Monday, November 21, 2016

God bless this American mess



Last week, the girls and I met up with my friend Ellen at the National Building Museum in D.C. to check out a dollhouse exhibit.

We were talking about the election while wandering through another exhibit that showed artifacts from decades of home life -- old wood stoves and vacuum cleaners, pink flamingos and baby pools, grandfather clocks and sleds. Everything felt blanketed in coziness and safety – scenes from simpler lives in simpler times. 

Of course, that wasn't the reality. It's so easy to look to the past so wistfully while sitting in the hideous present. It's always been complicated here. Always messy.

As we were museuming, Ellen requested I write a blog post about the election results. I groaned and told her I couldn't. I've specifically avoided the topic, for what I feel are obvious reasons. Also, because I don't know that anything I have to say about it would be especially original or novel or insightful. There's been so much said already. All combination of words have been used to try to make sense of what happened two weeks ago. (It's already two weeks ago? Can you believe that?)

So I'm not going to write about the election. Not really. But I will write about some thoughts I've had since the election. And while you're welcome to read them, too, you don't have to. They're for Ellen because she asked so nicely (and because she indulged my kids by pretending to be a waitress in the middle of the museum and because she didn't steal their pizza when we were in the bathroom – something I know was really, really hard for her.)

Dear Ellen,

Thanks so much for meeting up with us in D.C. The museum was a great suggestion - the girls still talk about how they want to go back an play restaurant again, I appreciate you humoring them. It's always funny to see how they react to different people in my life – they took to you as if you'd been friends for years – they've always had a good barometer for kind hearts. 

Remember how you said you wanted me to write my thoughts post-election? Well, I've been thinking about it. I have wandering thoughts. 

I find myself wishing I could talk to my grandmother who passed away when I was in high school. Nanny was born in 1913, which meant she witnessed two world wars, the Depression, the Korean War, the Cold War, Vietnam and the first Gulf War. She lived through Prohibition, Jim Crow, Civil Rights, the Kennedy Assassination, the Moon Landing, Watergate, Woman's Lib, the War on Drugs and the fall of the Berlin Wall. She was Lily's age when the 19th amendment was ratified, giving women – her own mother – the right to vote.

We like to put ourselves in the center of the universe. To magnify the problems of our world to the 100th power without the context of all that happened before. We want to know the hindsight of history while we're still living it. Which is, of course, impossible. For better of for worse, we have to just wade through it.

So here we are, wading through the stuff our own grandchildren will want to ask us questions about one day. "What was it like?" They might ask. "What did you think about it?" And what would we tell them? "It was a total surprise." "People were protesting in the streets." Will we remember where we were when we found out the results of the 2016 presidential election the same way we'll always remember where we were on 9/11? Maybe. But I think our memories will be sanded down by years of experience. Reshaped by what happens next. What feels massive today will be tempered by passing time.

Life is short and precious. It's just as short and precious for Trump supporters as it is for Clinton supporters. For Muslims and Christians and Jews and Buddhists and Hindus. For straight people and gay people. For black, brown and white people. Right?

And so here we all are, shaped by our various families, cultures, religions, countries and history itself, doing the best we can to make the most of our short precious lives along side the 7 billion other people trying to do the same. Sometimes we're pretty good at it. Sometimes we let the car into our lane and spend an extra five minutes listening to a co-worker gush about her obsession with bulldogs. And sometimes we're not so good at it. We spend more time looking at our phones than looking at the people surrounding us. We spout off awful things about people whose political views don't match our own. 

Ideally, overtime, we grow as a society. But this growth is painstaking. We want it to happen at the speed of the next iPhone release, but it's slower – more like at the speed of a generation. Right now it feels as if we're stuck in the adolescence -- all raging hormones and self righteousness. But we'll settle into our acne-prone skin. Our voices will change from shrill to steady. And the mood swings of our youth will stabilize. 

Months ago, in the midst of my move, I wrote about that yoga class I took where the focus of the class was transition and the lesson I learned was that I was exactly where I needed to be. I was reminded of this again, when a new friend handed me a gift that was unexpected, but well timed:


This is applies to me as I settle into my new life in Virginia, but I think it also applies to our country as a whole. We are exactly where we are supposed to be. That's not to say we're exactly where we want to be. Or exactly where we will be forever. It's just where we are right now, and right now there is work that can be done.

If the past two weeks -- or the past year or more even -- have taught us anything it's that there is a lot of pain in our country. There are voices of all stripes that are aching to be heard. People who feel as if they haven't gotten a fair shake. Haven't been able to live out their short precious lives in a way that's fulfilling for them. 

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

We, as a country, feel as if the very foundation on which our country was built is being shaken. But maybe we need to be reminded that we can't take these ideals for granted. They're a skill to be learned, not just written about. Sometimes the most important lessons can happen in the most painful ways. We've all just put our hand on the hot burner. Now we need to heal. 

We can all take part in this healing. And we all need to take part, because it is our country - no more Donald Trump's than Hillary Clinton's, Bernie Sander's, Gary Johnson's or Mickey Mouse's. We are all pieces that make up this whole. 

Yesterday, I read this interesting piece in the Washington Post about how Derek Black, the founder of a white nationalist site for children came to the decision to separate himself from his family's racist agenda. Black's father, Don Black, founded the country's first and largest white nationalist site and Derek seemed destined to assume the mantle of the next generation of white supremacy in the U.S. When his college classmates learned his identity, Derek was ostracized for a time. But then one of his classmates, Matthew Stevenson an Orthodox Jew, invited Derek to a his weekly shabbat dinners where guests were white, black, hispanic, atheist and Christian. Derek began to question the beliefs he'd held since childhood and eventually rejected them.

The lesson is a simple and age old. We do this work by listening. By being genuine and open. By following the example of the quiet leaders among us. The ones whose tribe is a tapestry of people who don't have to look, talk or think like them. The Matthew Stevensons of the world.

They're doing the work already. 

I know I'm not sharing anything new, Ellen. Everyone's writing about how we need to listen to each other more. Instead of writing about listening more, all the people writing about listening more (like, say, me for instance) should probably just listen more. We'd probably get somewhere.

I took the girls to visit my sister, Laura, Saturday. The weather was so strange Saturday, wasn't it? One minute it was 70 degrees and sunny, the next, the sky clouded and the wind started howling. We all went inside to grab our coats. As the storm blew in, these gusts of wind whipped leaves off trees and blew them over to the swing set the girls were playing on with their cousins. Lily looked up in the sky with such wonder on her face – we were inside this cyclone of leaves. Like a snow globe. It was magic. 

Then the rain came. But just as quickly it stopped. The world was bathed in this red-gold glow. Like an Instagram filter -- but reality. And Lily, looking out the back door began jumping up and down and screaming, "A RAINBOW! A RAINBOW! THERE'S A RAINBOW!"

And there it was – arching across slate-colored clouds.

There can be beauty in the chaos. 

We have to navigate life with this in mind. It's the only way to pursue that happiness we're always looking for. We won't find it in utopia. We'll find it right here in this mess. The mess that we, as Americans, have the privilege and responsibility to wade through.

So that's what I think, friend. We have to keep our eyes and ears and hearts open. 

And on the days the work feels exhausting and futile, just go have pizza with a friend (her kids will probably just let you eat their crusts).

Let's get together again soon, OK?

Hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving. 

Sue


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