The rain has come in earnest. The exhilarated creek is rushing through the canyon, the hills are wet and green, the roads are muddy and now and then impassable. It’s surprisingly noisy…a continual dripping and drumming, the roar of streams and waterfalls, frog songs and cattle bluster and wind through the trees. A dead whale has washed up on the beach, gradually pushed along by tides and currents to its current location where birds and coyotes are feasting on its decaying flesh in a graphic big-screen depiction of the cycles of life. And there were brilliant rainbows late Saturday afternoon when the sun shone briefly in a lull between storms through diamond droplets suspended in the sky.
I love it here in this liquid time, when we are briefly rendered separate from the world beyond the ranch. It’s a time for wonder and contemplation, a time to feed one’s inner life. Lately I haven’t claimed the hours I need to think and read and write. Let’s face it: we are experiencing a national trauma, and every day there’s a new assault, and we are trying to cope and effectively resist, and it’s maddening. But now the elements have persuaded me to spend a few hours helping to clear debris from a creek or diverting the flow of water from a deepening puddle on the road. I am confronted with a different kind of reality, as real as those other realities and more immediate, and it demands something of me, but also releases me.
I long ago realized that if I am not writing, I don’t feel right, and that applies whether or not anybody reads my words. But I haven’t been writing. There’s so much material, but I’ve fallen silent. That was part of the original intent of this blog…it would be a place to write, possibly to connect with others, but mostly just to write. An open journal, if you will. Everyone has a blog these days, and this one is certainly less clever and splashy and important than many of those others, but I feel inclined to tend to it today.
Something I’ve been thinking about lately is what it means to have been a teacher, and the privilege of having had young people in my life. The other day, in the lobby of the doctor’s office in town, I heard someone call out to me, and it was a young man who had been in my sixth grade class more than twenty years ago. I remembered him clearly, right down to a particular green jacket he used to wear, and how kind he was with the children at the Storyteller Shelter, which our class visited as volunteers once or twice. Now he’s in a wheelchair. Fourteen years ago, he climbed and fell out of a redwood tree, and that was that. In the years that followed, I know he’s been in trouble, depressed, and had lots of hard times. But today he seemed in good spirits, and he was embarking on a new chapter of his life and seemed genuinely happy to see me. “I remember our Ancient Egyptian newspaper,” he said at one point, and for some reason, that touched my heart more than anything. It’s the kind of moment when you know that being a teacher was indeed a beautiful and worthy thing to have done.
While we were talking in the lobby, yet another of my grown-up former students stepped out of an elevator and called out my name excitedly. “I’ve been thinking about you,” she said. “I need to talk to you!” Let me tell you, at this point in my life, the idea that a young person is thinking about me and even wants to talk to me is very flattering indeed, and a boost to my morale. She told me that she’s working for a local newspaper, and she was remembering the interviews we used to do. She was with us in fact when we interviewed Jackson Browne, such a memorable day. But she has questions about interviewing and writing and all sort of things…she hadn’t realized how complicated it was, and maybe we could get together and talk about it sometime. I felt special and appreciated. (I’m easy.)
I’ve had chance encounters and conversations with at least five former students in the last month or so, and the importance in my life of connecting (and staying connected) to a younger generation has been a pretty good thing for me to think about. A week ago, I also had the privilege of interviewing an extraordinary young man from South Sudan for The Living Stories Collective, and that was humbling. To me, it all reaffirms the interconnectedness of lives, and how much we have to learn from one another, and that listening, and sharing, and kindness are what matter…still, and always.
Right now, though, the rain has subsided to a mist, and I need to step outside and check things out, so this is a good place to leave off. I’ll be back, I promise, whether or not there’s anyone to read this. In short, I am still amazed…even if dismayed, discouraged, or sad…and I just feel better for having written.
This is the most recent interview I’ve done for The Living Stories Collective, the ongoing oral history project and website that I told readers about earlier here. I’ve decided to share it on this blog in addition to the LSC website because it was one of the most moving interviews I’ve done recently, and it’s incredibly relevant to what is happening in our country today.
Nyuol Tong’s story is a testament to unlikely outcomes and breathtaking possibility but, as he puts it, he’s in “a dark phase” today. A graduate of Duke University and the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and currently the inaugural Writer-in-Residence at Dunn School in Los Olivos, California, Nyuol was born in the South Sudanese village of Ayeit during a time of horror and chaos. In the 1990’s, armed militiamen came in search of his father and demanded that the six-year-old Nyuol tell them where he was. He has written about it: “When I refused, they dug a hole, threw me in, and began to fire. Luckily I was not hurt, but my father feared a recurrence, and sent my mother, siblings, and me to Khartoum. From there we sought asylum in Egypt.”
For six years, Nyuol and his family lived a hard life as refugees in their own country, fleeing to Cairo in 2003. In Cairo, Nyuol met an American University professor who took an interest in him, recognized his ability and his yearning for education, and helped to maneuver a student visa and scholarship for him to attend high school at Dunn. Nyuol is acutely aware of his extraordinary good fortune and has sought to find ways of giving back. While a student at Dunn, he founded a nonprofit organization called SELFSudan that has built a school in his village. “I survived,” he wrote in 2012, “but more than two million people were killed in the war, with more dying even today.”
On this particular day, Nyuol has graciously agreed to sit down and talk to me (and one of his former teachers, Vickie Gill) for an oral history project called The Living Stories Collective, not so much to discuss the past, but to try to make sense of this very present moment in America, a time that for Nyuol evokes trauma, grief, and a sense of betrayal. With his thin frame, gentle manner, and elegant bearing, Nyuol seems almost too slight to carry the unimaginable burden of what he has witnessed and experienced, but it is with him always. He’s distinctively soft-spoken, with a gentle demeanor and poetic kind of eloquence. Part of it is a matter of linguistics, as he explains:
NLT: My mother tongue, the Dinka language, works differently. It rises and falls, as opposed to English, where everything rises and keeps going up. Ours rises and then goes down, almost to a whisper, or even silence. When people talk, it’s beautiful. It goes quieter and quieter. So sometimes, I’m very soft-spoken, especially when I’m passionate. I feel like I’ve dissolved into the language, if that makes sense, and my body, my gestures, pauses and stutters, become my only words.
CCW: You told me earlier that you feel comfortable in words. Maybe it’s because your native language is so beautiful to hear…and wrap around you…like a cloak.
NLT: It’s a monosyllabic language. Every syllable is a word. But it’s also a language that is resistant to abstraction. Abstract concepts, like freedom, for instance, don’t exist as words. We need to use a metaphor to describe freedom, that is the experience or condition of being free or living in freedom. LääuNhom or NhomLääu, depending on your Dinka dialect, is the phrase for freedom or liberation. It literally means ‘spacious mind’ or ‘mind at ease.’ To be free is to have a mind that is un-crowded, a mind free of noise and distraction; it’s to live in a condition of relative autonomy, unencumbered by external pressures or forces. I also like that the notion of freedom relates to attitude, to feeling, to thinking, to our mental state, and to space.
CCW: It’s like poetry, a language of poetry.
NLT: Yes. Every word is packed with all manner of meanings and associations. The word Tak, which is my favorite word, means to think, to remember, to long, and to invent. In other words, the very definition of a human being. I like how time and space, history and memory, imagination and invention, all these things are housed in that one word. Everything is related, and that radical relationality of everything is suggested by that word.
CCW: Your story is truly amazing, Nyuol, and although we want to have a more contemporary conversation, maybe you can just re-cap for us how it is that you came to California.
NLT: The circumstances of my coming here say something about the American values that are being destroyed right now. A kind, generous, welcoming America. I was a refugee in Cairo, Egypt, and a Dunn alumna, Brooke Comer, was living in Egypt and teaching at the American University in Cairo, and during breaks she would organize writing workshops for refugee children, and I was one of the kids that attended her writing workshop. I wrote a lot in Arabic, and we became friends, and somehow she managed to convince Dunn to give me a scholarship. I had no formal education or any credible academic background to speak of, but Dunn accepted me. So that’s how I came to be here. Brooke had her department at the American University raise money for my plane ticket, and she managed to find a family to host me in my first year, and then Dunn had me board for the last three years. I’ve been living in America since, and become a part of many American families and lives, just as many have become a part of mine.
It was very generous. And so when I say I feel betrayed, it’s that there is a generosity that is truly American that this administration doesn’t see, or appreciate. A refugee like me, found a home here. A sense of belonging. Let me explain: being a refugee is a perpetual kind of homecoming in which you move from place to place, each place holding the promise of some kind of security, stability, a community to which to belong at last, but of course that rarely happens, and so you start to look for another home again, prepare for another homecoming. That was my life as a refugee. But when I came to America, I felt like I had finally arrived, found that community in which I could begin anew. My arrival in America was not haunted by the usual specter of departure that attended all my arrivals in the past. For years I’ve been secure in the knowledge this country is my home, and since November, that sense of belonging is precarious.
Now it feels different. There’s a feeling of abandonment, of rejection, of departure. Even though the court has ruled against the ban, the idea itself, the gesture…for me it means that for all my trust and confidence in my belonging to America, I am being told that actually I don’t. My strangeness, my foreign-ness is being highlighted. There is this negative light shed on it. And even if I don’t get deported, I know now that I don’t belong to this society. The ban has re-inscribed the figure of the refugee onto me. It’s the way I am always going to be.
all this you knew, but never guessed you’d come to know there are homecomings without home
Derek Walcott’s words describe what I’ve known all my life. My life is nothing but a series of homecomings without home.
I know the symbolic importance of America to many refugees. There is a sense in which you feel that America is a horizon of possibility, a place for which you can long and endeavor to land eventually. This is an uncanny thing, but America is so familiar to everybody, that the desire to come to America, the want to come to America, is so familiar that it feels like nostalgia sometimes. Even when you’re in the refugee camps, it feels like nostalgia. You’re nostalgic for a country in which you’ve never lived, of which you know so little.
Being A Refugee (Nyuol Lueth Tong)
CCW: You’re so articulate, Nyuol, and while you’re talking, my heart is breaking. We’re appalled that this is happening. It’s mortifying.
VG: It is mortifying…but in some ways, this has been a cosmic kick in the butt for me. I haven’t been that politically active since college, and now every day, I’m writing letters, trying to be involved, mobilizing to help with children in families that are threatened. We see now how wrong things can go if people like us get lazy. So in that sense it’s been a good thing. Maybe we needed this. It got our attention. But it’s ugly. And there’s so much fear.
NLT: There’s a sense of victimhood felt by white people because the pie is being shared. It’s not their exclusive privilege anymore.
CCW: So it’s like if others can have it, they’re taking it away from me, there’s less for me.
NLT: The pie is being shared. We’re closer to equality than we’ve ever been in history. The piece is smaller because there are more people demanding their share, mostly people that white power has kept away from the table for a long time.
And if you look at the argument that the “others” are a threat to our way of life, or they are lazy, it’s just not true. No one works harder than those refugees and immigrants. They’re working really hard. They’ve been working hard all their lives.
Generally, the return to nationalism, especially in Europe and America, is not sustainable, and those who want to restore that kind of parochialism know it. You cannot keep the refugees away from your doors. It’s not sustainable.
As they say, nothing is more dangerous than a dying animal. That’s what Trump is. White power is dying, and the white establishment knows this, the Rest, as it were, are coming and are demanding their share, and the West is not dealing with this reality responsibly. In America, white power is using its wildest card, Trump, the bully of bullies. The racist, the sexist, the ignorant. The guy who doesn’t care about history, or the moral arc of history. He is the last white man standing in the name of white supremacy, and though he is doing damage he will not last, he will go down but he will not go down quietly. White supremacy will not die quietly.
And there is nothing more dangerous than a villain who knows he’s a villain. There’s no appealing to his conscience. You cannot bully him. You cannot shame him. You cannot appeal to the better of angels of his nature, because I dare say the angels of kindness and empathy and integrity have abandoned him, and he has none. That’s why when you share stories of refugees, photos of people dying, videos of people in poverty, it doesn’t affect him. Firing people, destroying jobs—he’s been doing that himself for years. He doesn’t care. He’s a villain who knows he’s a villain. You cannot hold him accountable using our basic common decency. Our sense of right and wrong doesn’t apply to him. How do you deal with someone like that?
It’s a vacuum of leadership. We basically don’t have a president, and what does that mean? I struggle making sense of the Republican Congress, both the Senate and the House. I don’t get how they could align themselves with him. Some of them are decent leaders, people with a sense of history, and yet they have aligned themselves with someone who in the long term will destroy the republic. I don’t get that.
CCW: Craven desire to hang onto power, I guess, and pushing their own agenda. It’s disgusting. You would think that at some point, a line would have been crossed, and integrity would kick in, a willingness to stand up for some greater value that’s at stake. We have to turn things around somehow, but it’s terribly discouraging and overwhelming at times. You were saying earlier that your response right now is to be somewhat more introspective.
NLT: The America that elected Trump, I don’t know that America. I have no clue who they are. A big part of this is that liberals enjoy this sense of moral high ground. It’s as though they’ve won the argument of history, if you will. And that has given them a certain confidence, where they’re not willing to even have a dialogue with those who oppose them. For example, if we have never had a conversation with a truly racist person, that’s a problem. It means we live in a world that is truly bifurcated…that’s divided…that’s polarized. It means that our appreciation or our understanding of what is true and what is false is wrong, so it makes sense that there are alternative notions of what is a fact, because we live in different epistemologies, different spheres of thinking, feeling, relating, dreaming, policy-making. Even though we live in the same country, we live different political realities. There are two Americas, and they don’t like each other or talk to each other.
Trump doesn’t seem to understand history, and he doesn’t care about it, and he’s surrounded himself with people who don’t care about history either. Or perhaps his thoughts are foreign to us, because we don’t have the linguistic codebook, we don’t have the cipher–he speaks in codes. But he has validated ignorance and given it content. So we are talking about ignorance as being powerful and content-rich, not as something empty. And it’s not pretty. It’s dark.
CCW: Do you want to share some thoughts about literature in this time of Trump?
NLT: The election of Trump has made me reconsider my reading priorities or how I invest my attention. There is a filtering that has happened to my bookshelf, what matters, what is worth reading, and what is not. But also stylistically and formally. Fiction has enjoyed relative autonomy, a distance from reality for some time, especially with MFAs, and it being this veritable industry. You can just write your novel about whatever you want. There are countless novels published every year. So many books. But there are few books about real things coming out these days. Many of the so-called literary works are metaphors about metaphors, metaphors within metaphors, and for all their technical virtuosity, all their literariness, all their knowingness, most of them barely offer any solace now.
I think literature has to be direct. The artifice has to go away. I’ve been reading a lot of James Baldwin these days. His essays in particular, how he eloquently engages, and articulates very complex things, not just about his own issues with America and what America means to him as a black man, as a black gay man, but also about challenges in the black community. All Baldwin’s writing is self-indicting. And that I think is a beautiful thing, and literature can teach us that.
In Trump’s era, we need to find a new kind of eloquence, an eloquence that registers this frustration, this anarchy, this so-called post-truth world. We need to find ways. How do we write in a world in which truth is absent? We need to find ways to restore truth, summon the power of truth in our politics.
Otherwise what will be the lasting impact of this madness on our grammar? There’s a lot of fracturing that’s happening. On the one hand, we need to read great literature, we need to read a lot, we need to share books, we need to find books that comfort us, but also, literature has to own up to some of this. We need to find a way. As a writer, I don’t want to have the kind of confidence I once had in grammar. There’s something ungrammatical about what’s happening in America, and we need to understand it. We need to “get” that. We need to understand it. We need to make sense of bigly and majorly. And deal with it.
CW: So it’s not that the literature should replicate this, but that literature should acknowledge it somehow?
NLT: And deal with it. That’s the only way we can break through it. We shouldn’t try to correct or impose any coherence or grammar on this incoherence, this mumbo-jumbo that’s happening. We need to actually find a way to evoke it as well. Because I think literature provides a safe space where you can inhabit even chaos and not be destroyed by it. And we can do that. I’d like someone to write a book from the point of view of Trump, try at least. What would that look like? That would be interesting. That’s what literature can do.
CCW: And I think you mentioned earlier you are working on a novel…?
NLT: For the last four years. I’m always going through different drafts. South Sudan became a country in 2011, then in 2013 it disintegrated into a civil war, and that of course impacted my own family. I haven’t been home since because of instability. I have a sense of disillusionment, and that of course impacts my writing too. And now with America also, the two places I call home are pretty much places I don’t want to be associated with. So, intellectually, I’m kind of lost, there’s no narrative, there is no history to which I can appeal and make sense of things. Or there is history, but it’s so dark, so unpredictable, so devastating, that it’s almost impossible to find any stable ground from which to start.
CCW: I know we need to wrap up, but you told me earlier that you were mourning, and that these feelings of devastation and grief were difficult to overcome. Is there anything else you’d like to say about your current frame of mind, and how you’re dealing with things?
NLT: It’s a very dark phase I am in these days. Death. Death. Death. To survive death, we assume what comes next is life. But it’s not. It’s something else. It’s another kind of death. It’s as though there are no narratives anymore. This is where I find myself these days. There are no stories. Every narrative feels fraudulent right now. I’ve told my story to raise money for the school, but there’s a part of it that feels fraudulent, something feels wrong. It’s a betrayal of sorts, to narrate and make sense, it’s a cheapening of sort, but of what, I don’t know.
Death, in many philosophical traditions and religions, is regarded as the ultimate consummation of creation, a mediating force that gives our existence a kind of plot, a storyline, a trajectory of sorts. But when you are well acquainted with death, when you live with death, when death in your life is already arrived, when death has made permanent residence in your home, it’s quite difficult to discern the contours of your life. Especially when something in the present evokes the past, like this fear mongering and hatred and bigotry and cynicism that Trump has occasioned, this darkness that is not too dissimilar to what has been happening in Sudan for many decades, it’s hard not to despair.
VG: You’re grappling with the unknowable.
CCW: But what steadies you? What gives you strength?
NLT: I don’t know. There’s not a lot of intentionality in it. Of all the sufferings that one endures as a refugee, hope is the most difficult. It’s not willed. It’s not you saying, “I’m going to be hopeful.” It just happens. Hope is often borne out of hopelessness. Refugees are the few survivors, at least in the case of South Sudan during its protracted wars, they are the ones who have made it out, the ones whom death has given a pass, to whom death has shown kindness. When you have been avoided by death – not avoided death, but avoided by death – you learn that it has nothing to do with your will.
So, to answer your question, I keep going because I have to, because there’s nothing else to do. Beckett said it best: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” There’s nothing intentional, or heroic, or poetic about it. If anything, what you feel is probably embarrassment, a bit of shame too, that you were spared, ignored by death. And there is nothing heavier to bear than death’s mercy, but I suppose that’s what you have to bear and come to terms with, every day, the debt you have to pay, the reason you have to carry on, and carry on we must.
Yesterday as I looked out onto the hills and sea beyond, all the craziness and sadness receded, and for a moment, this was the only reality I knew. So many worlds within the world, I thought. So many moments happening within this moment.
I’ve been sick. And I’m also tired and angry and overloaded with input, trying to take what action I can, and at the same time feeling that the game is rigged against us. How is it possible that so many voters would relinquish precious freedoms and place their trust in people who are this brazenly sinister, corrupt, and dangerous?
They’re misguidedly gleeful about it even now. But my role is not to convince or convert or even any longer try to understand those others. I’ve had enough exasperating encounters to realize that we are not confronting reason, but rather a kind of brainwashing, a mind set calcified in bitterness and vindictiveness. (Maybe underneath that there is fear, frustration, and a troubling kind of ignorance, but this cannot be our focus now.) No–instead of wasting time and energy there, we need to look to ourselves and our allies, and how we got here, and how to turn it around. We cannot lose momentum, because this is unfolding with stunning aggression and speed.
I’ve been wondering lately, as I watch the shameful shenanigans of the Republicans, led by people like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell: whatever happened to moral courage? With rare and tentative exceptions, they all seem spinelessly willing to go along with the naked insanity and corruption of the emperor and his puppet masters as long as they believe they can shove through their reactionary agenda (callously knocking people off their health care coverage, removing ethics accountability and environmental protections, diluting crucial barriers between state and religion…I could go on.) At what point will the transgressions become sufficiently abhorrent that even members of the GOP will stand up in brave, unequivocal opposition? And maybe it’s time to demand a mental health evaluation of this Frankenstein they’ve helped create. (I’m not kidding.)
My friend Jeanne shared a memory in an email yesterday:
“I am reminded this morning of the day many years ago when my Republican father became a Democrat. He announced his new perspective with shaving soap on half his face, having come from his morning absolutions half-done, the radio announcement of the Kent State killings of 1970 still playing in the bathroom. He said he could no longer belong to a party that could massacre its own children. I will never forget the look on his face, but most of all the tears in his eyes. I had never seen that before. There will be other good people now who will do the same, finally understanding what is happening here.”
I just hope it can happen fast enough. I’m trying to balance alarm and clarity.
Last night I dreamed about my dear brother Eddie, now gone nearly twenty-five years. He tried so hard to have the simple things so many take for granted. He was intelligent and kind, but born with the time bomb of a kidney disease that rendered him at the mercy of strangers, medical technology, constraints, complexities, and vicissitudes of funding far beyond his control. He missed out on so much, and he died at forty-five, but you know what? Life never turned him mean.
It’s the meanness I hate, most of all, in what I am seeing.
But I’ll close with these words by Edna St. Vincent Millay, because I still believe in poetry and hope and the better angels:
From the apprehensive present, from a future packed
With unknown dangers, monstrous, terrible and new—
Let us turn for comfort to this simple fact:
We have been in trouble before . . . and we came through.
It’s a wet green gloomy day and I’m heading to LAX in a few hours for the first leg of my journey to a different reality. Washington, D.C., here I come. I am filled with trepidation, fervor, heartache, anxiety, dismay, skepticism…but somewhere at the bottom of the pile there is still a faint residue of hope. Maybe the hope will shine more brightly when we are all marching together for everything we hold dear that is now at risk. Maybe I’ll come home exhausted but inspired.
Life has its ways of humbling us, but I’ve slung my rags of hope and good intentions about my shoulders and I’m trying to move forward. I’ll be carrying the spirit of my sister in my heart, and my daughter, and dear friends…and strong women everywhere.
And now it has been two years. One night I dreamed that I was standing on a grassy hilltop with her and one of my girlfriends, our silhouettes framed against a wide blank sky. She looked more as she did in her seventies, long white hair, upright yet surprisingly tiny and tentative, pleased, as always, to see me. I took her hand, introduced her to my friend, and the three of us held hands, forming a circle. My mother had never been to or even seen such a place as this wild, windy hilltop, and she was surprised and proud, maybe delighted, to be there with me. Oh, I was vaguely aware of some worry pressing on me, that old familiar instruction to hurry, but we stood for a moment holding hands in that circle, and she said to me, “I love you” and I said “I love you” and I felt at peace, at least with her, and I was so glad to see her in the great outdoors, experiencing a world she never knew. I wish her life had been bigger, and happier, and I wish I had been a thousand times more present and patient and affectionate, but I am grateful that I was given the duty and the gift to move through our difficult history and get to know the person she became. There is a great deal we can only understand in the aftermath, but if we translate the painful knowing into love and deed, it wasn’t all for naught. On this rainy day, I am remembering my mother with a candle, a prayer, a leap of faith, a promise to be better, and Merwin’s perfect rain light:
All day the stars watch from long ago
my mother said I am going now
when you are alone you will be all right
whether or not you know you will know
look at the old house in the dawn rain
all the flowers are forms of water
the sun reminds them through a white cloud
touches the patchwork spread on the hill
the washed colors of the afterlife
that lived there long before you were born
see how they wake without a question
even though the whole world is burning
Cora and Clarence lived for many years in an old farmhouse on an acre of Iowa land. They rose early each morning, worked hard, raised children, tended to a garden and a lettuce patch and a small field of corn, and by and large were happy. After Clarence died and the children had grown up, left home, and started families of their own, elderly Cora did one last thing before moving into town: she torched the house.
Cora’s granddaughter Teresa told this story as we sat with two other dear friends, Donna and Christine, on the patio of a house by the seashore. (By the way, I’ve written about these particular friends, the bicycle girls, here, here, here…and undoubtedly elsewhere!) Anyway, the day was waning, the sky was glowing, and stories were taking shape. I pictured Cora armed with a match and a can of kerosene, a tiny lady with long white hair and fire in her eyes. A chapter of her life had unequivocally concluded, and Cora wanted to put a final punctuation to it.
“I did the same thing to my wedding dress,” Teresa confessed. “It felt good.”
You never know what girlfriends will share while sitting around gabbing at the end of the day. The burning stories got me to thinking about change and how we handle it. There are those who do more than accept: they orchestrate, celebrate, and ceremonially mark it. Teresa has certainly become one of those people. Having weathered more than her fair share of challenges and survived, she knows that life is always in motion and she dances along with it, embracing the now, shining with her own inner light.
This get-together is in itself a marker of change. The setting is the home of Donna’s mother Sue, who passed away in the fall, and Donna is in the midst of the difficult task of sorting things out and readying the house for sale. The house is situated almost on the sand, with windows that look straight to the sea and Catalina Island beyond. There is a tall skinny palm tree in front, and a sidewalk that hosts a constant procession of walkers, runners, skaters, and cyclists, whose random fragments of conversation often float to us like poems. It’s strange to think the house will one day soon belong to someone else. But there is time for a few last gatherings, and this one of friendship and laughter is consistent with the spirit of the place, even if at times it feels poignant.
It is a house crammed with paintings, sculpture, and furniture, with photographs, books, and antique toys, with baskets, bowls and bric-a-brac. There’s a skeleton room done up in Dia de los Muertos themed decor, another room with a hundred hats hanging on the wall, and all sorts of unexpected treasures and brightly colored objects everywhere you look, each with a story or a memory connected to it. Sometimes an abundance of things has a heaviness about it. There’s a lot of stuff to deal with, and it weighs upon my friend. But the decor is evidence of a life well lived, and we are very aware of Sue’s presence, along with the vastness of her absence.
And there we were, drinking wine on the patio, watching the parade go by, feeling the sun on our faces, sharing stories. Speaking of burned or vacated houses, did I ever tell you that my family house on Long Island burned down? It was years after we had sold it, but there is still something shocking and strange about idly googling your old address and seeing images of the house engulfed in flames on the website of the local fire department. That’s it in the photo.
I hadn’t thought about that house in a long time, but now I was picturing it in vivid detail, room by room, and most of what happened was sad. Wouldn’t it be nice if I finally didn’t go to sad? What if I could shove aside those painful memories, stop tormenting myself for not doing more to make things better, and pat myself on the back for having come this far? Here is this lovely moment– good for me for having reached it–and already it is slipping away. “Where is it, this present?” asked the philosopher and psychologist William James. “It has melted in our grasp, fled ere we could touch it, gone in the instant of becoming.”
“All is creation, all is change, all is flux, all is metamorphosis,” wrote Henry Miller. Best not to grasp too tightly. Travel light. Love mightily. Tell someone your stories.
Well meaning citizens had driven through the rain to attend a community gathering in a church hall in the valley. We stood at the entrance, shaking out our umbrellas and stomping our boots, then dutifully arranging chairs and plates of cheese, recognizing friends, greeting each other, all of us allies in a resistance. Who would have thought?
There were artists and teachers here, parents and grandparents, so many decent and intelligent people, all feeling anger and dismay, unexpectedly thrust into activism. I would have liked to have seen more young people, or more diversity, but that wasn’t likely on a rainy Thursday night in this little valley town. There was a great deal of fervor about immediate local actions we can take, such as protecting vulnerable immigrant farm workers, but less discussion of longer-range political solutions, which are also crucial. Several folks still seemed to be clinging to the fantasy that Electors would reverse their votes, but most of us understood that a horror had occurred and would not un-happen.
We are peaceable and fortunate people, still a bit stalled by shock, but we have been called to action now, and we will learn how to fight. We tried to be concrete and constructive at our community meeting and not dissipate our energy in emotion, even when those emotions were hard to contain. I was happy to see my friend Genevieve, a beautiful and intelligent young mother with whom I used to teach, and then felt sad that what had brought us together is an unfolding nightmare. But it’s gratifying to know we are on the same team, and reassuring to see so many fine and decent people stepping up. We are the majority, and we will prevail. We just can’t allow ourselves to succumb to weariness or despair, and I realize that won’t be easy. We wanted to believe the best in people, but there are ugly facts to face.
It’s hard to organize and strategize, to become an effective group, link to others, and grow into a movement–indivisible, relentless, and potent. We listed priorities in marker pen on flip chart easels, contributed comments and listened in earnest. Some recalled the lessons of the 1960s. “We need to make a lot of noise,” said one participant. “We need to read Tom Hayden’s SDS charter,” said another. There was a reference to a 2003 essay by David Harris, which I looked up later, and this in particular seemed relevant: “Under ideal circumstances, those of us who disagreed could turn to the opposition party to champion our cause, but the opposition party has long since abandoned its duty to oppose, fearing political jeopardy.”
So we’ll march, and write letters, and make phone calls, and sign petitions, and attend meetings, and lobby and support and protect and protest and obstruct and pay attention and stay informed and vote and network and communicate and learn and teach and help each other…and never give up. (Am I leaving anything out?) The world has changed, and we’ll need new tools and ideas, but our fundamental values are intact, and our commitment is unshakeable.
In this election, ethics, qualifications, and principles meant nothing, and the keys to great power were handed to a hate-mongering, mentally unstable, and dangerous narcissist whose flaunting of truth and democratic principles has already been unprecedented. He is entering office with numerous conflicts of interest, a history of corruption and despicable behavior, and an attitude of arrogance and belligerence in combination with appalling ignorance that should frighten all of us. We are seeing the clear beginnings of a kleptocracy, and we cannot let this happen. George Orwell often comes to mind: “And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed—if all records told the same tale—then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’ War is peace. Freedom is slavery.” Welcome to the Bizarro world, where everything you thought was right and reasonable is up-ended and brazenly replaced by its opposite.
Yes, it’s scary and depressing, but I resolve to be involved and stay involved, and to do at least one thing daily for the cause. I will never, ever take for granted the bounty of my life, the wonders of our poor beleaguered planet, or the gifts of the democracy into which I was born. We will not stand by in silence, and we will not get over it, ever, because we will never accept the unacceptable.
My father-in-law at ninety sits in his La-Z-Boy playing rousing music on his iPad, a newfangled device he has grown fond of. It’s vintage Czechoslovakian polka music, he says, and it makes him happy, so it becomes the soundtrack for the morning. My mother-in-law is reading an old dog-eared book on native plants, making plans, enjoying her own notes from years past written in the margins. She propagates oak and sycamore trees and tends to a garden of natives.
Their window looks out onto a creek bed and the canyon road beyond. The cottonwood trees are in their brief season of yellow leaves, and a toyon by the house is a bounty of red berries, and wisps of cloud are rolling above the newly green hills. My daughter is removing her muddy Wellies outside the door, having just returned from the well, and one is tempted to say all is well.
But of course all is emphatically not well. I am trying to stay informed, but the news these days is crushing and infuriating, and the need to do something is accompanied by a sense of helplessness and frustration, even as the dangers of passivity grow.
I happened to run into Yvon Chouinard recently. I thanked him for what Patagonia did on the day after Thanksgiving, donating 100% of their sales to help the environment. His modest response: “It’s only money.” And I said, “Yeah. We’re all going to hell in a hand-basket anyway.” And he said, “That’s right.” He always seems kind of Buddhist about things, or maybe fatalistic. Might as well go down doing something.
Meanwhile, I’ve been having an ongoing dialog with a friend about anger. I admit to anger; my friend either doesn’t feel it or refuses to acknowledge it. HH the Dalai Lama would disapprove, he tells me–anger is just poison, diminishing our credibility and causing only harm. His pious dismissal of my anger makes me me angry, of course. I realize we cannot get swept up into useless drama with each new outrage, but anger is an understandable human response to the daily assaults on our values and the exasperating mentality that brought us to this point. I see it as an alarm, a clarifying energy born of conscience. The trick is to figure out how to channel it constructively.
Yesterday I went into the sweet little town of Los Olivos and stopped by to see my friend Dorothy on Figueroa Mountain Road. We talked about what strengths and resources we have, what strategies we can employ, how to sustain our energy through the long run, using our anger as a fuel but humor too, and love, mostly love. We looked out at the mountains. The world is so beautiful, she said.
California Christmas. A Mexican woman was selling homemade tamales wrapped like presents in foil and brown paper, still warm. A neighbor gave us a bowl of sweet persimmons, the kind you eat like apples. I rode my bicycle when the sandstone cliffs were golden and the green hills luminous, feeling exhilarated and inexplicably strong. There have been low-low tides and a sea as calm and quiet as I have ever seen it. My daughter is curled up on the living room sofa in a shaft of sunlight, reading, and I saw three former students in the course of a week, all good people, all grown up. It makes me feel I mattered a little.
And everything is telling me this: we have no choice but to be better.
Sometimes a dream just stays with you, and this one did. It was a dream of green hills, our local ranch and farm land the way it is for a brief period after winter rain, green grass gleaming. I was looking out at the hills through a dusty window in an old rustic house. In the kitchen of the house was a cupboard heaped with china, chipped and unmatched, and on a hardwood floor there lay a small square of sunlight, a gift of the dusty window. Outside, a woman with long straight hair sat beneath a tree holding a baby, and an old man in a suede Western jacket was telling stories, holding court, assuring no one in particular that apart from the facts, all his stories were true. I recognized the storyteller, someone I’d interviewed long ago, and although he was alive and well as he stood there tolling like a bell in the green, I knew that he was dead. What difference does it make, anyway? I asked in my dream.
I lingered in the dream, but a real morning came, still dream-colored. The heavy aromas of macadamia blossoms and paper whites hovered in the air, almost too sweet, and toyon berries reddened, and many voices, living and dead, told stories in my head. I’m glad I live in the country, where it’s quiet enough to hear. On this island of green and dream, I can sleep walk for a while.
Oh, I know I need to get back in the world, but it isn’t a world that I recognize. Everything changed in November. Ethics, common sense, decency: none of the fundamentals applied. Integrity, truth, experience, worthiness…all were deemed irrelevant. The election was reality TV, the highest office in the land an entry level position filled by a vulgar, aggressively uninformed, and mentally unstable con man driven by megalomania and self-interest, and our imperfect but precious ship of state was apparently just something to blow up and see what happens. We seem to be headed into an era where knowledge is optional, intolerance is the norm, lies are the currency of the realm, and nothing we counted on can be counted on. I’m trying to find my footing on this shifting ground. Desperately seeking antidotes.
Meanwhile, I thought I’d bake some bread, which, like brewing tea, is a wonderful thing to do when you don’t know what to do next. I used a new mail-order sourdough starter descended, according to the label, from a New England culture begun in the 1700s. It was frisky. The dough rose and rose, reminding me of a childhood fairy tale about magic porridge. (Stop, little pot, stop.) But it didn’t soar to great heights in the oven, and in fact it’s heavier and flatter than I’d have liked. It’s tasty, though, and I hereby pronounce it good enough. I bake more by whimsy than science, so I may never know why this or that and what variables I should adjust. I’m just certain I’ll hit the right combination one of these days and a perfect loaf will emerge. “And how will you replicate it?” Monte would ask. I don’t know. I am of the happenstance school.
Yesterday I looked in the mirror and saw my mother. It isn’t that my face was hers, but she stood behind me, in my mind, so close and clear. I remembered the familiar lines and marks of her skin, the long white hair, her bony hands with rings beneath the knuckles, the aura of her. It hit me again that she was gone forever, and I wished I had been a thousand times more present and affectionate when she was living so nearby. This is my private grief, and I knew it was there, but I hadn’t been looking straight at it, so it hit me hard and took me by surprise, and I felt ineffably sad.
But the other grief I am carrying now is a kind of mourning for my country, a grief I share with millions of others. I can only hope we will turn our numbers into strength. How do we proceed? I’m as earnest and civic-minded as they come, an old teacher who happens to have a degree in public administration and worked in that world too; I’m a bit to the left, but relatively mainstream, probably a cliché in my California bubble. I have faith in democracy, try to participate, want to believe that fairness and reason will prevail. This disillusionment is new to me. Even now, with the checks and balances so weakened, and a bizarre president-elect that the majority of us did not vote for about to take office, there’s a part of me that wants to try to make it work, give it a chance, assume the best in people (despite all evidence to the contrary).
“Now is the time to confront the weak core at the heart of America’s addiction to optimism; it allows too little room for resilience, and too much for fragility,” writes Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in “Now Is the Time To Talk About What We Are Actually Talking About” in this week’s New Yorker. And I realize I am guilty of that habit of optimism, that Pollyanna hopefulness, and maybe it isn’t particularly helpful now. This isn’t the time for revising reality, sugar-coating ugly truths, forgetting and absolving, or underestimating danger. “Now is the time,” she writes, “for the media, on the left and right, to educate and inform. To be nimble and alert, clear-eyed and skeptical, active rather than reactive. To make clear choices about what truly matters.”
We all need to step outside the comfort zone and take a more vigilant and assertive stance than we may be used to. As Barbara Kingsolver wrote, “Our first task is to stop shaming ourselves and claim our agenda. It may feel rude, unprofessional and risky to break the habit of respecting our government; we never wanted to be enemies of the state. But when that animosity mounts against us, everything we do becomes political: speaking up or not speaking up. Either one will have difficult consequences. That’s the choice we get.”
The animosity is mounting against all of us. Look at the line-up. Listen to the words. Recognize the codes. We need to seek remedies. Speak out. Object. Get in the way. Demand accountability. Require decency. Be more vocal and involved than ever before. Do good work. Refuse to go away. I realize this is vague, but we will know how to translate it into specific acts as we go along. To quote Kingsolver again: “Every soul willing to do that is part of our team, starting with the massive crowd that shows up in DC in January to show the new president what we stand for, and what we won’t.”
I’m retired and tired. I think what I wanted to do in this season of life was bake bread, collect stories, see the Northern Lights someday. Maybe I’d finally get a dog again, write something worthy, be blessed with grandchildren. I’d pitch in now and then but mostly it was time to step aside, wander in the hills on dream-island, lean back and watch the sky. I was wrong.
The mountain lion meandered along the ridge, aware of us but unconcerned. We had seen a bobcat earlier, and the differences were clear. The lion had a larger body, a longer tail, and a different kind of gait, more leisurely and confident somehow. It blended well against the tawny hills and now and then disappeared into the brush, but once it was visible, it was unmistakable, and it was master of its domain, a magnificent being. I was glad there were four of us, and that the lion was distant and indifferent. We didn’t feel threatened, so we stood and watched until it was no longer in sight.
We hiked to a high point. To the north, we could see the contours and colors of the earth: the green and gold of grassy ground, the dark of woods, the ocher of sandstone rock, the white diatomaceous hills of Lompoc. To the west, a great expanse of sparkling sea merged seamlessly with sky, the hazy blue outlines of the Channel Islands…and Point Conception, the Western Gate. Still here, still here. And then I heard the canyon wren. How could that not mean hope?
I won’t pretend. I’m still reeling about events that are unfolding in our nation and the world. But I see this as a time to learn and gather strength. I don’t think I can function effectively if I’m in a constant state of nausea and rage. Maybe the silver lining of this election will be that it woke us up, and we realize what wasn’t working and what’s at stake, and hopefully we can limit damage while we regroup.
I watched a clip of a Charlie Rose interview with Jon Stewart, and I thought Stewart had some calm and helpful insights on what just happened: “It all ties together…I don’t believe we are a fundamentally different country today than we were two weeks ago. The same country with all its grace and flaws, and volatility, and insecurity, and strength, and resilience exists today as existed two weeks ago. The same country that elected Donald Trump elected Barack Obama. I feel badly for the people for whom this election will mean more uncertainty and insecurity. But I also feel like this fight has never been easy. And the ultimate irony of this election is the cynical strategy of the Republicans, which is: ‘Our position is that government doesn’t work. We’re going to make sure… that it doesn’t work.’”
I suppose we are the same country, although at the moment it doesn’t feel that way. It’s true that there is something inherently contradictory and impossible about the very idea of America, and yet here we are, capable of the best and the worst. Where do we go from here? Lao-Tzu asked a relevant question in the 6th century BCE: “Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear?”
That’s what I’m trying to do. Not withdrawing, but stepping back a little in order to see the big picture, ready for action when we know what is needed and how to be most effective. I’m still writing letters, making calls, signing petitions, communicating and networking, paying attention, not taking anything for granted. But I’m trying also to pace myself and not get all used up in symbolic, short-lived gestures born of outrage. There is this counsel from Thich Nhat Han disciple, Brother Phap Dung, who advised in an interview: “Go take refuge in nature, and find a cause where your heart doesn’t feel inactive and in despair. This is the medicine. We go out and we help. Don’t allow hate and anger to take over your world. There are other things happening. Right now people in our family are still there, and they might need us. Our friend may be somebody who is being discriminated against. You can only be there to offer them kindness if you are stable. You cannot help them if you are filled with hate and fear. What people need is your non-fear, your stability, solidity, clarity. This is what we can offer.”
This hike was the part where we take refuge in nature, and nature does not let us down. Among our greatest resources are hope and conviction, and the wonders of earth, sea, and sky restore both. We descended the ridge and walked along a narrow road with oak trees on either side, cool shade and shafts of sunlight, brown leaves and damp earth beneath our feet. Still here.