Sweeping the Fragments Together

Today the term of the 45th President of the United States ended, and the term of the 46th began. The past four years have been a living nightmare that was both exactly as bad as I predicted, and somehow so much worse than I could have imagined. Everything has been so terrible for so long–and we came so perilously close to it not happening–that it was kind of hard to believe it would really take place.

And as it turned out, so much was wonderful. The first moment that caused me tears was, unexpectedly, around jewelry. Many of the attendees at the inauguration chose to wear pearls, in honor of new Vice President Kamala Harris and her favorite accessory, which was charming in itself. But Representative Barbara Lee revealed that she was wearing pearls that had originally belonged to Shirley Chisholm. The story behind this–and that Chisholm was Lee’s mentor, and Lee was Harris’s–was what sent me into tears. I wasn’t expecting to cry over a necklace. (I also appreciate Lee’s mask, covered in butterflies, which symbolize renewal and re-forming. Yes, my hyphenation on that word is deliberate; it’s carrying multiple meanings.)

Then there was the inauguration itself, with the Pledge of Allegiance delivered by a black woman firefighter who also delivered it in ASL as she spoke; with Jennifer Lopez singing a song by a notorious socialist artist and partially in Spanish; with the swearing-in of the first woman/Indian-American/Black American to be Vice President; and with the new President’s inaugural address, which condemned the racism, fascism, and criminality of his predecessor’s administration, including using the words “white supremacy” more than once, while also talking about the need to repair all the damage done and deep empathy for the suffering of the people he is now sworn to serve. And it was capped off by the reading from Amanda Gorman, the Youth Poet Laureate, who delivered the soaring, luminous, ambitious rhetoric and grand vision in her words (which were inspired by the failed coup carried out just two weeks earlier) that Biden knew better than to attempt himself.

And then there was a somber, respectful visit to the Tomb of the Unknowns, acknowledging Biden’s solemn responsibility as Commander in Chief and his understanding of the weight of that role. And Harris, in her first action as vice president, swearing in two new Democratic senators from Georgia, that state that gave Democrats both the Presidency and the Senate. And joyous walks down Pennsylvania Avenue, despite the ferocious security and presence of fences and tanks everywhere, as Biden and Harris had their families accompany them to their new workplaces. And Biden signing a raft of Executive Orders as his first acts, trying to turn back some of the damage. All of this was good and uplifting and infused with hope, something that hasn’t felt possible in a long time. I am so grateful that we have a new administration with competent, serious public servants who care about the country, not their own selfishness and narcissism.

But today has also been terrible, because I’m so traumatized by the past four years. When I learned that the previous president’s nuclear codes had been deactivated, I couldn’t speak or breathe for several seconds. As a GenXer, I carry the trauma of 1980s nuclear-armageddon threat, and the revival of that threat during the Trump admin has caused me deep panic; I’ve worried pretty much every moment since the election that he would choose to exercise that option out of his petulant, aggrieved narcissism.

Then I didn’t know how to react to the Bidens hugging and showing deep emotion before they walked into the White House. After four years of people whose only emotions were greed, anger, and self-aggrandizement, seeing a family that is genuinely loving and genuinely grateful and moved by the momentous thing they’ve achieved was difficult to process and upsettingly confusing.

I started crying when Biden told his agency appointees that they are expected to be respectful and decent to the people they work with, and thanked them for their willingness to join his admin and work very hard. This was unheard of in the preceding admin, and it seemed so rare and so alien in comparison.

Press Secretary Jen Psaki opened the first press briefing by thanking the journalists, saying how honored she is to be doing this, and emphasizing that truth and accuracy are the admin’s goals when talking to the media. She answered all the questions she was asked, didn’t lie or make up nonsense, and was respectful to everyone she spoke to. And she ended by saying she looked forward to doing it again. I teared up multiple times and had multiple “OMG WE’RE DOING THIS AGAIN” moments, because it all seemed so novel after the past four years.

None of this should be making me feel like that, because these kinds of things should be normal. But for four years we’ve experienced a presidential administration that gleefully destroyed all our norms and much of our day to day life; that harmed marginalized people of all types; that did everything imaginable to strip our rights; that engaged in grotesque corruption and graft out in the open; that destroyed relationships with countless nations and made us vastly less safe; that eagerly courted the support and violence of white supremacists and fascists; that gaslighted us about everything; and that allowed a deadly pandemic to rage unabated causing the worst death event and biggest existential crisis of our lifetime. And we also had Republican legislators who gladly enabled it all, capping it all with an actual coup that only barely failed. For four years, that was our “normal.”

We have been damaged by all of this, and that damage leaves trauma. That trauma makes it difficult to stop reacting to good things and things that should be normal as if they are instead potential harms, and creates significant emotional confusion and ambivalence.

On the day that it was confirmed Biden had the necessary electoral votes, I told friends that I felt relieved, but not necessarily happy, very much how I felt when my abusive relationship ended. I feel much the same today. I don’t know how to react to good and ordinary things now occurring. I can’t yet trust that the abuse and gaslighting is over. I feel conflicted about reacting with tears and mixed emotions. And I’m very, very tired. This is what trauma does. And I’m guessing I’m nowhere near being alone in having this trauma.

Biden wasn’t my choice for this role, but it’s who we got. And I still believe fervently that we have to push him unceasingly to make him hold to the more progressive things he’s said and get him to move further left. But I think he understands really deeply how much the trauma of these four years has harmed the people of this country, and he cares about helping us get through it. I saw that in the things that he and his administration did today that are so profoundly normal and reassuring. And in that regard, he might actually be the right person for this moment.

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