Dear America: An Elegy in November
“Terrorists could not have done to us what we have done to ourselves,” I tell my friend.
It’s night. There is a large glowing bird swooping over our heads at regular intervals, swooping from a lighthouse: it’s a light. We’re walking a beach, and out there in the ocean, ships want to know where the shore is. The bird is trying to show them.
“You ought to write that down,” she says. “It’s quotable.”
I feel a quick glimmer of pride at having said something quotable and then my pride flops into shame. I’m sorry. I’m sorry this is my initial reaction. I’m sorry for feeling any pride. I’m sorry anyone feels pride—it seems to be the root of something. I’m not Catholic; I don’t believe in the ten commandments as moral absolutes; I don’t believe that pride and avarice are sins, exactly, but I do see how American pride has gotten us to a place of danger and darkness. We’re all crashing against the rocks, against each other.
A “white Christmas” means something else entirely now. I am not dreaming of this. I am not dreaming of the way things used to be—maybe how I believed they could be a month ago, but not how they used to be in the 1950s, when so much of privileged America believed itself to be white, Christian, and capitalist, before all else. I am not dreaming of this America, of this “white Christmas.”
My neighbor wears her hijab to walk our neighborhood streets. Until last month, I believed she was rarely bothered. We smile at one another and wave when she pulls out of her garage to run an errand. Now I have not seen her in weeks. I wonder if she went to visit her daughter in California; I wonder if she feels afraid. Several times my husband has knocked on her door. Our neighbors had asked him, before the election, to change their light bulbs. Now it seems they aren’t home.
I thought I was in love.
I was beginning to believe in the power of America, of all of you. After nine years as non-tenured faculty at a variety of schools, I was recently hired to teach poetry full time at a state university, and I thought hey, maybe my art does have value, and I began to feel, really for the first time in years, that my gender also has value to the rest of America. I work very hard and I believed maybe hard work and community and belief equaled something. My confidence became intertwined in my hope for America: for a hard-working, strong, smart woman to be President of the United States.
Perhaps I should note here that I am a mother. That I have a daughter, age 7, and a son, age 4. That I want for them what most parents want for their children: lives that feel valuable, valued, lives that help make a better world for everyone. I want them to be kind and to receive kindness. If they have gifts, may they use them wisely. If they have gifts, may they share them freely.
The week leading into the election, a little girl in my daughter’s second-grade class told her peers: “Hillary kills babies as soon as they are born. She’s a baby killer.”
She told me that on the playground, several of the other children spent recesses taunting a girl who wanted Hillary for President. They were saying “Trump’s going to be President, you’re not going to win.” My daughter told me how this girl, whom we know to be independent enough to ride her bicycle to our house on her own, whom we know has the confidence to open our pantry door and help herself, sat on the swings that day and cried, despairing.
Across town, a friend of mine sent her daughter to school the day after the election. Her daughter is black. In the cafeteria, a third grade boy jabbed a finger across the table at her, said “Trump is President, and now you’re gonna die.”
A friend reminds me that these attacks—on people of color, on members of the LGBTQ community, on those whose religion is anything other than Christian, on women and girls—are not new. That it is possible they are not even escalated. That maybe I’m only magnifying them in my own pathetic sadness, that social media magnifies them as a way of coping with the reality so many Americans already lived within daily: America is and has been a sexist, racist, xenophobic country. Some of us have been living in denial. I’m reminded, but I’m also already aware of this, and of the fact that despite all our best efforts, we aren’t as progressive as we thought we were, as we celebrated ourselves to be when in, say, June of 2015, our nation’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage.
So sweet, so good, they say,
but I am not sweet or good.
-Brigit Pegeen Kelly
Leading into this election, two of my favorite women poets passed away. Reading Brigit Pegeen Kelly and Lucia Perillo has been balm; I thought with some measure of despair when they each died: “Oh, she won’t get to witness the first woman become President of the United States! Her art worked so hard to make this happen!”
Leading into the election, I listened to Leonard Cohen’s new album, “You Want it Darker,” on repeat. The morning after the election, the words were suddenly imbued with new meaning, a duende I couldn’t shake. It’s like he knew, I said to my husband. It’s like this is his suicide note: “You want it darker? We kill the flame.”
The next day, I’m driving a dark road on my way to the beach, my two friends in the car with me. “Oh, Maya,” says one friend from the back seat, her breath catching. I know something else is coming. “Oh, Maya. Leonard Cohen died.” There’s a silent “too” at the end of this sentence: “Leonard Cohen died [too].”
I have to pull the car over; I’m wracked with sobs. I sob on a dark road, nearly to the ocean, the car edged in sword fern.
Sword fern, whose spores are antidote to stinging nettle, does nothing for a broken heart.
The next morning, I walk and walk, passing by a grove of rhododendrons. This is our state flower, it’s been designated, it has faux political import. And it should bloom in June—but one of the bushes, a wild-rose colored pink, is gushing into those delicate, freckled flowers, brand new blooms emerging from the swollen buds. In November. The bush is confused. I’m horrified. No rhododendron should be blooming in November. This is not a fall flower. I’m confused. This plant is confused. How could it have known what just happened?
The lighthouse’s large bird swoops over our heads at its regular intervals. We stand on the beach at night, the fall wind on our faces. We turn toward the lighthouse. We are not sure if it will be enough for the ships to find shore. We are not sure if we are the shore, or the ships, or the wild sea crashing. We are not sure what this flapping bird can do for any of us now.