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.

Of historic moments and memories

My earliest political memory is Nixon’s resignation. I came into the TV room and my grandfather seemed agitated so I asked what was going on and he said the President was resigning. I understood that it was a major thing but I didn’t really grasp any of the context because I was too young. I don’t recall any particular mood or conversation around my house in the runup or after; I was a little kid, I cared about books and bike rides and exploring the neighborhood, and my grandmother had died the year previously so things were still fraught in my family. But a President resigning to avoid being impeached was the start of my political understanding.

I honestly don’t remember a lot about Clinton’s impeachment either. At the time of the vote I was coming off a brutally hard work stretch (at the time I had a job where I would work 80-hour weeks for two months at a time) and was involved with an abusive partner who would mistreat me because work was keeping me from devoting my attention to him, so it was all pretty bad and my thinking and memory were not clear or fully functional. I know I was angry about the circumstance of what led to the impeachment, even as I had significant reservations about Clinton’s political and executive behavior around the relationship with Lewinsky (as opposed to his personal behavior, which was disgusting but not a matter of governmental concern in my view). I was relieved when the Senate didn’t convict but I recognized that there was worrisome fracturing in our political systems.

And now the second impeachment in my lifetime has happened. After the vote on the second article spouse poured us a little scotch and we had a recognition of the historical significance. And then I started crying, because while this was absolutely necessary and absolutely the correct thing to do, it’s utterly wretched that we are here, and that it is unlikely to lead to anything changing because the Republican party has given its allegiance to Trump instead of the Constitution. I remain convinced that this country won’t survive Trump, one way or another, and not least because our vaunted system is hopelessly inadequate for the size and fractiousness of the nation as it is now; and I’m pretty sure I’ll recall this moment as the point where it began to break apart. But I doubt I will forget how I felt about it.

The long view

Originally published January 20, 2017

I was born the same year as Medicare, Medicaid, and the Voting Rights Act.

My childhood was Vietnam and Watergate, the Great Malaise and the Iran hostages and disco. It included two years spent in a majority-Muslim nation, which forever informed how I would view the world and meant I would always see shadings and subtleties in every political interaction and a profound skepticism of those who deal in demonizing and simplicities.

My adolescence was Reagan and Thatcher, the glittering false facade of grotesque wealth covering profound inequality, the sense of cruelty as a guiding force. It was the existential terror of nuclear armageddon. It was postpunk and androgyny and AIDS and the view of a world that was deeper and darker and beautiful and resistant and angry, pushing hard against the facade. It gave me a sense of where home might be for me, and what I wanted to value and cherish.

My first decade of adulthood was full of failure and missteps and figuring out who I wanted to become, even as my nation entered a period of prosperity and the fear of dying in a nuclear strike waned. I remember less about it than I should–not because of anything exciting or dramatic, but simply because I was not yet a person of full spine and spirit and I didn’t know what I was doing.

My second decade of adulthood was largely spent in the thrall of an abusive, gaslighting narcissist, who took the spine and spirit I had begun to find and pleasured himself with trying to crush and pulverize it out of me. It was also when the towers fell and our nation went with them into its own thrall of terror and endless war and the first stirrings of irreparable division and authoritarian control.

Then came the next decade, and I married a veteran of the endless war who will always bear scars from it, and rebuilt my spine and spirit even stronger than before, and learned my own foolishness and new wisdom, and watched my nation find hope and joy and love and acceptance, even as the division became ever more fraught and damaging. And I failed to listen closely enough to the noise it made, the evil hateful threatening rumble that ran underneath everything.

And then it was the night of November 8, 2016, and everything cracked and broke and the rumble was a full-throated roar crashing over everything I value.

And now it’s January 20, 2017, and there is a new President, and there is ground glass being slowly rubbed into my spirit so that the wounds will stay open and oozing for as long as this reality is in existence and I am already watching the world I value being sliced away in bloody skewed pieces and the fear is as overpowering as it ever was in the old days of nuclear peril.

I dyed my hair the color of deadly nightshade, and I wore blood-red lipstick and a skirt of repurposed fabrics in the tartans of my postpunk heritage and the homely knit of working clothes, and a pair of old stompy boots that are worn but still solid, and necklaces of various links with heart pendants for the love and the energy that must power me, and a jacket painted with wording from a film that had come to represent so much to me even before the election happened and now is a terrifying portent of what could well come.

image

Of course these things are just symbols, things to show, talismans of what I wish to be. They will not, in themselves, change anything. But like all talismans, they give me the sense of power, and the sense that I can go forward, and the image to others of what I am and what I value.

The Green Place is gone. There is nowhere for us to go back to, no space of bounty and safety and peace. We can only go through the disaster and fight together for the vulnerable and the disadvantaged and the world that we want to see instead of the one we have.

I will continue to work at my non-profit job, the honest, meaningful work that provides income and meaning and value. I will continue to volunteer and pursue my passion, connecting people with the wonder of nature and wildlife and the value of protecting it. I will continue to stand up and provide safety for those in my community who are at risk from the awful roar of hate. I will continue to speak and amplify and counter the distortion and re-shaping of reality, because I have been through it both personally and politically and I understand what it looks like. I will live my life as I can, but I will incorporate resistance and anger and every bit of skill I can bring to this fight into the life that I live, and I will learn new wisdom and try new things to the best of my ability. I am scared that I will be harmed or imprisoned and I am scared that I will fail. But I will still do it, because it must be done, and I will do it for as long as I can. I will build my spine and spirit even stronger.

I have watched a lot pass in the decades I have had so far, and I have learned so much from it. I have never seen what is happening now. Our country as it existed yesterday no longer exists, and this thing we call the United States of America is likely to end. And part of why I will fight is because I believe that those who fight will make something better, in a different shape, and I need to help us make that. And this might take the rest of my life, however long that ends up being; my remaining decades will be so very different from the ones that have already passed. But I will spend them fighting.