Where I’ve Been

 

My husband and I just spent three lovely weeks in Austria and the Czech Republic . While traveling, our biggest worry was whether or not the predicted rain would materialize on our hikes. We returned to an inferno, our neighboring counties ablaze.

This was just the latest in the long list of calamities, which we’d followed from afar on our smartphones: hurricanes, earthquakes, the threat of nuclear war, Trump’s latest and unending vileness in style and substance, Las Vegas, Harvey Weinstein.

Our friend Mary remarked that the pall of smoke in the sky felt symbolic of the pall over our country since the election. I want to resist the pall, to rise to the occasion—take in those made homeless by the fires, take in refugees and Dreamers, take to the streets and the halls of Congress. Or at least I want to be the kind of person who rises to the occasion instead of the person I am: someone who just wants to–and mostly does–retreat.

This is where I’ve been as the world burns. Then I came across a book review by James Wood in the 9/25/17 issue of The New Yorker.

Wood, too, had just been on vacation, in an Italian villa near the border with France, free to come and go with his family. Noticing the number of African migrants who are not so lucky, he writes:

I had read moving articles and essays about the plight of people like these—I had read several of those pieces out loud to my children; I had watched terrible reports from the BBC, and the almost unbearable Italian documentary “Fire at Sea.” And so what? What good are the right feelings if they are only right feelings? I was just a moral flaneur. From inside my speeding car, I regarded those men with compassion, shame, indignation, curiosity, profound ignorance, all of it united in a conveniently vague conviction that . . . “something must be done.” But not so that it would disturb my week of vacation. I am like some “flat” character in a comic novel, who sits every night at the dinner table and repetitively, despicably intones, without issue or effect, “This is the central moral question of our time.” And, of course, such cleansing self-reproach is merely part of liberalism’s dance of survival. It’s not just that we are morally impotent; the continuation of our comfortable lives rests on the continuation—on the success—of that impotence.

Wood captures precisely what I’ve been feeling. Something must be done, though I don’t yet know what, or even how to wrestle with my preference for doing nothing much. But I feel comforted that Wood is on to me, in a way that my friends who reassure me that I do plenty are not.

Do you know what I’m talking about? How are you feeling? How do you handle it—or not?

Standing Up to Bigotry, SF Style

Like a lot of people alarmed in general by the election of Donald Trump and horrified in particular after he lent aid and comfort to white supremacists and Neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to respond. It’s hard to know what’s just a feel-good but meaningless exercise, what is effective, and what inadvertently gives the issues and views I deplore oxygen.

Since my activism is more aspirational than actual, I often turn to my friend Ruth, whose pragmatic idealism inspires me to try to at least occasionally emulate her persistent roll-up-her-sleeves-and-get-to-work ethos.  When I bumped into Ruth after Charlottesville, I asked what she thought of the protests being planned to counter right-wing advocates descending on San Francisco and Berkeley. Was showing up a good idea, or just playing into their hands?

“I don’t know,” Ruth offered. “But you know what? I can’t go anyway—I’m going to be phone banking. We’re trying to get Democrats elected to the state legislature in Virginia.”

I don’t really like phone banking—who does? But as far as I’m concerned electoral politics are where it’s at. You snooze, you lose, particularly at the ballot box. Besides, I felt nervous about the volatile mix of right-wing rallies and counter-protests.

“That sounds like a much better plan,” I told Ruth. “Send me the info.”

Mid-week, Ruth texted that the phone banks had been canceled so people could participate in a San Francisco rally against hate. It would be several miles from Chrissy Field, where the right-wing Patriot Prayer group planned to gather, and I felt much better about that. Proximity often breeds trouble. Besides, I had been horrified to learn that, thanks to a 2010 federal law, national parks—which includes Chrissy Field–must allow open carry. (Thankfully, SF city officials wouldn’t grant a use permit until the Patriot Prayer organizers agreed to stringent contingents, including no weapons.) I also did not want to attend the Berkeley counter-protests even though I know many good people involved. Berkeley is a flashpoint, with the opposing sides in much tighter quarters. The city is often the epicenter provocateurs love to goad, with an Antifa contingent only too happy to oblige; predictably dismal results just feed the right-wing narrative.

But it felt important to show up in San Francisco. My husband and I made plans to take BART over to the city with friends. Ruth was making her own way there via a different route, and we texted back and forth about our anxiety and hope. Then, at the last minute the Patriot Prayer organizer canceled the Chrissy Field event, though his protestations of victimhood and promises of showing up elsewhere were disquieting.

“Are you still going?” I texted Ruth.

“Yes! As important today as yesterday,” she responded.

And so we went. Blue skies and a festive atmosphere prevailed in San Francisco. We arrived at the gathering spot long before the march to City Hall commenced, so sought shade and refreshment in the Mission District. We thanked the police lining the sidewalk. They were taking the scene in stride, but confessed to preferring a day off more than overtime pay. We checked out a “Dance for Equality” counter-protest, full of face-painted kids and rainbow attire. We detoured quite a bit from the march route, but caught up eventually to join the crowd at the Civic Center. Great signs, great spirit, great to see that people of goodwill vastly outnumber the haters.

We showed up, we stood up to bigotry, we went home.

Tomorrow we phone bank.

Outside the Zone

Source: www.nasa.gov

The New York Times is trying to guilt-trip us into not being blasé about the solar eclipse,” my husband remarked the other day.

I am so blasé that I will be in the dentist’s chair at the transformative moment. I will not be on a field trying to nab some elbow room in the zone of totality, or on a congested highway trying to get to said field. I will not be worrying about whether back-ordered special eclipse-viewing glasses will arrive on time, or whether the pair I’ve scored is part of a blindness-inducing scam hawked by some ruthless entrepreneur. I will not be dealing with pinholes in cardboard and reverse shadows on pieces of paper. I still remember those DIY projectors from childhood, in which the image that was safe to view was about the size and impressiveness of the dinged piece of paper that emerges from a three-hole punch.

I know many people who are more excited than I am, and who have made meticulous plans. Some people we met at a Bed-and-Breakfast several months ago had booked a house in South Carolina years ago for the event. My brother, who is excited but not a meticulous planner, thinks he will get in his car in Western Massachusetts around midnight and drive to a lake in Tennessee. He expects to have the waterfront all to himself. I expect him to not even make it to the lake.

“What about traffic?” I point out.

“Traffic?” he asks blankly.

We go back and forth for some time about this wondrous cosmic spectacle.

“Don’t you think it will be fantastic to go from brightness to total darkness?” my brother asks.

“I already experienced that on the evening of November 8,” I reply. For the record, “fantastic” is not the word that springs to mind.

Still, I am not entirely immune from the pull of the heavens. I have clipped out an item on Nova’s coverage, which promises to offer more than pinhole viewing or blindness. I may even throw a colander in the backseat of the car in case my dentist is running late, or running outside to view the eclipse. I picked up this tip listening on NPR to Andrew Fraknoi, professor emeritus of astronomy at Foothill College and author of When the Sun Goes Dark.  He advises holding a colander (minus the pasta) over your head with your back to the sun, then watching the shower of tiny eclipses appearing on the pavement.

“You’ll be the hero of your neighborhood,” Fraknoi enthuses.

That’s me, hero of the neighborhood—if the neighborhood is well outside the zone of totality, and as hassle-averse as I am.

*

What are your plans for the solar eclipse?

Why I’ve Been Away

Celebrating my father-in-law’s 96th birthday in January 2016, a little bit less than a year before he died. He and his wife of nearly 70 years are seated in front, with our dear family friend on the top left. (Then there’s me, my husband, and our daughters.) Sadly, we have lost all of these elders in the past year.

Even though I have a pretty crippling case of writer’s ambivalence, I never intended to stay away from these pages so long. But then WordPress went on the fritz and, never having quite escaped feeling ashamed of my technophobia, I failed to enlist tech help from the nice people at GoDaddy. Then I finally did, and in a heartbeat the Daddies fixed the problem, which had to do with uploading photos. Then the same problem happened two heartbeats and two blog posts later. On top of which my iPhone went all funky, and the first worldwide ransom ware hack happened. The universe seemed to be signaling that it was time to take a break from all things online. Perhaps instead I should weed my garden before the heavy rains and the finally emerging sunshine conspired to create a jungle outside my kitchen window.

Which I did. I even spread 52 cubic feet of mulch by hand on our hillside.

I also took a break from blogging to spend what little energy I had on extremely intermittent activism: publishing a couple of letters to the editor, attending some town hall meetings about affordable housing, even phone banking a time or two to try to save healthcare from the Republican repeal attempts.  It wasn’t much, but at least it was something, and made me feel less helpless.

Mostly, though, I stayed away from writing because of more pressing priorities: tending to my aging in-laws in their final months of life. In December, my husband’s father died a few weeks shy of his 97th birthday, and my mother-in-law died on Memorial Day, three weeks before turning 90. They were wonderful people, and although their decline was sad, it was inspiring to witness my husband’s faithful attention, and to be of help where I could. We recently hosted a celebration of their lives at the assisted living facility where they spent their final years. The day helped make small again one difficult year in the scope of long and well-lived lives.

While attending to matters of life and death, we’ve also been attending to more mundane matters: After 17 years, we had our entire interior repainted and re-carpeted, with some other minor improvements as well. Sorting through my in-law’s effects and noting how ephemeral the stuff of life is helped us be ruthless with our own deferred sorting, organizing, and getting rid of stuff before the contractors started. It was as arduous and time-consuming as weeding and laying mulch and tending to our failing loved ones, but in the end just as satisfying.

So now that these chapters are over, it’s time to see what will come next. More writing, perhaps, though I have been happier and less tortured not writing, so we shall see. Something meaningful, I hope. As the summer draws to a close and a new season begins, I’m back, refreshed, and ready to go.

*

What’s been going on with you as the seasons change?

 

 

 

Sleepless in Trumpcare’s America

My husband was diagnosed with melanoma in January 2010, the same week Republican Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat, thus eliminating the Democrats’ brief filibuster-proof majority. (Remember that long-ago nanosecond?) As our lives turned upside down, so did the outlook for health care reform.

Our sleepless nights and worst fears were compounded by the added stress over health care. I’m self-employed, and we depended on my husband’s job for insurance. We were a decade away from Medicare. What if he died, or grew too sick to work?

“Until now, I haven’t had any pre-existing conditions,” my husband fretted as sleep eluded us. “Now I’ll never be able to get insurance on my own.”

My husband and I were lucky — we had money in the bank, a home, jobs, and insurance, at least for the moment. Luckier still, my husband’s melanoma was caught early and successfully treated through surgery. Back then he still would never have been able to get insurance on his own if he lost his job, but we had dodged a bullet.

As my husband and I discovered, though, fortune can change in an instant.

Luckily for us and for tens of millions of Americans, the Affordable Care Act became law not long after my husband’s surgery. We rested easier about the future—ours and our daughters, who could now stay on my husband’s insurance until age 26.

Our lives were upended again in 2012, when I was diagnosed with cancer. Once again we were plunged into the realm of sleepless nights and fear, but thanks to the Affordable Care Act, we at least did not worry about losing access to health care, exceeding annual and life-time caps, or going bankrupt.

My treatment, like my husband’s, was successful, and our lives returned to normal, although with a newfound appreciation that health care should never be a game of Russian roulette or depend on luck, employment status, or wealth.

Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, our eldest daughter–an artist, part-time worker, and student who makes very little money–was able to find quality health care under the ACA’s Medicaid expansion once she turned 26. (We’re in California; she would have been out of luck if she lived in one of the 19 states that have refused to expand Medicaid.)

Also thanks to the Affordable Care Act, in 2015 my husband was able to leave his corporate job to pursue his longstanding interests in research and freelance writing. Employer-provided health insurance had kept him tied to his job, but with the ACA, he could slip those golden handcuffs and we could both be assured of coverage despite our pre-existing conditions. Additionally, the good job with good benefits my husband vacated became available for somebody else. Many of our friends also became self-employed and freed up jobs for others because of the security the ACA brought. We make too much money for any subsidies from the ACA, but that’s as it should be. Although our premiums are expensive, at least we have excellent care. It is not only lower-income people who benefit from the law: Economic vibrancy, flexibility, and innovation are under-appreciated but significant aspects. We are so grateful that President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act. Imperfect as the law is, it is has benefited us and tens of millions of Americans.

But now with Republicans celebrating a legislative milestone in their relentless march against Americans’ health, we are back to sleepless nights.

*

What has the ACA–and the Republicans’ attempts to unravel it–meant to you?

 

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.

*

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

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.

 

 

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.

*

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.

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What intention would you like to set?