Grace on the Beach


Many mornings, early, I go with the dog down to Bradford Beach. It was spectacular a few weeks ago in the cold: frozen, with big ice cliffs jutting out from the shore. The wind splashed light green water between those cliffs, creating foam that rose skyward.

The beach was beautiful this winter, like an arctic landscape, frigid and unforgiving. The wind cut through whatever warm clothing I wore. But the cold didn’t seem to bother the dog. And after Governor Walker’s assault on education and social welfare was announced, early in January, I minded it less and less. The beach became my place of solitary reflection. Maybe I was steeling myself, thinking that if I could survive that cold, I could make it in the frigid political climate in Wisconsin, as well.

Wisconsin itself felt pretty unforgiving this winter. Widespread devaluation of teachers, professors and other civil servants led to the passage of Act 10 in 2011 and the curtailing of our rights to collective bargaining. With Walker’s re-election, he instigated a renewed assault against public education and social services, announced a state budget with massive cuts to education, and proposed to turn the University of Wisconsin system into a public authority governed by the Board of Regents rather than faculty governance and democratic election. These plans threaten to gut public education in our state. And they draw on and infuse a climate that is increasingly anti-intellectual. It is common to hear teachers, professors and social workers dismissed as lazy and responsible for economic ills that have been purposively created by the greed and disregard of Walker’s fiscal programs.

Now we are moving into spring, the big cuts and the glacial transformation they will bring to our state still on the table. On the beach, the ice fields have melted. The place has assumed some of its customary warm weather look, littered with lake debris well before the summer crowds come with beer cans and plastic bags. The dog and I still go there many mornings; I joke about “working my program” of staying sane in Wisconsin.

The other morning, the dog found a seagull struggling in the surf. The dog is part lab, but he’s slow, so he chases squirrels and birds, but rarely catches a healthy one. An ailing shore bird is his glory. He ran right up to the thing and had it in its jaws in a flash, impervious to my attempts to stop him.

A few moments after I had given up ineffectively trying to save the bird by chasing the dog while flapping my arms and yelling loudly at him, I noticed someone a ways behind me. Soon another dog was bounding up to me, followed by its owner, a woman bundled against the early spring chill.

Holding the limp, bloody bird in his mouth, my dog ran in circles around us, carefully avoiding the new dog. Abashed, I explained to the other dog walker what had happened, and told her how much I hate when my dog does this. She was quiet for a couple of minutes, our shoes squeaking in the sand as we trudged down the beach together. Then she turned to me and told me how much she hates to see creatures like that gull struggling in the surf. Maybe, she said, my dog had performed a mercy killing.

This interpretation lifted my spirits a little; I hadn’t thought of it that way before. We continued to walk down the beach together. She told me that she too comes to that beach frequently. But we had never seen each other before. Maybe, we guessed, we had been missing each other by ten minutes, all winter.

As we walked, she told me about her son-in-law, an undocumented immigrant, who is facing deportation despite being married to her daughter, who is an American citizen. Their lawyers are in the midst of appealing the decision. As the climate in Wisconsin has changed in the past five years, immigrants have faced an increasingly difficult struggle to assert their rights. One of the first things Walker did after he was first elected to office was to overturn a new law allowing undocumented high school students to attend public colleges and universities at in-state rates. This act saved the state no money, but it did send a clear message to immigrant communities about the vulnerability of their place here.

As an immigration historian who is currently completing a book about advocacy against deportation, I did not have additional legal advice to offer the other dog walker. But I could provide a little historical context for this kind of trouble. She thanked me for that, and told me that it was helpful to her to think about her family’s struggles this way. We turned at the end of the beach and headed back towards our cars.

My dog ran ahead and buried his prey in the sand as we reached the parking lot. The woman and I introduced ourselves, shook hands, and said we hoped to run into each other again. I whistled for my dog, toweled as much of the sand off him as I could, and got into my car.

As I went about my work day, I came to understand that the other dog walker had given me a gift: a moment of grace. Maybe this sounds like an extravagant claim. But over the past few months of meetings and forums and strategy sessions, it has become clear to me that these kinds of gifts, these moments of connection and mutual assistance, abound among the people of our state. Right now advocates for education, for civil and immigrant rights, for assistance to the most vulnerable populations among us lack a political majority in Madison. We lack the deep financial coffers offered to Walker and his ilk by out of state cabals like the Koch brothers.

But we have one and other. At the very moment when public sharing of creativity is most under siege, our lives abound with stories that can make connections and create solidarity. The war against public education purposely attacks the very institutions that allow us to fight back. But such acts of collective invention and interpretation constitute our wealth and our resources to surviving the current assaults and to forging a path forward.

Grace on the Beach

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