.
The State Capitol has the fishbowl effect of high school: too many people smashed together. Like high school, clothing is a coded language that signals who you are. Fresh and in style, corporate or philanthropy. Outdated suits that smell of sweat, lobbyists or legislators. People in jeans, fleece vests, or leather jackets, advocates for everything from stopping mines to preventing helmet laws. Older people in coordinated outfits, tourists.
One weapon of the majority is to set the schedule and not share it. This morning both House and Senate members have a roll call. But after? Bills could come to the floor for votes. Or leadership could go into a room to slam together their giant spitball. This mega-bill, the omnibus-omnibus, will combine all program funding and cuts with all policy changes in all areas. Immigration policy with chronic wasting disease in deer with wastewater treatment. A shit show. If you know the schedule, you know when you can nap and eat. Exhaustion and hunger erode resolve, make what was not possible before, possible. Members of the minority party are forced into battle with their own bodies. At some point closing your eyes becomes more important than anything else.
I veer away from the main steps and go in the unadorned doors of the ground floor. Bare limestone walls, no vines or branches decorating them. My right eyelid thrashes, refusing to let me ignore my exhaustion.
Will we negotiate? If they can pull at the Governor’s heartstrings, if they are respectful, if they sit face-to-face with him—I don’t want to think about it. I’ve seen him fold and heard worse.
I don’t know I’m holding my breath until I enter my office. I notice sticky honey stains on the shoulder of my dress. I’m ambivalent about washing off these paw prints of my boys.
Hearing excited chatter I step into the hall. My colleagues are watching Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s royal wedding.
We wonder at the whimsical hats and the Gothic buildings of Windsor Castle. “Scones and clotted cream outside the Communication offices!” a colleague shouts. A TV on the other side of the room shows House members assembling, but I turn away to watch the thousands of waving flags. A surge of energy comes from across the ocean. It’s a tailgating party.
To pack from the secret code passed on by the Cabinet Members: Honey Badger Don’t Care.
Tenzin and I, we have the perspective of being outside the state agencies and seeing them from a bird’s eye view. The group of agency leaders seated at Tenzin’s table, they have the institutional knowledge.
“If we offer them—” an agency leader starts. He is lean, strong, and feral. His hair speckled gray and cheeks hollowed with the first tinge of old age. When he agrees with us, he is the best. If he doesn’t agree, he smiles and then he does what he wants. He and I’ve been in a game of cat and mouse all session.
“No,” Tenzin cuts him off.
“We need to offer something,” the leader from another agency says. He’s well-groomed, but not flashy. Always polite. Refined. He speaks in a quiet voice, only his urgency to jump in betrays his anxiety in this moment.
I stand up, pull on my suit jacket, say nothing, and maintain eye contact. To honey badger is a verb. All I need to do is be still. No scowls. More importantly, no smiles. If my poker-faced is pulled correctly taut, their threats and laughter will ding like hail on a metal bucket.
“They’re blackmailing us,” I finally say. The music from the Royal Wedding floats through the half-open door. For a moment, I entertain a fantasy of stealing the box of scones and jar of clotted cream. I’d hide in a closet and eat them one by one. I can’t imagine any place I’d rather be.
“They need a win!” an agency lawyer shouts. Her smile mismatched to her exasperation.
“This isn’t a game. It’s public health,” I snap. I remind myself: arguing back is weakness; we are a team regardless of our anger or belligerence.
Those motherfuckers, I think, their blackmail will break us apart.
“Anna, they have to have something to show. They can’t go home without another shot at the environment,” the refined one says in his calm voice.
The honey badger instinct is natural with opponents. To do it with my own inner circle sends prickles of heat across my body. If I am inert steel, he will become anxious. We are animals made to mirror each other. I let his words sour in the air. Politics is a war of endurance.
The honey badger, Mellivora capensis in Latin, also known as the ratel, a name used for a seventies South African armored military vehicle that combines mobility with firepower, has a literal thick skin. It can withstand bee stings, porcupine quills, machete blows, and animal bites. In a meme, after a honey badger is bitten by a poisonous snake, it passes out, wakes up, and goes back to eating. That is who I need to be.
The Governor’s cabinet hadn’t initially wanted him to unleash a new environmental regulation. They knew it would be a battle, and they would be on the front lines. They’ve traveled the state and fought for it, but I still don’t trust their impulses. With the administration ending, we are all on edge. All about to be on the job market.
Tenzin jumps in, “The Governor was crystal clear, we’re not negotiating. None of you are to negotiate. He sent his response, and now we wait.”
“Of course. We all get it.” The feral one starts up, “We aren’t negotiating. But we need to be ready. Really, this part of the law—”
“It’s not worth keeping if we have to lose something else,” the lawyer jumps in. She giggles in apology. As soon as she goes quiet, her face pinches back to its pained look.
“How is the Commissioner?” I ask. The Ag Commissioner’s daughter passed away only days ago. Earlier in the week, we’d stood in the back of a crowded room, crying for someone we’d never met. Someone who meant something to us because of how we feel about the Commissioner.
No one plasters a smile on their face now. “It’s hard,” the lawyer says.
To pack from the children: Green ninja warrior figure so they will stop fighting over it.
Back in my office, the shouts, songs, and clatter of footsteps come through the walls of the Rotunda. The sound carries, but the marble and oak distort the words. I imagine this is what it would sound like to listen to someone else’s dream. I stand at my desk. I have no hunger, no need for sleep, no memory of bathing wiggly children, wrapping them in towels, or drying their curls. All that is distant. Here I’m part of a different and larger organism. I feel something in my dress pocket and pull out a plastic ninja. I place it on my computer to watch over me.
I’m alert to the ping ping of texts and emails dashing through air currents. The House debates a bill to dismantle government programs on my officemate’s TV. The Senate votes to overrule a Judge with legislation on my TV. My officemate’s phone rings, then stops, my phone rings. I check the number, look across the room to my officemate, and we pass a knowing look between us. A lemon-twisted smile. Neither of us answer.
Without warning I think of the blue sky outside, the way jokes with a four-year-old are silly, not cynical. I flip the telescope the other way. The room gets very small, words on the page ants. The State Capital and everything in it is tiny.
I pour a rainbow of Skittles into my hand, take a breath, and slowly force the telescope around so the photographs of my boys blur and the room snaps into focus.
I’m at the printer when the feral one walks by. “Oh, hey Anna.” His smiles verges on flirtatious. A habit from lobbying, and nothing to do with me.
“So, what have you been up to?” I ask.
“Well we were talking to the Chairman, and he likes our idea. Really, what we have to give up isn’t a big deal.”
“You were talking to the Chairman?”
“We were just talking. It’s good to keep the lines open.”
With the impact a wind rushes through my head.
Things you will not realize you are packing until months later: Smiling in professional settings unless it is a strategic tool, public tears, the existence of children in professional conversation, any suggestion that it is not normal to work without knowing when you will go home.
I trail behind my boss, Eliza, into Tenzin’s office. She wears a polka dot sweater and holds a polka dot water bottle in one hand. The cuteness of dots is in stark contrast to the way she stands with her legs wide, hands on hips, eyebrows arched.
I look at Tenzin but she shows nothing.
“Did you get clear instructions from the Governor to not negotiate?” Eliza looks directly at each of the agency leaders.
“I think my staff has also said this to you today. So, tell me, why are you talking to Committee Chairs?”
“We weren’t negotiating. We were just talking. It’s good to keep open the lines—” The feral one talks fast.
“Well whatever you call it, let me be clear. If the Governor wants you to do something, he’ll tell you.” She walks out with an audible sigh of disgust.
“Anna?” The refined one bites at my name. “What the fuck are you trying? What the fuck is going on? This doesn’t fucking make any sense.” I match Tenzin’s blank face though I feel a surge in my body. Fists clench.
I think of the time this man and I drove to the western suburbs to spend an afternoon with a recently retired CEO of a Fortune 500. It was an icy winter and halfway up the steep mansion driveway the car stopped. As if we could will it with our bodies, we both groaned, but the car slid back into the street. We tried again, slid back. Finally, we laughed and gave in. In it together, we parked on the street with no other parked cars and no sidewalks, and we walked up to the door uncertain of what to expect.
Now, the tension comes off him like a crackling electric fence. Something in me shifts. I’ve always told myself that I’m just the Governor’s messenger. But this, this moment, it’s like when my brother jumped onto the seesaw and sent me flying into the air with the smack of the wood plank on my bottom. This man, he’s never been my friend. None of them have.
I take a breath and say to myself, “Honey badger don’t care.” Because my heart is thudding and my head is roaring inside, I walk out. I stand against the cold marble bathroom walls until it all settles. Until I can send it all up the hill to the trunk of my car where the rest of me is packed away.
Honey badger don’t care, because honey badger knows the prayer: grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
E. A. Farro is a climate scientist who spent several years working in politics. She is the founder of The Nature Library, a literary art installation in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Her publications have appeared in Rumpus, The Kenyon Review, and The Normal School, among others. She is a recipient of a Nan Snow Emerging Writers Award, Minnesota State Arts Board Grant, an Excellence in Teaching Fellowship at the Madeline Island School of the Arts, and a Loft Literary Center Mentor Series award. She teaches public policy at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and creative writing at the Loft Literary Center.
Cover Design by Karen Rile