Thursday, 17 November 2016

The Storm and the Story

As did roughly half the people in the world who followed the U.S. elections, I went to bed on Tuesday night, November 8 feeling confident that I'd wake to the news of Hillary Clinton being the next president-elect. When I stumbled downstairs to make tea the next morning, my husband, Dave, met me at the kitchen door. "What is it?" I said, backing away from him warily. "Honey," Dave said, "It's bad."

I won’t enumerate the reasons why I hoped Clinton would win. Nor will I try to analyze why she didn't. We are all swimming right now (or nearly drowning) in an ocean of articles on such topics.  I'm more interested in our personal stories -- the way each of us responds in a time of crisis. 

And we all have our stories now, don't we? The story of how we each met the news of the morning of Wednesday, November 9. Since Dave and I live in England, none of my friends in the U.S. were awake in that moment when I said to Dave, "Are you kidding? Are you kidding me?” and went into fetal position on our couch for the next 45 minutes. My U.K. friends began to text and email me right away -- "Oh my God, how are you doing?" -- but I couldn't talk to anyone from my own country for the next several hours, without waking them up. 

Dave and I, this past summer
I turned to Facebook instead. I don't understand the Facebook algorithm that determines which posts we see, when, but that morning after the elections, my Facebook feed looked like the major plot points of a horror story. It began with cheerfulness and hope; the photos posted from the afternoon before, in the U.S. (when I was already in bed) showed friends wearing Clintonesque pantsuits, friends standing with their young daughters beside their Hillary yard signs, friends wearing "I voted" stickers.   

But then, halfway down my feed, a new story line began to emerge: instead of photos, short frantic updates: "Watching the results -- and drinking hard." "I'm still hoping." "How could the polls be so wrong?" "Oh my God, is this happening?"  

Down through my Facebook feed, post after post showed the slow unraveling of the previous night, in my homeland. Then, finally, posted around midnight in the eastern U.S., the horror film's bloody climax -- or, as one friend summed up: "We're so f**ked."

Living an eight-hour plane ride from my family and best friends as I now do, I've been especially grateful for social media -- for the way Facebook, et al, has allowed me to stay in touch with goings-on back in the States. And I was grateful again for the connection, for the sense of community and commiseration, that I found through Facebook on the day after the U.S. elections.

But since then, something has changed. 

I can hardly look at Facebook anymore. With each passing day since the elections, the experience of going on-line has become more and more stress-inducing. It’s like trying to wade through a hurricane. 99% of my Facebook feed is still about the elections and their aftermath, and scrolling through my friends’ posts – once a pleasant distraction – has begun to create feelings of powerlessness in me.

Every news item about the appointment of white supremacists to the next White House staff, or about the current president-elect’s inability to “believe in” climate change, has added to the rage that is already brewing me. Because I could not find a way to channel that anger – to use it in a creative, constructive way – my increased anger led to my feeling powerless. And powerlessness, I’ve come to see, is a close sibling to despair.

At first, Dave suggested to me that I simply ignore any news coming out of the States. To turn it off, shut it down, to point my face in another direction. I can see the temptation. We do live in England, and while people here, too, are gravely troubled by the result of the U.S. elections, it is not a constant topic. It’s not the source of panic I feel from my friends on Facebook, that I often feel in my own heart. And some days I walk out into this medieval town in the North Pennine hills where I live and think, Wow. It really is another world. If you try, you can almost forget about the U.S. for a while, over here.
"Downtown" Durham

But I can’t really forget. I can’t turn off the rest of the planet. And I can’t just sit still and wait these next four years out. Whenever I’m upset about something, my first question is, What can I do?

I come from a family of doers, as Dave points out to me frequently. They trained me up well, to take action. Action always makes me feel better. It’s a way to exercise some control over my circumstances rather than letting them control me, insofar as that’s possible. When I have an argument with a friend, I prefer to talk it out – to make amends – as soon as I’ve got a handle on my emotions, rather than letting them stew. When I’ve hated my job, I’ve literally moved to a brand-new country (on two separate occasions now).  Two and a half years ago, when I had cancer, I was actually excited to get my chemo treatments. (I know that’s strange. But it felt like real action to me.) And I wore a pink wig; I blogged about living through cancer.

But how do you do anything about a whole country’s decision? What meaningful response can I make to my deep concern for my whole country? My deep concern is that that U.S. will move – is already moving – toward more virulent and more widely or freely expressed fear and hatred of the Other. Fear and hatred of anyone whom we perceive to be different from ourselves.

For the past week, I’ve been struggling to find a response that I can make from my own set of strengths and beliefs, from my own place in the world. On my Facebook feed now, there’s no dearth of petitions to sign. I have signed them. There are donations to make; I have made them. There are new focus groups to join, and I've joined. But has any of it felt empowering – healing? Has it felt like real, meaningful action? For me, it has not. Engaging my political convictions through my left brain – through analysis, rhetoric, debate – feels enervating to me. I’m glad others do it, supremely glad; such action is profoundly important. I want to support my friends and others who do take action that way.

But I find my healing and power through my right brain – through art. The power of art is my power: the way I can engage with the world, find a voice. The power of art is that it can express emotional and spiritual truths in a way argument or analysis just can't. I don't know about you, but in this time of crisis, I need to hear spiritual and emotional truths more than ever. Two works of art that have helped me do so this week are this song, “Seriously,” by Sara Bareilles, performed by Leslie Odom, Jr. and this poem by Muriel Rukeyser, from her 1968 book, The Speed of Darkness.

Muriel Rukeyser (One of my favorite poets)
It’s arguable whether blog-writing is a form of art. I’ll let the jury decide. But y’all, I’ve decided to go on and engage my right brain. In response to the recent U.S. elections, I’m going to use what I’ve got – and what I’ve got is this creative energy, this desire to write. I want to use this particular space to tell stories about living in other cultures, living with other cultures. I want to think about difference, and how we overcome or find ways to connect through our difference.

As a native-born U.S. Southerner who’s lived in many other, fairly radically different places -- among them Guatemala City, Chicago, Barcelona, and now Durham, England -- I have some life experiences to guide me in these ponderings. Maybe my thinking aloud here – maybe your thinking along with me – will be healing for us, at some level.

Each of us who is grieved by the current state of affairs in the U.S. has to find a way, our own way, to push back. Telling stories is how I find the power to do so. Where do you find your own power?


  1. I'm so with you on this, on ALL levels. Two days after the election, I sent this quote to my writing group:

    "This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal." Toni Morrison

    1. Thank you, Jennifer. What you say reminds me of the "invocation" a friend of mine, who teaches creative writing to 4th graders in Texas, gets her students to join her in as they begin a new class: "I am a writer! My voice matters! My words can change the world!"

  2. So glad you are embracing this form of protest, Patricia. I can identify with nearly every one of those stages you mentioned.

    Thank you for the Rukeyser poem. I love the idea of writing for the unseen and the unborn. Yes! The power of imagination and love combined. Keep writing. Your perspective right now will help those of us in the U.S. (and in other countries also) find our own footing, our own gift.

    1. Shirley, thank you so much for the encouragement. I'm so glad you love the Rukeyser poem, too. I have turned to it again and again throughout my adult life, but never with such a feeling of resonance as now.

  3. Hi, Patricia--Shirley Showalter recommended I come over, saying she thought your post would speak to me. It did. I, too, have been battling a sense of hopelessness since the election. As you say, there are many ways to meet the challenges, and I felt overwhelmed. But I have realized that my work--my writing--is the main way for me to not feel hopeless and to DO something. Thank you for the inspiration you have given us.

    1. Hello, Tina. I'm so glad our mutual friend Shirley has helped us to connect. Here's to continuing to use our voices -- our passion for writing -- to speak the truth to power!

  4. Thanks, Patricia. Very glad you are blogging again. Thanks for sharing your emotional journey in the wake of recent events. Many of us identify and need others to put words to our sorrow. And somehow it feels safer to let someone on the other side of the ocean to say it for us!

    1. My pleasure, Joyce. Thank you for the encouragement to keep speaking, despite feelings of despair and fear. I send you encouragement (and courage) to do the same, when and where you are able.

  5. Thanks for your thoughtful and inspiring essay. Facebook has amplified my feelings of helplessness and anger, so I've been avoiding it (except to wish friends a happy birthday). And thanks for sharing the Rukeyser poem, a much-needed balm and wake-up call.

    1. You're very welcome, Renee. As you know, I have a similar feeling about being on Facebook very much these days -- though I'm glad that it's a place of empowerment and resistance for many people.