We will lift each other up.
Despite frequent daily moves into white-hot rage and despair, the sentiment persists. Standing up at airports last night, a week after three million people stood up everywhere. Our national disgrace is not normal, at all, but this consolidation in opposition is like nothing I have ever seen. I say that not as an activist, because I am far from having earned the title, but as someone with eyes.
This goes one of two ways: we get exhausted, which seems to be their strategy (shock and awe, all week. has it only been a week?), or we rise up en masse. I am writing and doing what little I can to push the needle, by a microscopic increment, towards rising up. Spin a web around yourself and it will pull. You wind up on the steps of the capitol, or in an airport holding a sign, or in Jason Lewis' office with your kids, or on the phone, or writing your way into becoming a relay point, an outpost, an amplifier. Resetting an intention to contribute.
When I moved to New York to "make it" as a musician I remember the realization that being a part of the world of making was the end itself, not clawing my way up above it. Now the objective is impact and change, ultimately the removal from power of those for whom power is the only value. But the way that happens is through all of us lifting each other up. The most perfect contribution sees that contribution, that membership, as an end itself. Spin the web and it will pull all of us.
During the election it was typical to say that Trump "kicked the hornets' nest," stirred up not only a whole subculture of sociopaths but also the worst of our own individual impulses, our suspicions and fearfulness, our hate. Wrong hornets. There is a bigger swarm consolidating. Three million of us last weekend and that was only day one. Lift each other up.
That's the name of some new music I am making that is honestly and painfully about what this experience has been for me. Aggressive at the outset, fire burning bright. And then it loses its focus, completely, becomes about something else entirely.
I started this activist project, or re-started it, really (thank you campaign has been around awhile, wearing different masks and occasionally disappearing) and was grateful that my friends seemed to find value in my curation of things to do. On some level I think I thought we'd win early, that this disaster just wouldn't come to pass. And yet. It is still impossible for me to really appreciate that this is actually happening.
So I go catatonic. I simply shut down the awareness and do something else. Start a record label. Make music. Dive into my teaching, my parenting. And yet some little thing can light the fire again. Today it was an email from my new representative, Jason Lewis, a shock-jock turned politician who is indistinguishable in technique and "position" from Trump. He asked his constituents to take a survey so he could harvest email addresses. Check the boxes next to your top legislative priorities, it said. And I couldn't find a single one I could get behind. So I emailed him with my own list. Protect health care, work for social justice, protect reproductive rights, address climate change, address income and wealth inequality, and on and on.
This is not to congratulate myself on doing a thing after a few weeks of doing no things. It's to say that if you are feeling like you've gone back to sleep, maybe despair is unwarranted. Keep your eyes open and do what you can, when you can.
On Tuesday I will join a call with some activists who have been aggressively awake, who are curating actions of their own, and at that point I can figure out what this project is going to be, how I can best be a relay for those efforts and how I can maybe offer a perspective on going through this that will resonate with you all. Today it's about shaking off slumber. Good morning. There's a lot to do and I am going to try to do it inasmuch as I can, when I can, how I can.
Today I described these offerings as documentation of an awakening. It's about Trump but it's about so much more than Trump; it is about the world that allowed Trump to take power, that pulled the lever for him long before November 8. And it is about my own currency in that world, my ability to move comfortably in it, my bodily freedom in a structure that so adamantly refuses the same freedom to inhabit one's body to so many. In the reconciliation project we started to write about privilege and what it might mean. Before I started this investigation it was an abstract concept, a version of self awareness or self consciousness, framed as an almost logistical advantage in professional or social transactions. I am coming to understand, though, that it is actually about the right to exist, about bodily sovereignty, about life and death. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about needing to be twice as good. Which I understood as working extra hard to win some kind of cookie, some accolade, something that I have had the luxury of being concerned about, bent out of shape over. What it actually means is working extra hard to stay alive. This is not a euphemism.
So I write six postcards. Laying that next to the right to inhabit one's body feels absurd. Trump's chief policy advisor is a white supremacist so I send Trump postcards, from places I've lived or places I've visited, places where it was easy to walk down the street, where I'd get pulled over for speeding and called "sir." Las Vegas, New York City. Places where I ate in fancy restaurants, lived in fancy apartments, wrote and played music, worried about "making it." NOT BANNON say the postcards but I send them as the beneficiary of his thinking. This is the ultimate privilege, the ability to ask, politely, that it be revoked. In this case, by joining in an internet-concerted effort to send the president elect mail. Justice would be sending so many that he literally cannot move, that they suffocate his ability to freely inhabit his own body, and in that immobilization all he can see are tourist destinations shot from their best sides, rolling hills, wheat fields, the country we pretend we inhabit while, because of this obsession with its most photogenic version, someone is choked out.
Outside the window of the cafe where I am writing, where I have been sitting for over two hours with my laptop for a two-dollar cup of tea, police are clearing the streets. Not because we are rising up, but because this evening is a community event in which the fancy shops have sales and the local real estate office will paint your child's face to look like a reindeer. An officer entered a minute ago and, as a courtesy, let us know that we should move our cars from the main street because towing will begin in 20 minutes. This is my reality, this is the world in which I live. The best I can be right now is a relay point, passing notes into this existence from very different lives, from bodies denied the ability to exist in this easy, postcard-ready way, to even conceive of an environment in which the police call you "sir" and ask you to move your car so santa can park a sled on the main street in your town. That's the front of the postcard, over which I have no control. But I can decide what to write on the other side.
I feel/fear it all dying down. I laughed at the kids laughing at the TV. I went into the studio and sang, in language that arrived in the moment of singing. I felt the joy of making again, bell-clear and familiar. The practice of recuperation rushes into the raw void but maybe there was a conversion first; maybe the ways we carry on signal going forth, not regression. Perhaps we are different people, already, and we can feel better because we are bringing our lives into alignment with a new wakefulness. It is just a part of my life now to share a picture of a projection on the EPA building as a prompt, as a blade put to use, digging.
In Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit writes about the butterfly effect. Tiny wings flap on one side of the world and weather patterns transform. The smallest disturbance in our calculus throws our ability to predict the future into disarray So projecting PEOPLE NOT PROFITS on the EPA building, then sharing the image, then writing in response, could be thought of as the beating of tiny wings. That, she argues, is how activism works, how change comes, how the world transforms. It happens hand-to-hand, person-to-person, and then policy eventually catches up to the transformation that has already taken place.
This speaks directly to my doubts about the good of doing any of this, it's a counterweight against the THIS WILL NOT MATTER that reverberates underneath the compiling of daily actions, the writing of these offerings. There are plenty of voices who will echo that sentiment, who will ventriloquize this deepest misgiving. All it takes is a butterfly, though; the past few weeks were dark because we were all in a cocoon. I am not a person of faith in the conventional sense, but I believe in this.
These signs have been appearing all over town. I love that they are there and hate that they are necessary. Some of the businesses that hang them are clustered around a square where fanatics sometimes assemble to remind us of our inevitable damnation. M asks why the men are so angry and I don't know what to tell him. He asks if the angry men are good guys and I say no, because they turn people against each other, the same answer I gave during the campaign, about Trump. It's the simplest way I can explain our opposition to what is taking shape. M might, someday soon, ask how our opposition is different than theirs, whether we are also turning people against each other.
I'm writing part of this on Thanksgiving. This morning, over the phone, my mom relayed news stories of people opting out of family gatherings, to avoid election fallout. We set our plans to celebrate alone long before we had to seriously contend with the possibility of losing. I can't say I regret that decision now, knowing how deep under my skin even offhand comments land. I can't decide if the deliberately controversial remarks are worse than those that assume consensus. Do I prefer to be challenged head-on or completely disregarded as a someone whose position matters at all? More significantly: does that preemptive anger, that resentment felt in advance, in my imagination, make me a self-righteous fanatic on the town square, obliterating conversation in favor of a verse, a dogma?
Turning against each other is different than dragging oppositions out into the light. The truth doesn't care if you believe in it, and certainly doesn't care if you acknowledge it in plain language. Division and difference are not one and the same: you sow one with slogans and campaign promises and a general strategy of substituting human targets for systemic, institutional brutality. You celebrate the other, joining hands with those same human targets; perhaps you become a target, perhaps you already are a target. What can be done under the crosshairs? What can be done precisely because of their sudden presence or newfound awful legibility?
This would have been ideal writing time: an early rise, kids still asleep. 750 words about what is happening now, a way to discover what is holding me back and what is driving me forward. That was the ritual before national catastrophe and disgrace reset the priorities and made public this practice of discovery, of dragging my driving premises and assumptions out into the light. Because as much as I want to be a helper, I am also part of the problem and that is what this is about: dismantling my own selfish and clinging armature, cleaning up my own backyard. Sacrificing the idea that I know what is best and simply offering, transparently, what I think I know, full of holes. It feels like a good way to oppose a narcissist.
Bringing honesty to bear on my own practices, my own mindlessness, colors the roar to which we are all contributing. It's less being right and righteous and more being responsible and diligent, looking at how I am implicated in a structure that is destroying people and will destroy more people. This is not hyperbolic. People will die because of what we've allowed to happen.
Now it's written down and will still be here in the new normal, when it is harder to stay awake because all of the space in which resistance could happen is full. "Things are SO CRAZY right now," we say because we're busy. It has the merit of accuracy, but not for the reasons we think. Yes, we allow ourselves to be completely saturated and overrun by our various obligations and wants, and that is actually insane, but the real pathology is in how that leads to blindness and worse yet, in perpetuating the practices that have led us to the brink. I drank a can of seltzer yesterday and threw it into the recycling, realizing--or remembering--in a flash that the way I live is wholly unsustainable.
Which is not to say I want to go captain fantastic; dropping out to keep my hands clean feels less powerful than laying bare the architecture of the systems and institutions I now want to resist. This structure is my own skeleton. I perpetuate it and I can transform it. What if we all rise up in that knowledge? Can we assert that we are bigger than what is taking shape? Can we know it in our bones? Can we believe that we are stronger than the state, that it is in our service and our control? Something is happening, something that can swallow this election, that can absorb it. There is no other way to see it.
Chalk again, this time on the sidewalk outside the building where concerned faculty met for a collective freakout and strategy session. That strategy has shifted and you can see it in the chalk. VOTE is still everywhere, but this new message, brighter, will outlast the call to direct action. You can see the move, literally on the ground, from what we had to do last Tuesday between 7AM and 8PM to what we must now tell ourselves every day between waking and sleeping, a single concerted effort fading out, constant vigilance in bolder relief.
Except that constant vigilance now looks like concerted effort; they've essentially become the same thing. We are mobilized like it's still election day. We are flooding the channels and adding to the roar and must. not. let. up. The costs of living like this every day are immense; hypervigilance is exhausting and we have jobs and families. The costs of not living like this, though, are greater still. The next great sadness will be our return to life as it was, for those of us whose lives will remain essentially the same, for those of us whose bodies are not on the line. I had to open up the bruise and make the bruise blood come out to show them. Strange to hope against healing, against reconciliation. Strange to hope this wound stays open.
Day 4 of this practice and it is getting harder and murkier. Compiling actions and resources, another voice in the roar, and trying to do the things I need to do, that existed a week ago, before everything shrunk except the need to stand up.
Tonight I meet with all of the students that made music with me this term. I called it a salon when I invited them. Now I wish I'd used a term that sounded less aristocratic and more like what it actually is: sharing, celebration. And Tommy Cosh starting singing "Mandalay" and we joined in with our raucous chorus of the unforgettable song.
Except my understanding of that line, from an Edwin Morgan poem, from a setting of it I called "Like Lambs," is that the singers are going to war and this is maybe their last chance to hear music, to sing. So they sing. The song becomes a memory and the memory becomes a poem.
"Mandalay" became the code word in a message I sent when I was the same age as the students I am meeting tonight. I was not on a sinking ship so I sent the message out alone, working through the directory and entering all of the sympathetic readers I could identify. The next day I felt like the world had transformed. People passed me and said it. They joined in.
What would it take, in that room tonight, for the world to feel changed tomorrow, even just this small campus in this small town? What kind of power would need to be unleashed, what kind of message would we need to send?
It wasn't the message as much as it was the culling of the names in the directory. The location of sympathetic readers. I am looking for you.
Students chalked many of the campus sidewalks a week ago with VOTE and our polling location. Their work is barely faded now, still fully visible, a reminder of what we were doing last Tuesday, though I cannot tap into the feeling of that day, the sense that This Would Be Over Soon and we would know by 11PM. Owing to that disconnect the chalking is less a reminder of a particular day and more its own new text. Seismic shifting of ground means no conceivable way back; a new reality came into being forcefully and fully. It cut the cords. So I look at this chalk the way I might look at a ruin. What was it to live in that world? Who were these people? It cannot be that I was one of them.
Because now I am someone else. Maybe I am not alone in this feeling: in addition to the horror there is focus and clarity, there is a sense of work to do. I catch myself using this sense of purpose as a comfort because I have that luxury, because I can take up the project as a well-meaning ally instead of a body on the line. To be clear: I am not asking to be a body on the line. I do not envy those positions. To be clearer still: I out myself as part of the problem, replicating the same self-focus that got us here in the first place. (This will be the best blog post. A blog post like you've never seen before. Big league.)
Maybe the good I can do is in publicly working this through, in disentangling on the page and then getting out of the way. This is just a chalk outline of who I was last Tuesday, and soon even that will be gone.
There were Trump-Pence signs dotting the farmland between our home and m's school. Most of them are down now, except one particularly committed household with a huge one plastered to the fence that faces the road. Does m see them, and does he make the connection between those signs and the distress we were in on the morning of November 9th, when we had to tell him that we lost? He has a newfound passion for the Ghostbusters, and his last artwork on election night was an orange man surrounded by a no symbol.
During the election we told him that Trump divides people, turns them against each other, makes them afraid of each other. This convinced him, though he would occasionally claim, to get under our skin, "I'm gonna vote for Donald Trump," which had the desired effect. Nonetheless he made his drawing while we ordered take out and I even bought a champagne split because I thought I knew what was going to happen. We were giddy when he went to bed. When he woke up we were in crisis. All of us, whether we knew it or not.
I'm writing and compiling resources. I'm looking for ways to help, and they are revealing themselves in abundance. Petitioning to make my school a sanctuary college. Standing with protestors at Mike Pence's. Signing up to talk to colleagues integrating social inequality into their classes. Trying to explain privilege to myself so that others might see it, too. And being m and m's father in a way that will help them help others and help them see the world, and this moment, for what it is.
I'm focusing on that work as I flash forward to holiday meals with people who are calling us crybabies and who trafficked in false equivalence for the whole election cycle. For the moment their activism is limited to reacting on Facebook; mine will, I am determined, obliterate their Like Button, and will far outpace anything beyond clicking a thumbs-up, should it come to pass. But it gnaws at me. That I will have to say something to disturb the peace, or, even worse, that I will stay silent. M and m will be watching and that will keep me focused and honest and courageous. How can I raise them to stand up for others if I will not stand up for myself? As we move forward their eyes will be on me. What I do they will someday do, or do now in miniature on the playground, in their classroom. I want them in this fight, need them in this rising up. And that is worth more than our dinner table cease fire.
Thank You Campaign...
...was a website I built to document my total freakout at the 2016 US presidential election. I've collected the "offerings" section here: short essays, each with an associated image I'd found or a picture I'd taken, documenting a small set of awakenings and a small rising up.