“What can I get you for your birthday?” I asked Grace, knowing full well I can’t give her the things she really wants these days.

“You don’t need to get me anything,” she said. “We’re going to spend the day together, go for a walk, and have a nice dinner.”

“But what am I going to give you in a box?” I asked.

Once upon a time, it was that easy, or at least that’s how I choose to remember those days. Maybe it’s a fairy tale.

At any rate, these days all Grace wants for her birthday is more Democrats in Congress. She’d spent weeks before the Montana election trying to get her wish by calling strangers through Swing Left, begging them to vote for Quist, the progressive, peaceful, down-home candidate, instead of the hostile, right-wing billionaire, Gianforte. But not enough people in Montana cared whether Grace got what she wanted for her birthday. They wished for something different, it was hard to know exactly what.

Then the same thing happened with the special election in Georgia when Jon Ossoff wasn’t elected.

I tried to distract Grace as best I could with blueberry pancakes for breakfast. But she wasn’t in the mood for anything festive under the circumstances. Instead, she just took half my bagel.

“You can have the whole bagel if you want,” I said. “Along with any of my organs.” Except I didn’t mention that last part for obvious reasons.  

“How are those bagels anyway?” I asked instead, looking at the date on the bag. “Still edible?”

She was too distracted to answer while scanning FiveThirtyEight for the latest polls on the Virginia gubernatorial election in November. Tim had to fill in for her.

“They’re old,” he said. “But not bad if they’re toasted. They eat themselves.”

Best we could tell, he wasn’t as badly affected by the political calamity of our time. Food still interested him, among other things.

“I had a dream last night I was with a whole bunch of people in a crowd and everybody really liked me,” he said, musing over his coffee.

“How could you tell?” I asked.

“They said they liked me.”  

That mindset explained why he might be more insulated from politics than Grace. But at least he’d remembered to get her something for her birthday, even if it was just a tiny cactus.

“You don’t have to keep it if you don’t want to,” he said. “If you don’t feel like taking care of it.”

Grace shrugged. “I think I’m responsible enough now to have a cactus.”

“That’s lucky for my grandchildren,” I muttered. Not that Grace would consider bringing a child into Trump’s America.

She took my phone to photograph the cactus.

“Why do you have so many videos of flowers on your phone?” she asked, peering at my photo gallery. I’m always in trouble now for wasting time that could be spent fighting the system.

I looked over her shoulder at my phone.

“They weren’t supposed to be videos.”

Fortunately, she hadn’t noticed the ballots interspersed amongst the flowers. Ballet is also marked down as too frivolous an activity these days.

Under the circumstances she was only willing to see one ballet in the whole season – Swan Lake – since she’d seen it every year for most of her life. But this year even Swan Lake upset her. After the opening scene, when the evil sorcerer von Rothbart seizes Odette and turns her into a swan, Grace elbowed me.

“I finally realize what’s really going on here,” she whispered, as Odette struggled in von Rothbart’s grasp. “Why does it say he captures her and ‘transforms’ her into a swan? He’s obviously raping her.”

She hadn’t seen it that way before in all those more innocent years before Trump. It was a further sign of the wounded and fragile state she’d been in since he’d taken office with his henchmen and started destroying everything good and decent.

“You want them to say in the program that Odette is raped?”

I peered over quickly at the family sitting near us with two little girls, to make sure they couldn’t hear. The girls, sitting there in tutus, were too young to understand that in the last six months the ugly underside of the world has suddenly been revealed. Though in many ways, Grace is just as vulnerable since she understands more of what is going on.

All I could do to help was offer my paltry services against the forces of evil. Meaning, on that particular day, volunteering with Maine Audubon to pick swallow-wort out of Back Cove. This was something important to Grace.

Tim walked over with us. “How long are you guys going to be weed picking?” he asked. He was supposed to get things ready for dinner.

“It’s not weed picking,” Grace said. “We’re removing invasives.”

Tim smirked at her.

“Then let us go up these weed-infested steps,” he said, as we walked into the park. “Or perhaps I should say step-infested weeds. Unless they’re invasives, in which case perhaps we should say weed-invaded steps. And speaking of Genghis Khan, and the invasion of the steppes, I’m going to attack somebody if these mosquitos don’t stop biting me.”

He was frantically swatting at insects right and left as we walked along the water.

I wasn’t too thrilled about spending my day standing around in the humidity with a bunch of strangers getting eaten alive while tearing out weeds either. Especially when the swallow-wort was everywhere and could just replant itself the moment our backs were turned. Once the environment had been degraded and conditions were more difficult to live in, invasives like the aggressive, domineering swallow-wort could move in and push everybody else around. This is what happens in a bad economy. Why try to fight it?

But to Grace restoring even one patch of the earth, however temporarily, was a small step toward pushing back against darkness. Maybe the swallow-wort had inserted itself in pockets everywhere but if we could just get rid of it in a few places – even if Montana and Georgia weren’t going to be amongst them – we could begin the slow process of trying to restore what was good, healthy and beautiful in our world.

“What’s the point?” Tim said. “There’s nothing really left of the nature that used to be here.” He pointed to the asphalt path and the grass. “In fact, the weather was all that was left of the nature that used to be here. And now not even the weather is natural.”

He wouldn’t help out with the invasives even though it was Grace’s birthday and he wanted to make her happy. He said he was afraid the bugs and the heat and humidity and the pointlessness of trying to defeat the swallow-wort would get him too angry.

“Believe me, I could easily go over the edge,” he said. “For some reason I’ve become so aggressive these days, it’s like I have rabies.”

Suddenly I realized he wasn’t so immune to the effects of the political situation. In fact, he was too upset to try to do anything about it.

It was left to people like Grace to keep pushing against the tide, even if she didn’t know exactly what she should be doing or what would really work. Almost everybody in Montana and Georgia had hung up on her.

“Maybe we could just do a puzzle,” Tim said, trying to make Grace happy since she loves puzzles. But Grace said that’s exactly what we were doing.

Imagine if you’re doing a puzzle but there’s no picture on the box. You start doing the puzzle and you have no idea how it’s going to come out. Not to mention that in this case, the pieces didn’t even come in a box.

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