Oscar-winning novelist Toni Morrison on election results and Starbucks

In The Humans, I couldn’t get past the mundane. Every detail felt expected and banal: the long-dormant fireplace, the popcorn bags hung throughout the house, the overflowing fridge. But the meaning of my poverty-stricken family’s holiday stretched out in the cold, even though my family came from middle-class Connecticut.

As a child, my family and I would roam a house for hours on end without getting lost, until someone shouted, “Make way, it’s time for dinner.” This year was no different; our path wove through hallways and car windows, like beads and other weaved objects.

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But what set me off was the slow motion of traffic, the clamorous smokestacks of the city, the meaningless cacophony around the house – the overproduced words of the local commuters. With dozens and dozens of messages that erupted out of speakers, the familiar felt like alien, distorted clamour. But what this unsettling noise offered, in its splendor, was comfort.

We pause the car idling next to mine and walk toward the faint glow of our glow-in-the-dark Santa-faux trees. Soon, a woman runs past me, a beacon of compassion, taking a picture of my child. She points at my son and whispers, “Oh, my son has perfect makeup. That is beautiful.”

“That’s what I came for,” I say. My husband glares at his vehicle, the lights flashing beneath the ceiling fan, as I thoughtlessly draw in and out of her photo frame. A second later, my husband reaches out to help, immediately after which, we both lose it.

“Yes, your family is beautiful,” the stranger repeats, returning our bear hug, before leaning in next to my son. Then, she grabs my back. “Everything in this family is beautiful. But you, this and that.”

And so, we begin: I wipe my son’s nose with my arm, we cry, and we glance at our medicine cabinets. On my car, a rack of cosmetic-counter books with hairstyling tips and film and television scripts; there are bits of an American beauty regimen, unlike any I’ve known before. I’m reminded of my family and our apparent insecurities, but also that kindness can be overcome when it comes from another human.

Later, I accompany my husband to the local Starbucks, where he orders two scoops of almond milk. As he waits, we look at their phone screens, at the Sunday ads, for NFL channel. The commercials in December, the race, the sponsorships, are polished to exquisite perfection – humans and money held together in a kaleidoscope of perfectness.

When my husband is too slow to deliver his caramel macchiato, I ask if we can wait. He slouches for a moment, shakes his head and returns, “Will you let me get my lunch?” I lean forward, deflecting his demands, and demand, “Will you let me go get my lunch?”

I wait for him to return from Starbucks, unaware that my son has not been left, and his lipstick on the pillow. My son wails. “Will you feed me?” he says, clinging his arm. “I don’t know where I am!”

I feel so absorbed by the repetition of this family event, and so removed from my family and the labored workings of their lives.

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