It was a single candle that broke me open this morning.
I stood outside the French doors of my new writing buddy’s house and peeked into her living room at my spot where I write while she works at the dining room table. And there I spotted a single candle glowing. She’d lit a candle for me, a gesture that opened my thoughts to a large open field I’ve been hoeing this post-election week.
In this field grows a question: How do we BE now?
How do we be with ourselves? And how do we get together with each other and refrain from either howling with fear or simply dismissing the peril with empty aphorisms?
A week ago my new writing buddy and I wrote at my house. It was an age of innocence. We talked about the photos of pantsuited revelers we’d seen posted as we lunched on curried chicken salad. We worked on our books that would perhaps be published and read during a historic presidency, a presidency that promised to represent people like us (women) and protect our right to autonomy over our own bodies. Even if we hadn’t fully imagined the future the polls promised, it radiated a bit in the upcoming calendar pages. January was just around the corner.
But that future never came and instead we awoke into a world where the meanest kid on the playground becomes the hall monitor from hell. Since then those of us who’d imagined an imperfect but reasonably sane future struggle to catch up and to absorb, alternating between fight and flight, strategy and despair. Many have already articulated the enormity of this challenge, including John Oliver who does so with such vigor and needed humor here.
Crucial conversation, protests, and campaigns lie ahead, to be sure. But today and tomorrow: how do we just be? How can we be there for one another and continue to do the work that compels us? One tweet I scrolled by seemed to capture the essence of this worry: My boyfriend says he doesn’t know how he can deal with four years of me not being able to deal.
I felt for her and for him. I felt for myself, for my family, and my friends. I felt for all the people I know and those I don’t who never wanted this outcome. We are all just so scared! So reasonably and rightfully afraid. And yet, we cannot collapse into fear. We cannot let fear take more from us than has already been taken.
Last Wednesday–the night after the election–I had to teach my usual Wednesday night class at Hugo House here in Seattle. I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to talk, to open my mouth and articulate ideas. In short, I did not want to give. It is my job to give, but I felt I had nothing.
I asked myself, How do I teach when I have nothing?
You pretend that you have something, I told myself.
Of course, I’ve done that type of pretending many times before—as we all have when a personal struggle has us in its grip and yet we still must show up for work. But this felt different because I knew my students were struggling too, that we were all in this together. Yes, that’s right, I remembered: We are in this together.
I stumbled into the classroom, feeling pale and awkward. “I know a lot of us feel badly today, but this work is our hope and it’s our freedom. Creativity can be offer us nothing else can right now,” I said and after I spoke those words, I realized I meant them. Creativity is the safest space I know. When I was younger, I was plagued by my external locus of control. I believed I could only be happy if someone made me happy. But writing has given me something no one else can: A place to lose myself.
Then, I led them through a writing exercise and they got to work. The little gesture—the candle I could light for them—was keeping their writing time free of distractions. That small gesture is also known as MY JOB, the thing I get paid to do.
Doing my job: An item to add to my list teaching me How To Be Now.
- Remember: We are in this together.
- Do my job.
- Light a candle.
On Saturday morning, I woke up and I knew I had to pull away from Facebook. In the empty hours since the election, I’d been reading status updates incessantly, scrolling and scrolling, looking for I knew not what. Solidarity, yes, and I found that. But I wanted something from Facebook it could not give me. I wanted Facebook to make me feel okay and reassured and connected.
I wanted it to teach me how to be now. Yet, it couldn’t.
In fact, it was making me feel less connected and more afraid. I resolved to log off, spend real time with family and friends, and connect with acquaintances through other channels. I bought a real newspaper, made lunch, hung out with my daughter and her boyfriend, laughing at silly memes.
- Avoid the places that fuel my fear and feelings of isolation.
- Show up in real life.
- Lose yourself in the writing.
That afternoon a naturalist from Discovery Park called: Did I still plan on participating in this afternoon’s Owl Prowl?
I’d signed up for a guided walk called Owl Prowl months ago when the meanest kid was NEVER ACTUALLY GOING TO BECOME THE HALL MONITOR FROM HELL. Why would I still want to walk in the dark (or near dark) with strangers looking for owls now?
“Yes, I’ll be there,” I said, even though I wanted to stay home.
7. Walk in the dark (or near dark) with strangers looking for owls.
When the father of two standing at the back of the group called out, “There’s an owl right now,” I swung around in disbelief. We’d only been standing in this grove of cedars and maples for a few minutes! What were the chances of spotting an owl so soon? We clustered around him. He started to point, but a naturalist asked him to simply describe the position of the owl and asked others to resist from shining their flashlights at the owl. Even the owl was granted respect and autonomy in this world of twenty who’d agreed to clamber together through this park on this November afternoon that was fast dissolving into evening.
“Okay,” he said, “Look straight ahead of me at the tall tree bending in wind. Halfway up on a clean short branch, he’s there clinging near the trunk.”
We all stared into the dusk. The grey of sky and the black of branches were barely distinguishable. I’ll never see this owl, I thought. Never.
But then I did.