I didn’t think it would happen. I believed the American people were too decent: that when presented with lies, hate and ignorance on such a breathtaking scale, they would swallow any political qualms and do what it took to keep that man and his frightening instability out of the White House.
It’s taken me these two months plus just to crawl most of the way out of shock and denial.
In the process, I have started fourteen different drafts of this post, and spent much of the rest of the time wondering what on earth I was supposed to do. If the thing you thought couldn’t happen because of the basic decency of most people happens anyway, what does that mean about everything else you believe? When lies and facts, cheating and fair play, become interchangeable—and large numbers of people don’t care—what do you DO? How do you move forward in a country you were taught to believe in for its ideals and aspirations, even as you learned over the years how far short of those aspirations it has fallen—when even those ideals and aspirations are being dumped in the nearest trash can as quickly as possible?
What do we do, we who are decent people, who believe in facts and science and truth and kindness and justice? Who have celebrated every step towards the embodiment of America’s highest ideals, and who now find the people in charge actively trying to turn the clock back on those advances by decades? Apart from fume, rage and cry, I had no idea.
Then in early December, someone posted this Wendell Berry poem, which wound up in my feed when a friend reposted it; and a series of internal tumblers slipped quietly into place:
The Real Work
It may be that when we no longer know what to do
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go
we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
~ Wendell Berry
I was flailing, desperate to find something constructive to do, anything to stop feeling so awful. I have also spent a lot of energy in my life trying to make sure no one else knew when I didn’t know something I thought I should, while I scrambled to find out. It’s taken me most of my 59 years to understand that not knowing is okay—as long as you don’t charge off and do something stupid because you don’t know enough to do it safely or to not do it at all. I didn’t know. Plus I was furious, and I’ve been telling my kids for years never to act when angry. It was time to sit down and wait for things to clear.
Thankfully, I have a regular meditation and yoga practice. Daily I sat down, often in tears, and watched sadness and paranoia careen around in my head like deranged pinballs. Always I was calmer when I stood back up, having given my nervous system time to register that these were just thoughts, and that the orange horror doesn’t live in my house. Yoga works the same way, and helps me move some of the tension out of my body.
Listening to the news was out; it just made me shake with rage, or weep, or both. I still can’t listen to the radio for more than a few minutes at a time, and I often can’t get through newspaper and magazine pieces I start. But the internet is useful even if you can’t stand the news, and I started casting about online for wisdom.
Slowly, sitting, moving, breathing, reading—as often by hearing what I knew I didn’t agree with as by discovering here and there a sliver of something I did, I began to find at least a direction over these past two months—and to remember a couple of things that shock and disorientation had made me forget.
Thing 1: Rev. William Barber, founder of the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina, wrote a blog post titled “A Dying Mule Always Kicks the Hardest,” reminding readers that time and demographic trends favor diversity. White Christians are no longer a majority, and white Americans—of any faith—won’t be by 2043. So, as Barber noted, when Trump “told white Americans that he was their last chance to make America great again,” he was tapping into the aging white guard’s fear of the fact that they are losing control of the country. This is not a truth that will go away, no matter what the Administration does. As poet Pablo Neruda put it, “You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep spring from coming.” The Millennials are a bigger generation than the Boomers, and they are more diverse, better educated, and more liberal. Old angry white folks are going to lose this one.
Thing 2: A number of women I know rearranged their schedules in the weeks before the election to canvass for Hillary in swing states. These are women unaccustomed to working hard for something and not having the effort pay off, and what happened on November 8 was not the way the story was supposed to go. I was raised on that story too: that anyone could grow up to be president if they studied hard, put in long hours at work, weren’t lazy—and practiced being good, honorable people. In American Zen Buddhist teacher Karen Maezen Miller’s words, “There was a contract we thought we had, a contract with the future that depended on our effort, intelligence, honesty and decency … It was fragile, to be sure, but it’s what we grew up believing.”
Any person of color reading that quote would know in a heartbeat that its author is white. The blog post from which it comes is called “The Rules are Broken”; but anyone not white knows that “the rules” vary wildly depending on what color your skin is, determining what happens to you if you get caught doing something even slightly illegal, what neighborhood you can live in, whether you even live to tell the tale if you get pulled over by the police. Too many white people go through their whole lives ignorant of realities that no black or brown person can afford not to know.
And in fact one of the first things I noticed is that the people who most quickly found a post-election voice and direction were people of color. Stunned, grieving and very, very angry, they were mobilizing, organizing, getting ready for the long haul while I still felt like someone had kicked me in the gut. If white folks like me were paralyzed because the familiar story had collapsed, people of color were having no problem seeing what story this current chapter fit into—and it was not new, except perhaps for growing irritation with those of us who were too grief-stricken to get our heads out from under our pillows.
As awful as it promises to be, the election of the predator-in-chief does have a couple of beneficial, illusion-busting effects. One is making plain the privilege of having white skin that so many of us have unconsciously accepted all our lives without seeing it. Another is exposing the lie too many of us bought into: that having elected a black president proved that America had made all the progress we needed to make on race; and that whatever work remained, someone was on it.
No one was on it—except intrepid people of color and their allies who have been doing the hard work of antiracism for decades while the rest of the country mostly regarded them as caricatures: the overly zealous politically correct. Another four or eight years that looked like progress on the surface—but with a woman at the helm this time—might have let people coast along on that illusion for a little longer, and we have just seen how dangerous those illusions can be. They can kill this democracy if we do not address the realities they allow us to avoid, realities creating shifts below the surface that have intruded into the consciousness of even the more privileged among us by now. Beyond the systemic racism and the national misogyny we have yet to outgrow, there is the anger of everyone who has felt shut out of the economy and ignored by decisionmakers for years, and who sent a rather clear message of upset on November 8. “Maybe,” author and environmental activist Joanna Macy has suggested, “the game that’s over is the pretense of normalcy…the delusion that with millions…already in prison, with millions…already deported, with over half of America in poverty, the rest of us can stay so preoccupied with our personal pursuits.”
Yesterday was pure balm for those of us horrified by the results on November 8 and everything since. Above all, yesterday reminded us that there are millions and millions of us—easy to forget when we are locked in fear, feeling isolated and angry. Yesterday was astonishing and beautiful, and everyone who participated felt the power of all those people, all over the world, assembling and marching to bear witness to and celebrate our most deeply held beliefs. You could see it in the joyful faces and read it in the posts as well as the signs: Love trumps hate. In Gloria Steinem’s words that morning in Washington, it was “the upside of the downside.”
At the end of the day, it does no good to worry about what the crazy person in the White House will do next. It will be bad, I have no doubt, but it will not be permanent—and the truth is that we have absolutely no idea—he is too erratic. And besides, there is the wild card of the millions of us bent on resistance. Everything is fluid and unpredictable; and as American Buddhist teacher Zenju Earthlyn Manuel put it, “We can only know where we are going when we get there.”
Author Rebecca Solnit, whose Facebook activism since the election has been nonstop and electrifying, posted this when she and her publisher offered free downloads of her book Hope in the Dark in the aftermath of the election: “Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things you can know beforehand.”
While we wait, Western Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein reminds us that “we can always do kindness. We can listen.” I have a long way to go before I can listen openheartedly to those who voted for the new president, especially those who have interpreted his election as a mandate to engage in hate speech and violence. But there are people trying to do just that—to stretch far enough beyond their own their comfort zones to listen generously to people with whom they differ, in an effort to gain genuine understanding. Finding it in myself to do that is part of the real work I have committed myself to at the beginning of this terrifying new administration and with the inauguration of this blog. Because ultimately I believe that separation is an illusion—we are one human family on one small imperiled planet—and the mess we are in now was born of ignoring those facts. There is a lot of real work to do if the democracy I grew up with yesterday, flawed as it was, is to survive in any form past tomorrow, and if we are to have an inhabitable planet to live on. I wish us all strength for the journey.