Nine days had passed.
When A first called, I was at a coffee shop with a writer friend–both of us attempting to work, both of us too consumed with post-election anxiety to summon much focus.
That morning’s news cycle had been dominated by reactions to Mike Pence’s appearance at Hamilton, and when A called my friend and I were commiserating our shared rage. I stood up to answer.
“I have to process my date last night,” she said, and I felt myself clench–how could I, how could anyone, spare a moment of attention toward our trivial, personal lives while our President-elect Tweeted as the fascist autocrat we feared him to be?
“I have to call you back,” I said.
I was at home on my futon a few hours later when I did.
“Tell me what happened,” I told her.
But I didn’t mean it. As she spoke, a layer of resistance assembled inside me–some rigid buffer.
“Did you see Trump’s tweets this morning?” I asked, increasingly agitated.
“No,” she said. And then, “You don’t really want to hear about this, do you.”
I sighed. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I just can’t right now.”
After we got off, I thought of my hyper-political grandmother, who (bless her) has long upheld a conversational fortress of Republican-bashing around my phone calls; I pictured myself driving in Minneapolis or walking in Brooklyn, rolling my eyes through her ten-minute prologue of Did you see Giuliani on Morning Joe this morning? Ugh, the schmuck! as I waited for her to ask about teaching or men.
The association made me cringe, but I tempered it with a measure of smug righteousness: Things were (are) different now. I’m not ready yet to act ‘normal.’
Whatever that means.
I felt like he was speaking directly to me.
The morning after I talked to A was Sunday, when I go with my friend R to the meditation center.
I had been struggling to sit still on my own, and the enforced pause from a vigorous saturation of election-related news–and its attendant anxiety–was a welcome relief.
“It’s actually arrogant,” the teacher said, after we sat, to think that the fate of the country rests on you being in a constant state of worry.” He went on: in order to have the wisdom and strength to act meaningfully, you can’t deplete yourself with steady panic; you have, he said, to sometimes set it down.
I thought: shit.
And then: of my conversation with A. How, while I’d rationalized my response to her, it had actually felt terrible; how I don’t want being a more engaged citizen to mean being a less engaged friend; how each of us must inhabit any number of shifting roles and identities in a given day, and how our success within any of them hinges on our capacity to be present and real and compassionate within each; how, in the most fundamental sense, what I wish for all of us is to be there for each other, in whatever way that means.
And then: and yet.
And yet I do fear (that vague, amorphous notion of) “normalizing.” I do fear that my numerous privileges (being white, straight, educated, not an immigrant, attached to a family and community with tools to support me if and when resources fail) may soon buffer me from a regime that has already put more vulnerable people in immediate danger. I know that over-stressing myself helps no one, and yet: how to ensure that releasing an unhelpful sort of worry doesn’t lead to indifference?
Like many, these last weeks have had me grasping in various ways–some more skillful (dharma talks, calling Congress, strategizing and full-body-hug sessions with friends) than others (alcohol, sugar, Facebook)–to cope with the trauma of the election. The grasping, of course, is inherently problematic: because the things many of us actually want–a satisfying explanation of what happened, a concrete instruction manual to make things not be as they are--aren’t, actually, within grasp.
Still, while such efforts may compromise sanity, they’ve also turned up some worthwhile shards.
Before I found those photographs, I wandered into a different exhibit: one of exquisite black and white paintings by the contemporary Chinese artist, Liu Dan.
I have approximately zero knowledge when it comes to visual art, and had taken only a little time to educate myself about the painter and his work. But standing before one of his large scale ink paintings, a re-imagination of an ancient Greek scene, I began to cry: the painting was beautiful, but what moved me wasn’t that–it was it’s vast, palpable ambition; how deeply the artist had tried to engage his country, his history, the medium, the world.
A few months ago, on a whim, I picked up an unconventional, hybrid sort of book with a radically long title by the late poet C.D. Wright. I got partway through its playful, provocative mediations, exploring forms and purposes of poetry, before getting distracted by other, less peculiar texts.
But in recent days, I’ve picked it back up. Among the questions I’ve been rattling around lately has been what it means to be a writer during difficult times–and that question threads through Wright’s words. One section describes the reaction of a Chinese poet to Tiananmen Square; he wasn’t present for the massacre, but he lost several poet friends, and for years he found himself unable to write at all.
“The old way of writing ‘would not fulfill’ his aim,” Wright explains.
Those words resonate: while in some ways the election did as much to expose existing troubles in our political and social systems as it did to generate them, from my point of view the prospect of our incoming President is deeply chilling–and represents a new era. Nothing feels the same about the world, and nothing feels the same about our roles within it.
I’ve long felt intimidated to make art that is overtly political–that is to say, I’ve been afraid to make art that would fail.
Wright didn’t share that fear; or if she did, she pushed past it.
Which might help to explain why these words, from another of her meditations, spoke to me as powerfully, lately, as anything has:
“Mostly,” she writes, “poets will fail. The structures will fail. Words will fumble and fall. But in so failing and fumbling poets refuse to be accomplices. We continue to articulate the possibility of solidarity.”
What moved me so much about Liu Dan’s painting is the same thing that moves me in all the post-election conversations I’ve had with friends who are as shaken as I am, the same thing that moves me to keep grasping–hopefully more skillfully than not–toward how I might keep writing, keep participating, keep being a teacher and friend while still being on alert.
It’s, essentially, the same thing that the meditation teacher said at the opening of last week’s talk: that we never know, in the moment, if or that we’re showing up in the right ways.
It’s that we can’t fully know what the eventual impacts will be of our social or creative work–whether they’ll be positive or negative or, most likely, some combination of both.
It’s that the only thing we can know, now and maybe ever, is how beautiful–and how essential–it is to try.