In the weeks leading up the Presidential election last year, I practically could not sleep at all. Deep-seated anxiety kept me up (compounded by four children—one of them under one—MSNBC and the Internet). Things seemed so all or nothing, so war or peace, so greedy or generous between the choices at hand: the mean, and mean-tempered John McCain with his pretty, and pretty terrifying, sidekick Sarah Palin, or Barack Obama, a kind man with beautiful wife, beautiful kids and beautiful words and his whip-smart, heart-on-sleeve wearing running mate, the ever-beaming Joe Biden.
To blow off steam, I started writing haiku. Here’s one that captures that sense of that precipice: Tomorrow we'll vote/Living for the possible/May our dreams come true.
Nearly eight years of the Bush “administration” later, I felt traumatized. The country’s moment coincided with what had been a traumatizing one in our family’s life. We’d been in the process of adopting a baby through the primary season—Saskia was born on Super Tuesday (February fifth)—and the adoption process, which portended to be relatively easy, because we enjoyed such a warm relationship with Saskia’s birth mother and her entire extended family, had, in fact, turned out to be thorny. That gnawing combination of fear sitting thisclose to despair had crawled into my heart and my tissues as I’d never before imagined.
Well before Election Day, the adoption saga had been favorably resolved. Short version: Saskia’s birth father, a man who has never tried to see her or meet us, signaled his plans to contest the adoption, taking the most preliminary steps to do so in the courts over a period of seven (exceedingly long) months. In the end, he never followed through on DNA test or other tangible, necessary steps to push the legal process of contesting the adoption forward. We loved our daughter from the start and so we lived heart-in-throats for what seemed forever. By September, it had become clear that the adoption was going through; the finalization date was set for December 10th.
Fold into this mix of political and personal, the economy’s huge thud, landing like an elephant upon the rug and making the floor buckle during the final stretch of the 2008 election season.
Between September and December, even though I knew, cognitively, that we’d prevailed, I remained on edge (and the trauma took many more months to dissipate). The intimate and the global touched similar nerves, not in specific, but in scale: both felt enormous and critical.
In the midst of all this anxiety, Election night seemed more potent than the word celebration or even victory would suggest; it bordered upon revelation. By electing this biracial man to office, something horrid had shattered (not that racism was obliterated, hardly, but this symbolic breakthrough, more than symbolic, this breakthrough was deeply moving). It felt as if we the country had done something incredible. All night, tears streaming, images of euphoria in front of me, I wrote haiku:
Seventy to go/Throng of good cheer in Grant Park/Uncork the champagne.
Tears fill, oh so stunned/The audacity of hope/Now sweeps our nation.
It felt—it was—so personal: Our biracial girl/Born to dreams Super Tuesday/May she know no bounds.
A year later, looking into 2010, looking back at 2009, it seems so easy to find despair again. The goal of meaningful health care reform has been severely downgraded to increasing the number of people insured (not only has single payer or public option fallen away, words like, affordable or comprehensive seem to have disappeared as well, making many wonder whether passing the bill is even a step in the right direction). The President has announced his decision to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. He has a plan, a timeline to begin troop withdrawal, and a goal of getting the U.S. military out (he did not say when troop withdrawal would be complete and he did not use the word, win). He made this declaration a week before receiving the Nobel Peace Prize (and as I wrote a week ago, his speech—especially in that setting—sounded awfully hawkish). Investment bank executives received bailouts to stem the economic downslide and yet unemployment seems intractable, with downsizing and extreme cost cutting the insidious new norm, even as major executives continue to maintain large bonuses. It’s hard not to feel the concerns of big business are overriding the lives of individual people, hardworking ones, sick ones, young ones and devastated ones.
Along with despair comes a very unsettling cynicism, because the people in so-called power are not the neo-cons any longer; they are, supposedly, us. Not that Joe Lieberman ever felt like one of us exactly (but he did run for Vice-President on the Democratic ticket). It is far more painful, somehow, to feel that your people (defined loosely as the party you voted for) are dropping iron balls upon the floor already in smithereens due to humongous elephants and dubious wars that should not have been waged and may never end.
A year later, I take lessons from the toddler in our midst. She’s a scrappy girl, scrappy in the very best sense, which is to say that she knows how to raise her voice (and a little more than we’d like, to swat or scratch, although we seem finally to have passed through biting) when she insists upon something (last night, chocolate chips!). She is strong and determined and she does her best—incredibly impressive for a not-yet two year-old—to keep up with three big brothers. She does not smile; she beams. She really defines headlong, she demonstrates commitment, and she loves with her whole heart as she goes about her busy days. With her, sincerity is not a concept, it simply is. And so, I am reminded it’s better to be in the thick of life than to hold back.
I wish I felt like I had soaring words or soaring hopes to close the year out and peer into the next with renewed confidence. I do not exactly feel that just now. What I felt just over a year ago is a similar tentative desire to hope that I feel now: Broken by despair/Hope is the thing with feathers./Soar, my country, soar. That is to say, and not in haiku, I am still hoping, even though I am not sure why or how, mostly because that’s all there is to do, and maybe because small steps, if taken one after another, do move us forward.
I believe we—the citizenry that is—have a job: to speak up, to speak out, to push for these dreams we hold dear. I don’t know any other way to prevail or to soar than to use ourselves, our voices, our feet, our votes, our hearts; to borrow from our President to make ourselves the change we seek. Maybe we lead by example. Maybe, eventually, more of our dreams do come true.