Trauma and Escape: A Night at the Oscars

Our movies, ourselves: The Oscars invariably reflect the American zeitgeist. This year’s ceremony is no exception, especially given its topsy-turvy ending in which the presumed winner unexpectedly loses.

La La Land had been the clear favorite of the four top contenders for best picture. It’s the type of film Hollywood always loves because it’s about—well, Hollywood. It’s also been welcomed as an escape from the dismal reality of the current political landscape. Deliverance comes through saturated colors and a love story about attractive people who don’t sing and dance all that well. La La Land embodies the American fantasy that life works out if you follow your dreams.

Hidden Figures, too, is a feel-good narrative, depicting three brilliant African-American women who endured racism and sexism at NASA in the early years of the space program. The film is a bridge between the sheer escapism of La La Land and the more depressing realities depicted in Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea. Set in the early 1960s, Hidden Figures almost tricks us into believing that individual grit matters more than institutional oppression, and that the days of rank prejudice are behind us. These wishes, too, are part of our national fantasy. But as Faulkner and the recent election remind us, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

This theme is woven throughout Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea. While La La Land and Hidden Figures offer escape (and very little back story), these two films are in the clutches of trauma. Neither Chiron, of Moonlight, nor Lee, from Manchester, can escape the past.

Chiron, a sensitive young, gay, black boy born into poverty to a crack-addicted mother, grows into a hardened drug dealer. He is a broken survivor who nonetheless finds a bit of peace and tenderness.

Lee is also broken, but barely surviving. He is not born into trauma, but causes one that quickly engulfs him. Lee can escape the town—at least until his brother’s death forces him back–but not the guilt and harm he’s inflicted on himself and others.

Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea do not feel good. But they feel honest. They affirm the harder truths: Some damage cannot be undone. Triumphant Hollywood endings are rare. There is no escaping the past. Yet revisiting it and coming to terms with it—as Chiron chooses, as Lee must, as we do in our everyday lives—creates small shifts, more understanding, and perhaps a tender cradling or a little extra room where none existed before.

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Which film were you rooting for?

 

Signs of the Times

Last night the Write on Mamas, a wonderful group I belong to, held an Open Mic Mamas event in a local cafe. The theme was “Plan B: Now What Do We Do?” Here’s my essay:

After the primary season was over, I kept two “California for Hillary” signs on my desk in our kitchen, where they were safely hidden and kept nicely flat under a box of books.

“I’m going to frame these and give them to the girls for Christmas!” I told my husband.

“Maybe for Emma,” Jonathan remarked about our eldest, who has a penchant for memorabilia.  “But Ally will hate it.”

“That’s not the point,” I snapped.

I had grander considerations than what the girls might actually like. Maybe I’d even crack the picture frames’ glass for special symbolic significance marking the historic event to come on November 8!  Continue reading

The Character of Our Community

Heavy rainThe weather’s been a big story in Marin County recently—frigid temperatures along with heavy rains and wind that mean rising creeks and falling trees, power lines, even hillsides. Town officials issue storm bulletins; neighbors help each other and downtown merchants prepare for the onslaught.

The sense of a community coming together to protect itself was in evidence during my walk to my favorite cafe on a recent Saturday morning. The creek was rushing high and muddy, but floodgates and sandbags were at the ready.

As I sipped my coffee while reading the local paper, another big story jumped out at me, one that also held the promise of a community coming together, this time to protect its most vulnerable residents. The Dominican Sisters are seeking the City of San Rafael’s permission to convert a small part of their convent to house two women and their young children for up to two years. These single mothers, with the help of Homeward Bound, are on their way from homelessness to self-sufficiency.

Although many support the Sisters’ admirable plan, the article reports that a majority who’d sent written comments oppose the proposal. Their cited objections are specious: contrary to the concerns raised, there are clear criteria for conduct and tenant selection; parking already exists for the maximum addition of two cars; neighbors received proper and timely notification; and the plan does not serve as a magnet for the homeless. (Nor do other programs; the vast majority of Marin’s homeless population lived here before losing their housing, and our county’s affordability crisis places many more current residents at risk.)

The paper also featured a story about efforts to increase emergency shelter for the homeless during the storm. The Rotating Emergency Shelter Team (REST), a volunteer, faith-based, half-year program that provides dinner and shelter for up to 20 women and 40 men, has been able to serve several more during severe weather. In coordination with St. Vincent’s, REST volunteers consistently offer compassionate care and community to those it serves.

Yet the latest available Point-in-Time Count found 1,309 homeless individuals in Marin; sixty-four percent of these were unsheltered. As the numbers make clear, REST’s vital and valiant efforts are a drop in the bucket. The program was intended as a stop-gap measure, but is entering its ninth year as one proposal after another for long-term solutions to our homeless and housing crises gets shot down.

What does it say about a community that begrudges transitional housing to two women and their children? Or that has failed to provide permanent, year-round shelter to our most vulnerable residents? Broadening the scope just a little beyond one news cycle, we find other telling stories:

Measure A, which would have raised the sales tax by ¼ cent to benefit health and education programs for disadvantaged children, failed to meet the two-thirds vote requirement. This is always a high threshold to reach. Yet support decreased after affordable-housing opponents fabricated a spurious link between Measure A and high-density development.

For years we’ve witnessed vocal residents routinely organizing to defeat most proposals that would ease the housing crisis. The latest target is a project for low-income seniors in Fairfax.

“We’re in favor of affordable housing,” opponents repeatedly maintain, “Just not here!”

Nor, apparently, anywhere.

We often hear about how we must preserve the character of Marin. But which character? Just one day’s interlocking news stories illustrate both the heart and heartlessness of our community. We face a clear choice. Will we come together for the sake of all our residents, or stand only in defense of our own backyards?

*

Originally published in the Marin Independent Journal, 1/20/17

I am pleased to report that the Dominican Sisters were granted the permit to proceed with their remodeling to accommodate two women and their children on the path from homelessness to self-sufficiency.

 

 

Inauguration

Today I dressed all in black, save for the Obama-Biden T-shirt I pulled on over my turtleneck. I pinned my Hillary button to my fleece and set out on my usual morning walk, listening to Code Switch’s last podcast in their series about President Obama’s legacy.

The podcast featured Richard Blanco, who delivered the inaugural poem at President Obama’s second swearing-in. It is worth reading and remembering his words on such a day as today, so you can do so at the end of this post.

The podcast ended, and soon I was at my favorite cafe. After I’d finished reading the paper and sipping my cafe au lait it was 9:30 a.m., California time. I sneaked a peak at the New York Times headlines on my iPhone. Yes, the deed was done. Trump in. Obama out.

In the afternoon, I joined a local march for all the things the new president threatens: women’s rights, immigrant rights, ending racism, civil rights, health care, education, and our environment.

When I got home, I watched President Obama’s first Inaugural address. These things especially struck me:

  • How young he looked
  • What grave danger the country was in back then–on the verge of economic collapse–and how President Obama pulled us back from the brink
  • His words, “On this day we have chosen hope over fear,” and how their inverse is true today
  • And these words, which ring as true today as they did back then: “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin the work of remaking America.”

What I’ve most loved about President Obama is how he always appeals to the better angels of our nature. The fact that the opposite has also emerged so forcefully is a commentary not on him, but on the human condition and the tragedy of America’s failure to come to grips with its history of racial oppression.

I will strive to keep the promise of that day eight years ago alive. Goodbye and thank you, President Obama, for all you have done. I will miss you beyond measure.

*

“One Today”

By Richard Blanco, as written for President Obama’s second inauguration

One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.

All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches
as mothers watch children slide into the day.

One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk
of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat
and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills
in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands
digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands
as worn as my father’s cutting sugarcane
so my brother and I could have books and shoes.

The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains
mingled by one wind—our breath. Breathe. Hear it
through the day’s gorgeous din of honking cabs,
buses launching down avenues, the symphony
of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways,
the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.

Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,
or whispers across café tables, Hear: the doors we open
for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom,
buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días
in the language my mother taught me—in every language
spoken into one wind carrying our lives
without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.

One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked
their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands:
weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report
for the boss on time, stitching another wound
or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,
or the last floor on the Freedom Tower
jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.

One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn’t give what you wanted.

We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country—all of us—
facing the stars
hope—a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together.

 

 

Pilot

Ever since jetliners crashed into the World Trade Center on 9/11, setting off an era of fear, the notion of piloting and who’s at the controls has become a subconscious motif in the American psyche.

George W. Bush was at the helm on that fateful day, and it defined his presidency. His record as an actual pilot in the Texas Air National Guard presaged his performance as commander-in-chief: put into the position through dubious means, a spotty service record, and, most catastrophically, neglecting his duties, this time by failing to take pre-9/11 intelligence warnings seriously. President Bush then dragged us into the disastrous Iraq war and presided over the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression.

Another plane crash closed out the Bush Administration. Just days before President Obama’s first inauguration, US Airways Flight 1549 lost engine power shortly after take-off from LaGuardia Airport. Captain Chesley Sullenberger brought the stricken vessel to a safe landing in the Hudson River, then he and his crew calmly and professionally guided everyone to the wings of the aircraft to await rescue.

Captain Sully’s maneuvers heralded a new era. His cool, calm demeanor found its twin in President Obama, who rescued the country from economic collapse. A man who also took his job seriously, he guided us for the most part skillfully and without fanfare through perilous times.

As the Obama presidency drew to a close, two of the most unpopular candidates in our history vied to replace him, and again flight metaphors emerged.

“Let me put it this way,” a pilot I know remarked right before the election. “I think they’re both idiots. But at least Hillary knows how to fly a plane.”

Instead, we have someone totally unqualified about to step into the cockpit. In just a few days, cool-as-a-cucumber President Obama must hand over the controls to his opposite—an erratic, uncouth ignoramus governed solely by ego and self-aggrandizement. The contrast was starkly illuminated by President Obama’s graceful farewell address followed the next morning by Donald Trump’s snarling and incoherent press conference.

After the election, it was common to hear people—including President Obama—say that we should wish for Donald Trump’s success.

“Do you want him to fail?” asked a man I met who was pro-Trump because he was anti-choice. “After all, if you got on a plane, would you hope that the pilot would crash?”

Actually, I would hope that the pilot knew how to fly a plane.

But the question is a trap. Of course I do not want Donald Trump to drive the country into the ground. But his “success” means not only rewarding a bully with the bully pulpit, but destroying the progress of the Obama years. Trump and his enablers are taking direct aim at healthcare, reproductive rights, education, environmental protection, economic and racial justice, immigration, women’s, and minority rights, and so much more. So no, I do not want him to succeed. Besides, I do not see a man in charge who will guide the country safely—Trump is busily appointing people who are intent on hijacking the missions of the departments they are supposed to lead. His is shaping up to be a crash-and-burn administration.

Like it or not, we are all on this airplane now. Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

 

Unpredictability at the Helm

The personal is political. As we psychotherapists have seen lately, the political is also personal. According to the APA, 52 percent of Americans suffered from significant election-related stress before November 8. Since Donald Trump’s electoral victory, anxiety has escalated, at least in the Bay Area. Clients have come into our offices extremely upset about the president-elect. His bullying, bigotry, boasts about sexual assault, and denigrating remarks have triggered past traumas and intensified fresh fears. Many have experienced deep ruptures with friends and family. Their loved ones’ support for a candidate who behaves so deplorably is reminiscent of non-protective parents who turn a blind eye to abuse.

These are some of the specific wounds. Yet the damage operates on an even deeper and more pervasive level regardless of one’s personal history.  Just as families are heavily influenced by who’s in charge, so is our American family. Trump has capitalized on a yearning for a strong authority figure to take care of us and keep us safe in unsettling times. But what happens when the person most responsible for containing threats to our well-being prides himself on being uncontained and unpredictable?

Therapists know what happens in families governed by an erratic parent. Insecure, even disorganized, attachment styles generally result. Some of the most gravely injured people we treat are those who grew up not knowing from one minute to the next who they would encounter: the loving, playful father, or the impulsive sadist who destroyed through word and deed? So many of our clients were thrown off-balance by a parent sometimes dispensing favors and forgiveness, at other times exacting vengeance, and routinely playing family members off against each other.  We have witnessed these dynamics throughout Trump’s campaign and transition parade. He puts his own interest above all else, toys with the truth and with the American people, and delights in his unpredictability. Such an environment distorts reality and destroys trust, worsening a pre-existing problem of a post-factual politics that enabled Trump’s rise.

This is the stuff of insecurity, not the necessary security people—and countries–deserve. Many therapists have themselves been at a loss to respond because they, too, feel unnerved. Now more than ever, though, we will be called upon to help individuals and the collective withstand the personal and political damage of unpredictability by finding and speaking truth, fostering empowerment, building resiliency, and prevailing despite a volatile head of family—or state.

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Originally published in NCSPP’s Impulse

Resolute

sunrise-from-downtown-san-anselmoNormally my yoga teacher, Robin, begins each class by asking us what aches and pains need attention. But New Year’s is different. The studio is suffused with candlelight, Indian music plays softly in the background, Robin lights sage and distributes soap to cleanse away the old year and welcome the new.

I went in particular need of this ritual today, feeling not hope but dread as we count down the days until Donald Trump assumes the presidency. I needed to find a way to be resolute for the hard work that lies ahead of protecting all that is under threat.

Robin helped me do so as she read the words, excerpted from The Wise Heart, of the Buddhist teacher and psychologist, Jack Kornfield:

It is the New Year. We all know about New Year’s resolutions and how short-lived they can be. Consider setting a long-term intention. A long-term intention is also called a vow or dedication. . . .

Setting a long-term intention is like setting the compass of our heart. No matter how rough the storms, how difficult the terrain, even if we have to backtrack around obstacles, our direction is clear. The fruits of dedication are visible in the best of human endeavors.

At times our dedications are practical: to learn to play the piano well, to build a thriving business, to plant and grow a beautiful garden. But there are overarching dedications as well. We might dedicate our life to prayer, commit ourselves to unwavering truthfulness or to work for world peace. These overarching dedications set the compass of our life, regardless of the outer conditions. They give us direction and meaning. . . .

As you begin the New Year, take some time to sit and quietly reflect. If today you were to set or reaffirm a long-term intention, a vow, your heart’s direction, what would it be? …. Once you have a sense of your long-term dedication, write it down. Then put it someplace where you keep special things. Now, as you go through the year, let it be your compass—your underlying direction—in spite of changing outer circumstances. Let it carry you.

Thomas Merton once advised a frustrated young activist, “Do not depend on the hope of results. . . . you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself.” By aligning our dedication with our highest intention, we chart the course of our whole being. Then no matter how hard the voyage and how big the setbacks, we know where we are headed.

Happy New Year. May you be resolute in your intentions for the days and months ahead.

*

What intention would you like to set?

 

Rashomon

elephant

Some friends and I gathered on the Friday after the election for a post-mortem. Everyone had a different idea of what had gone wrong.

I ticked off James Comey, new laws in swing states aimed at suppressing Democratic turnout, and the many who couldn’t stand Donald Trump but couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Clinton—or vote at all—because they preferred “principle” over compromise, or didn’t think the outcome mattered either way.

“Stop blaming people for not voting!” one friend countered. “The problem is that it was the wrong nominee, and until the Democrats put forward a candidate who inspires young people, they’ll continue to lose.”

This sparked an indictment of neo-liberalism and Debbie Wasserman Schulz. When someone said the 2020 ticket needed a person of color and a woman, preferably Elizabeth Warren, I asked, “Did you not get the memo from this election?”

We certainly couldn’t conduct a proper post-mortem without a shout-out to racism and misogyny!

Not to mention Trump’s celebrity status and shrewd manipulation of the media, his constant lies bleeding together to obscure the stain of falseness; the lack of civics education; a post-factual electorate; the demonization of Hillary; her failure to reach out to working-class white men or articulate a clear message; the steady drip-drip-drip of Fox News and Emailgate; Anthony Weiner! (Oy vey, Anthony Weiner!)

Our host calmly interjected how hard it is for the incumbent party to ever win a third term.

“Joe Biden would have won,” someone said wistfully.

“Michael Moore nailed it,” said another.

This, and the existence of an empathy gap, was about all we could agree on, though empathy for one another was in short supply.

“We could call ourselves the Friendly Fire Salon!” I joked.

It was like Rashomon, where blind men correctly describe one aspect of an elephant, but nobody sees the whole.

Now there’s not only an elephant in the room, but one on the way to the White House, too.

*

Care to add your two cents and what your discussions have been like?

 

Aftermath

aftermathThe Day After the Election

Last night I felt the same as when McGovern lost in 1972, although then my 17-year-old self sobbed and sobbed, and now I am too shocked to feel much of anything. It was unthinkable that McGovern could lose. It meant the cataclysmic Vietnam War would continue, with thousands more pointless deaths, a country ruined further.

I don’t remember how my parents reacted. Probably my mother cried and cursed at the TV. Probably they tried to comfort me, sharing my horror and grief, assuring me that the good fight must continue.

Now it is my daughters seeking comfort via text in these inconsolable times. I don’t know what to say, but my husband does. He writes:

We are incredibly fortunate to have a loving, healthy, prosperous family whose members have strong and good values. By always cherishing and building on this, we can prevent those who appeal to hatred and divisiveness from defeating us.

Love, Daddy

The morning after the election I tell my husband I haven’t felt this bad since 9/11 (although thankfully, 11/9 has not entailed such a horrible loss of life). At least the earlier trauma was mitigated by a brief feeling of unity, of the best in the world coming forth to vanquish the worst. Not so now, though that’s what I hunger for. I stay away from the news, but I relish the lingering hellos I exchange with every woman I pass, the conversations with the regulars in Comforts, a string of texts and emails. All of my therapy clients talk about the election. It’s good to be distracted by work, to hold their feelings as they mingle with my own.

Three Days Out

Maria, the woman who was born in El Salvador and now cleans our house, comes on Fridays. Three days after the election, I open the door to greet her. As always, she is wreathed in smiles, ready to work.

“Trump—Lo Siento!” I say. I’m sorry. Maria’s smile crumples a bit; she gravely nods.

This Friday is also Veteran’s Day. Since school is closed, Maria’s American-born daughter is with her. I ask her a bit about school, what grade she’s in, how she likes it.

Then I ask, “How are you doing? Are kids afraid?”

“Some are,” she responds.

A couple of days later I check out the Facebook page of a racial justice organization I’m considering joining. Someone has posted an essay telling white people that their professions of shock and disbelief, even their apologies, to people of color are microaggressions.

I feel hopeless in a different way.

Later Still . . .

It gets worse as the shock wears off. I’ve had difficult sleeping; I drift off only to wake again to the cold pit in my stomach, “OMG, Trump was elected President!” flashing in neon lights in my head. Then a squall of tears, and my husband holds me, his warm body a blanket of comfort. I sigh that broken sigh of someone who needs to cry but can’t quite. The tears come again in the morning as I read the paper, the headlines indisputable. A climate change denier is announced to head the EPA’s transition team. I cry a little in the shower. Finally, several days out, I manage more than a brief squall. My husband holds me again, and at last I sleep better.

It feels wrong to sleep better.

*

How are you doing post-election? Also, a kind reader sent along this link, which expresses what I’ve also been feeling: http://johnpavlovitz.com/2016/11/17/if-you-voted-for-him/

“Historic”

keep-calm-and-make-history-17We keep hearing about this historic election, which it certainly would have been had the first woman become president. But what exactly do we mean by pronouncing Donald Trump’s ascension “historic?” He certainly isn’t the first white man to assume the presidency. Nor is he the first to lose the popular vote. Do we mean he is the first reality TV star? The first candidate with absolutely no experience as an elected official? No record of public or military service? The first to conduct a campaign primarily through Twitter? The first to prove his point over and over again, at least metaphorically, that he could stand and shoot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose any votes?

There are definitely many firsts that Donald Trump represents. But the word “historic” connotes breakthrough progress, not a regression to the meanness of Trump’s campaign. To call his election “historic” is to dignify a man who traffics in constant degradation and divisiveness. Such euphemistic language elevates him to a level he does not deserve. It is another in a long string of false equivalencies that have poisoned our politics.