*This piece was first published in Lunch Ticket on August 11, 2017. I thought that this week, marked by the midterms, was the perfect time to revisit. Looking back on the past two years, I wonder how much has changed. We are still a country divided. Sometimes, our divides even split our families.
When I was a young girl, I tried to teach myself to fly. Every night before lights out, I’d stand on my bed, flap my arms, and look for a sign, any shred of evidence that I was improving my technique. I had a mad crush on the cartoon superhero Underdog, and I wanted to be just like him, to swoop down and help those in trouble.
Today, as a country, we are in trouble, but there is no magic helper who is going to appear from the sky. How will we find our way?
I work full-time as an English tutor but have always been a writer a heart. Until last November, I’d let my writing take a back seat to the rest of my life. But when I called a close friend to ask for some guidance about how to deal with the Presidential election results, he simply said, “Diane, you must write.”
I hung up the phone and immediately began my application to the Antioch MFA program in creative writing. It felt right. In the months before my first residency, I struggled. I knew writing was my way of connecting to others, to the world, to be heard. But doesn’t everyone need to find a way to be heard? Where were all the individual voices? It seemed like there was only room for two voices in our country—the two sides of our national divide: us and them; our side and “the other.”
. . . doesn’t everyone need to find a way to be heard?
Who is this “other?” Who lives on the opposite side of the divide? Are our conceptions based on real, whole human beings, or on some collective caricature we’ve been spoon-fed, some political imaginary? What is it we fear?
* * *
Much has been made about the divide in our country, the rift between the coastal cities and the rural center. I live in New York, in a suburb on Long Island, about ten miles east of Manhattan. I don’t have to travel to Ohio or Louisiana or Kentucky to find others whose views are in sharp contrast to my own.
I have my own great divide, just a few towns over, in my family. My great divide is my sister.
My sister and I are sixty-two and fifty-six years old respectively. We have a lot of history under our bridge. We have not yet worked out our sibling rivalry. Even though our parents are long gone, we still court their favor. And still, we are sisters. We have always had a complicated relationship, but we have managed to remain friends. We have never kept our distance—until Trump.
The power of Trump is something that I have been unable to wrap my head around. He is not a great leader, a master orator, or a brilliant mind. If he were any one of those, I would more easily understand. Trump does not put forth his message in well-constructed prose; half the time, his words don’t make sense. But he has hit the mark often enough to have wooed a great number of people on board. People in red states. And people like my sister. Trump’s lure: words of hate. Words of fear. Words of the collective imagination.
Is there no longer any space to listen?
Writers, too, have words. In these divisive times, I wonder what we writers are to do. During the June residency at Antioch, I sat in a packed classroom, listening to author/activist Rick Bass address the issue of the writer’s responsibility during these trying times. He was of the mind that we must act: “It is not the time for poetry,” he said. “We are not facing questions of sustainability, but of survival.” Bass related football metaphors, the need to “dominate our opposition,” push back hard, shout. There certainly is a place for that approach, and today may very well be the time, but pushing and shouting creates a whole lot of noise. Is there no longer any space to listen?
Even in our classroom, among like-minded/progressive/social-justice oriented writers, things became loud and testy. Buttons were pushed, chasms created. How, then, do we open this discussion with those on the “other” side? How do I speak with my sister?
There was no “other” in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, and difference was always celebrated. We were, after all, neighbors.
When I need to find clarity, I often look to another of my childhood heroes—Mr. Rogers. While I did not know him personally, I swore he knew me. Every day, especially on the loneliest days—of which I had many—I looked forward to Mr. Rogers’ PBS TV show. He told me, and I believed, that I was OK just the way I was. There was no “other” in Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, and difference was always celebrated. We were, after all, neighbors.
Mr. Rogers spoke about the “Garden of Your Mind,” where ideas could “grow” in our imaginations. But the ideas in Mr. Rogers’ garden were tended with love. Growing a beautiful garden never happens by accident. It takes a person willing to get down on his knees in the dirt, to sweat, to do the hard work. He cannot be lazy.
Imagination, like a garden, requires work and patience and light.
While imagination is the wellspring of possibility, and the most powerful force for good that we have, imagination also has a lazy cousin. It is this shady relative, this underbelly, whom we collectively call upon when we create the image of the “other” and meld his face with our fear.
I am a White East Coast Jew. Do those four simple words stir up an image for you? What is it about me that you imagine?
I have, in the past, broached politics with my sister, but I’ve always treaded lightly. As soon as the temperature in the room would rise to a point of discomfort, I’d retreat. I avoided the paths of domination and shouting, and chose silence instead. Over time, I have built a wall—not on the Texas border, or across Arizona, but my wall has left a lonely hole in my family as deep as the Grand Canyon. What is it I fear?
My sister and I, who have disagreed many times over the years, have never doubted that we were of the same species, same planet, same God. But now we are strangers, heeding the words we were taught as children: never talk to strangers.
Words have power. Enormous power. To create. To destroy. To build bridges and build walls.
Words give people—even inarticulate people—the power to rule, if not to lead. You do not need all the right words to reach into people’s minds. Just repeat a few toxic memes, with great, if feigned conviction, and you will soon gain access to the places in the body where fear, hate, and yes, the imagination, live. Wherever that place is, it is certainly not the heart.
I need to open my heart. I will speak to my sister. And, I will listen. I will listen to her hopes for our country. I will listen to her fears. I’ll own my feelings and beliefs and take responsibility for my role, my own reenactment of this bad movie that is playing throughout our land. It is not the time for noise. Or shouting. But it is no longer a time for silence.
I’ve asked a lot of questions. I don’t have all the answers. That’s OK. Heartfelt inquiry inspires the highest form of imagination—and hope. In this era of Trump, it is critical for writers to keep their questions coming, to plant seeds, cultivate gardens. We need to write and act, to speak our truths both on the page and in person. But, first, we need to listen. My goal as a writer is to forge my own path across states and counties; the first steps on that journey must lead me to my sister, across my own backyard.
What are your divides? What have you/can you do to bridge the chasms? And, of course, the underlying question: What is it you fear?
As always, I welcome your comments and emails.
See you next Friday!