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.