Yesterday was International Women’s Day, and I chose to spend it hiking in the Santa Barbara mountains with some very strong women. A couple of us sported red tops, whether by chance or intent, but we didn’t make proclamations, talk about politics, or stage any demonstrations apart from the quiet demonstration of resilience required to traverse eight miles of rugged backcountry. We walked along narrow brushy trails in the heat of mid-day, and crossed several fairly deep and rocky streams whose forceful currents nearly pushed me off balance. I should add that not a one of us is younger than sixty, so we’re not exactly spring chickens, as my mother used to say. No one complained. All we ever felt was glad to be there, and grateful for our mobility.
I looked around fondly at these hiking companions, all a bit faded and weathered, but sturdy and persistent, bearing backpacks and walking poles and interesting histories. These are women who have been teachers and nurses, mothers and wives and grandmothers too. There’s a skilled sailor among them, a church docent, a botanist. One is from Austria, and she is as agile as a young girl on an Alpine trek. Another spent her childhood in a small Canadian town, and one used to walk in these very mountains while a student at UCSB in the 1960s. These women came of age during second-wave feminism, before Title IX and the Equal Rights Amendment, and they’ve seen a lot of changes, some of it welcome, some insufficient, and some of it wrong-headed. They are well-versed in patience as well as disappointment, smart enough to appreciate the good contained in an ordinary day, and highly attuned to the wonders of being outdoors in a beautiful place like this. All have known sorrows, glimpsed joy, and hope the future will be better. They do their part.
So yes, we know what’s going on, but yesterday was about hiking in the backcountry and coming back physically exhausted and mentally renewed. No one mentioned that name that we don’t even like to say, and there was no outrage or hand-wringing about the current issues. We had no cell phone service, no updates or alerts, no distressing news to distract us from the land and the streams and the sky.
My mind is either a desert lately or a tangled wilderness with no paths to clearings or views. I’ve been hurrying along for years, it seems, and suddenly I’m here, but I don’t know what to do. I feel separate from things, and powerless, and I’ve been sleeping poorly and don’t have any energy. The “news” is getting to me, but so is the old stuff, and I’m grateful for books to climb into, but my hands and my head are creating nothing new. And it’s warm out today, and beautiful here in the way that breaks your heart, and there’s something wrong with anyone who would stay inside with the blinds drawn. I’m going to go outside right now and look for the best part of the day. I’ll let you know if I find it.
We saw it from a long distance, glistening blue in sunlight, a sapphire set in the green. It’s a vernal pool, an ephemeral pond, an evanescent wetland offering habitat to plant and animal species that can flourish nowhere else. Nobody knows how many vernal pools dotted the California landscape in the days before the arrival of the Europeans, but agricultural expansion and industrial development eradicated most, and it felt like a privilege to glimpse this one. Recent rains had filled it well, and summer will shrink it away, but here it was, shining in its moment. It was like a little poem, all its own.
Friar Juan Crespi, diarist for the expedition of Captain Don Gaspar de Portola that set sail along the California coast in 1769, wrote this of the area: “The country is delightful, for it is covered with beautiful green grass which offered excellent pasture for the animals…” In 1791, the scout for that same expedition, Sergeant José Francisco de Ortega, was awarded a grant for more than 26,000 acres of this land, and much of it is still open grazing land, pieces of ranches that have been in operation since the old Spanish days, merging one into another in a great swathe of remarkably unspoiled country. It is in these relatively undisturbed and out-of-the-way places that vernal pools appear.
We had set out for this walk to tune out the noise, to gather ourselves together and return renewed. We knew it would make us feel better. Brush and wildflowers were in blossom, and there was good muddy earth and tall grass rippling in the wind. We walked uphill along a seldom used dirt road and at some point crossed a fence line that vaguely marks the boundary between our ranch and an adjacent one, both of which were once part of Rancho Nuestra Señora del Refugio.
We meandered further along a ridge toward the vernal pool and a grove of trees beyond, and suddenly in the far distance there appeared a herd of cows moving briskly, a border collie whose excited yapping carried on the wind, and a cowboy, not on a horse, but an all-terrain vehicle. We know our neighbors, more or less, and “neighbors” is a broad term in these parts, but it did occur to us that we were on the other side of the fence line. We stood motionless, but we had been seen. We descended the ridge, as quick as cats, then sat low along a hillside, staying still, feeling stalked, being children. After a long wait, we got up and stealthily made our way back to the fence line and the safe zone of our own ranch.
But oh, the vernal pool: I had seen it before, but I’d forgotten about it, and now it is in my head again, and it comforts me. What I love about this place are the quiet miracles, the wonders that unfold whether or not we notice, the reassuring touchstone of the natural world.
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.
Peering at the rain-smeared night through the windows of the airport bus makes me feel the way I used to feel in the 1970s when I was a girl in my twenties sitting on Greyhound buses, lost and confused, maybe a fledgling feminist but not familiar with the term, a passenger in my own life. Perhaps I should give myself credit for the courage that I had, but I certainly wasted a lot of time in sad pursuits and misguided getaways. This time, I’m on a mission, heading for the Women’s March in Washington, with a rather indirect itinerary: Los Angeles to Charlotte to Albany. From Albany, I’ll drive with my old friend Barbara to Maryland, where friends of hers will host us.
When I first arrive, the weather in Albany is what I recall as vintage upstate New York: a muted palette of gray, brown, and white. Chilly. I go out for a walk after arriving at Barb’s house, careful about the icy driveway, the walkways patched with snow and frozen slush. My hands are cold; I hadn’t thought of wearing gloves. A woman pulls up in a car in front of a house nearby and steps outside to check her mailbox. She smiles. “Enjoying the nice, mild weather?” It’s all relative, I suppose.
Meanwhile, back home, the rain has finally stopped and there are rainbows arched above green hills. Monte texts me: Sacate Creek is flowing! The campground at El Capitan has washed away in mud. The ocean is the color of chocolate milk and waterfalls have surprised old sandstone contours. The world is many worlds, constantly changing, and reality itself seems fluid and unbound.
But there is a structure of truth and principle, and there are foundations we build upon and cherish, and that’s why I’m marching on Saturday. I’m marching because I care about human rights, and fairness, and dignity, and possibility, and the fate of our poor beleaguered planet. I’m marching because the person about to assume office, and who in fact lost the popular vote by millions, is dangerously unfit to serve. I want him to see that he does not have our support, and I want to help promote and partake of the solidarity and determination that I know we’re going to need to sustain us through the hard times ahead.
“A march? It’s as pointless as a temper tantrum,” I heard someone say mockingly. But I believe, as Rebecca Solnit has written, that symbolic and cultural acts have real power. I am hoping the march will energize us, render visible our national and global community, reinforce the sense of possibility, speak our truths, tell our stories, and mark a beginning rather than defeat and resignation. We march to push back against the affronts being perpetrated upon us and to help launch the resistance. I realize it’s just the start, and long hard work must follow, but a start is required.
The next day, we set out for D.C. in Barbara’s car: Barb (at the wheel), her friend (and soon my friend too) Ronda, and me. There’s a percussion of raindrops and windshield wipers, the murmur of conversation, a soundtrack of songs from Hamilton, Joni Mitchell, and Jackson Browne, including one in particular by Jackson (and Carlos Varela) called “Walls and Doors”:
Ever since the world’s existed
There’s one thing that is certain
There are those who build walls
And those who open doors
Barb and I became friends in the 1970s, not long after my desperado Greyhound bus days. I was belatedly wrapping up a degree at the state university, and she was a newly minted social worker, and we happened to both live in an old brownstone building at the edge of downtown Albany. We would visit each other at the end of the day, de-briefing, listening to records (often Jackson Browne), and coaching one another through what I still refer to as the days of whine and roaches. (You could actually hear those roaches in the night, a sort of tapping-crunching sound, and if you turned on a light, you could see them scurrying across the floor.) We found the humor too, and we became dear to one another, but life took us in different directions, and forty years happened with no contact between us. We reconnected only recently, and we instantly clicked. It was as though she had just walked back in from across the hallway with a new album for us to hear.
Thank God for friendship, especially among women. I don’t know how I would navigate life without such friends. And oh, how women talk! Our car becomes a sanctuary of stories and warmth and camaraderie, a harbor of grace, it seems. Ronda sets out a bag of nuts, a container of celery sticks and carrots, green grapes, Cliff bars. We tend to one another. Even in this transition zone, a demonstration has begun, and it sets the tone for what we are about to witness: mutual support, kindness, and resilience.
The “inauguration” is taking place as we drive, and we don’t know if we can bear to listen. Ronda, an insightful psychologist who is exceptionally devoted to her clients and her own three sons, counsels against denial. “If we don’t listen at all, that’s just intentional ignorance,” she says, and we decide to tune in now and then. What we hear sounds militant, ominous, chilling…a dark vision of carnage and fear, a false and eerie patriotism, a rally to total allegiance.
Ronda’s mother, now in her nineties, is a Holocaust survivor who spent two years hidden in a small underground space…”the grave” is what she calls it. The family lived in what is now Ukraine, and as the horrors mounted, Ronda’s grandmother sat by the window, planning. One midnight, she bundled up her three children—Ronda’s mother, at ten, was the eldest–-and walked to the house of a man she vaguely knew who did “illegal things” and asked for his help. They were led to a hole in the dirt beneath a pigsty, with a covering too low to stand up beneath it. It was swarming with vermin and lice. Pig urine rained on their heads.
Ronda’s mother has barely spoken of it, except in fragments of poems in old journals, not in English. Decades later, Ronda went back to the Ukraine with her, and they stopped at the house the family had to abandon. A Ukrainian woman came to the door, and with trepidation let them in. Ronda’s mother recognized the furniture, the parquet floor, the very window beside which Ronda’s grandmother had sat and stared and schemed. The Ukrainian woman cried. She was only a child then. Her parents had taken her to a ditch where they lined up the Jews, shot them, then hastily covered them with dirt. “The ground was heaving,” she said. The townspeople watched.
“How did everyone allow this?” asks Ronda. “What happens matters. And this is why I’m marching tomorrow.”
In Maryland, where the Susquehanna River meets the Chesapeake Bay, we pass a city called Havre de Grace, and the name assumes a serendipitous significance, as do so many aspects of this journey. I admit that I had some anxiety and skepticism when I first contemplated the trip, but my conviction is growing with every mile.
At some point, Barb checks in with her mother, another nonagenarian. “Why are you going to Washington?” her mother says. “I’m looking at the TV, and there’s a big commotion there.“
“Mom, it’s a protest,” Barb explains, to no avail. Commotion is worrisome. Distance is daunting. Daughters are precious. A mother worries.
“A march is when bodies speak by walking,“ writes Rebecca Solnit in Hope in the Dark, “[It’s] when private citizens become that mystery the public, when traversing boulevards of cities becomes a way to travel toward political goals.”
Of what use is the moon if you don’t have the night?
Of what use is a windmill with no Quixote left who’ll fight?
We will not have stood by in silence.
We arrive in Silver Springs as darkness falls, and find our way to the house of our hosts, Jeff and Bonnie, who are easygoing and welcoming and seem immediately familiar to me, even though I have never met them. Maybe it’s our Brooklyn roots, shared sensibilities, a similar perspective on what’s happening. We reminisce about pizza and knishes, the sawdust on the floors of butcher shops and produce markets, lining up at school to have sugar cubes and a drop of Salk vaccine placed upon our tongues. We discuss the old neighborhoods, the public schools we went to, the work and dreams of our fathers, the things we learned to value.
There can be freedom only when nobody owns it…
Ronda’s 21-year-old son Jared, a college student in the area, comes by to visit and bring us his firsthand observations of D.C. on this Inauguration Day. It was crazy, he tells us, but not in a celebratory way. Sitting at the table with a group of slightly fraying sixty-somethings, Jared asks if our participation in tomorrow’s march feels as significant to us as protests of the past. Absolutely. Unequivocally. Even more so. Yes. We all agree on this. The threat is real and profound. The need to resist is crucial, compelling. It’s an historical moment.
I think Jared is proud of his mom. In a nod to Joni Mitchell, he calls the three of us women “Ladies of the Canyon,” and it seems like an appellation of honor. I picture the California canyon of my home, then feel the comforting old embrace of East Coast-ness, and for a moment, everything comes full circle.
As soon as we board the Metro the next morning, we can feel that something is happening, and we are part of it. There are groups of friends carrying posters, parents with little girls in pink hats, men and women, Boomers and Millennials, and certainly those in between. Everyone is pouring into the city, filling up the trains, and the mood is friendly but not festive. We recognize each other. We’re in this together. We have a shared sense of mission and resolve.
We disembark at Union Station, and our numbers keep multiplying…pink hats ascending escalators, patiently lining up for a pre-march restroom stop, streaming out onto the streets. A policeman at the station tells us that the men’s room is open to women today. He’s good-natured and friendly and admits that this is the happy day. Yesterday? Not so much. More like the twilight zone.
Outside, the air is fresh and the sky a broad white slate of cloud and fog. The pre-march rally has begun, but we are far from it, and we will only see it later in replay at Jeff and Bonnie’s house. Right now we just walk in the general direction of the starting point until we abruptly cannot walk, because the street is completely clogged with people. Absolute gridlock. It’s the sort of thing that would usually make me claustrophobic, but this is where the miracle begins, because despite the frustration and discomfort, everyone is patient, polite, respectful, and considerate.
At one point, a young woman begins to hyperventilate and needs to get through, and the crowd immediately makes a path for her, like Moses parting the Red Sea, many looking on with maternal concern as she passes, offering water, asking if she needs anything. Four Vanderbilt coeds have driven through the night from Nashville to be there, one of them wheelchair-bound due to a broken foot; strangers form a barrier around them to give them a little extra space. In the course of the entire day, there will not be a single episode of violence.
But where is the march? We want to march, and we’ve come a long way to do so, and here we are just inching along or standing still, unable to reach the route! Suddenly we realize: we ARE the march. The original river has formed a hundred tributaries, the floodgates are open, and we are flowing. All of Washington, D.C. becomes a great, epic march.
Eventually we are marching alongside a small band called brick by brick, a public art performance group that builds human “walls” against misogyny. They are wearing brick-patterned jumpsuits, carrying signs in protest of actions that threaten civil and human rights, and making wonderful music. We march along singing “This Land is Your Land”, “Down By the Riverside”, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”… traditional songs of protest, hope and yearning. There’s something about the music that really does it to me, along with the sights of the Washington Monument, The Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial in the distance, and the messages on the signs that people are carrying, some of them blunt, some witty, collectively a kind of poetry of the people, and there is a feeling of extraordinary unity and unshakeable determination. My eyes fill with tears. My heart fills with hope. Half a million people? A million? Who knows. We are everywhere. We are a harbor. We are the sea.
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.
“Do you know? 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.