Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark | Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Stay Alert

Sage words of wisdom by Yale professor Timothy Snyder.

Stay informed, dear readers. Stay aware, stay kind, and stay brave.

"Americans are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism," Snyder writes. "Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so. Here are twenty lessons from the twentieth century, adapted to the circumstances of today.

1. Do not obey in advance.
Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then start to do it without being asked. You've already done this, haven't you? Stop. Anticipatory obedience teaches authorities what is possible and accelerates unfreedom. 

2. Defend an institution. Follow the courts or the media, or a court or a newspaper. Do not speak of "our institutions" unless you are making them yours by acting on their behalf. Institutions don't protect themselves. They go down like dominoes unless each is defended from the beginning. 

3. Recall professional ethics. When the leaders of state set a negative example, professional commitments to just practice become much more important. It is hard to break a rule-of-law state without lawyers, and it is hard to have show trials without judges. 

4. When listening to politicians, distinguish certain words. Look out for the expansive use of "terrorism" and "extremism." Be alive to the fatal notions of "exception" and "emergency." Be angry about the treacherous use of patriotic vocabulary. 

5. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. When the terrorist attack comes, remember that all authoritarians at all times either await or plan such events in order to consolidate power. Think of the Reichstag fire. The sudden disaster that requires the end of the balance of power, the end of opposition parties, and so on, is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Don't fall for it.

6. Be kind to our language. Avoid pronouncing the phrases everyone else does. Think up your own way of speaking, even if only to convey that thing you think everyone is saying. (Don't use the internet before bed. Charge your gadgets away from your bedroom, and read.) What to read? Perhaps "The Power of the Powerless" by Václav Havel, 1984 by George Orwell, The Captive Mind by Czesław Milosz, The Rebel by Albert Camus, The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt, or Nothing is True and Everything is Possible by Peter Pomerantsev. 

7. Stand out. Someone has to. It is easy, in words and deeds, to follow along. It can feel strange to do or say something different. But without that unease, there is no freedom. And the moment you set an example, the spell of the status quo is broken, and others will follow. 

8. Believe in truth. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

9. Investigate. Figure things out for yourself. Spend more time with long articles. Subsidize investigative journalism by subscribing to print media. Realize that some of what is on your screen is there to harm you. Bookmark PropOrNot or other sites that investigate foreign propaganda pushes.

10. Practice corporeal politics. Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen. Get outside. Put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people. Make new friends and march with them. 

11. Make eye contact and small talk. This is not just polite. It is a way to stay in touch with your surroundings, break down unnecessary social barriers, and come to understand whom you should and should not trust. If we enter a culture of denunciation, you will want to know the psychological landscape of your daily life.

12. Take responsibility for the face of the world. Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so. 

13. Hinder the one-party state. The parties that took over states were once something else. They exploited a historical moment to make political life impossible for their rivals. Vote in local and state elections while you can. 

14. Give regularly to good causes, if you can. Pick a charity and set up autopay. Then you will know that you have made a free choice that is supporting civil society helping others doing something good. 

15. Establish a private life. Nastier rulers will use what they know about you to push you around. Scrub your computer of malware. Remember that email is skywriting. Consider using alternative forms of the internet, or simply using it less. Have personal exchanges in person. For the same reason, resolve any legal trouble. Authoritarianism works as a blackmail state, looking for the hook on which to hang you. Try not to have too many hooks.

16. Learn from others in other countries. Keep up your friendships abroad, or make new friends abroad. The present difficulties here are an element of a general trend. And no country is going to find a solution by itself. Make sure you and your family have passports. 

17. Watch out for the paramilitaries. When the men with guns who have always claimed to be against the system start wearing uniforms and marching around with torches and pictures of a Leader, the end is nigh. When the pro-Leader paramilitary and the official police and military intermingle, the game is over.

18. Be reflective if you must be armed. If you carry a weapon in public service, God bless you and keep you. But know that evils of the past involved policemen and soldiers finding themselves, one day, doing irregular things. Be ready to say no. (If you do not know what this means, contact the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and ask about training in professional ethics.) 

19. Be as courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die in unfreedom.

20. Be a patriot. The incoming president is not. Set a good example of what America means for the generations to come. They will need it."

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Hope Flickers

"We are all here together, not alone at all, not distant nor lost, and it’s time, once again, to fight for the country we want our country to be."

Wednesday, November 9, 2016


A too-short night. My pounding heart. The feeling that I knew all along. The map, too red, all blood. The women behind me in the ballot box: my grandmothers, my great-grandmothers, all of the women, black and white, dead and alive, who have fought for a voice in this country. They're fading even as I type: they're slipping from my vision, moving to the periphery, looking on with heavy, hooded eyes.

It took women to vote our woman down.

Our lives won't change, my partner says, as half-hearted reassurance.

That's just what I'm afraid of, I reply.

And we sit at the kitchen table, the morning still dark, the tea grown cold, our hands sweaty, empty. Even touch doesn't help. Later, I stand at the sink, choking back sobs. The grief will come in waves, I realize - a little today, a little tomorrow, the sadness parsed out in bits and pieces for months and years to come.

I try to summon love. I try to send it out, to exude it. I try to think of sunshine, of women's voices, of babies being born. I try to think of families.

No sweetness comes, though - not today.

The hope didn't go away; it's still inside. I'm carrying it in my heart - but there's no place to put it now. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Woman Who Will

I was up before four AM. Election day. Election day. My heart has been pounding all week, it feels like, my body pent up with an odd, unfamiliar tension. History is about to change.

Meanwhile, I look around and am hard pressed to recognize the excitement in other people’s faces: this daring to hope. We are on the brink! I want to scream—to my students, my colleagues, random strangers in the grocery store, old women peering at bags of sugar and gaggles of teenagers wheeling a cart to their car. I imagine a glass ceiling, shattered. On my commute, alone in the car, I let myself imagine what it will feel like to see her win. I think of my grandmothers, my great-grandmothers, and of the daughter or son I might one day have. Pride wells in my eyes.

Meanwhile, people are posting on Facebook, and not all of it’s good. One female student of mine posts that she’d rather have a cigarette put out in her eye than vote for Hillary Clinton. I read that and grieve, but only a little; I’m used to it now, the raw hatred. People can’t stand her voice, her face, her figure, her clothes. They speculate on her sexuality; they compare her to Satan. She’s stumbled and fallen and clawed at the glass ceiling; she’s worked hard to understand women’s lives – poor women’s lives – and make them better. She’s faced so much discrimination, so much sexism in her career, and other women, my peers, are slinging mud. It hurts my heart.

I saw Hillary speak once. I was nineteen, a sophomore in college, and Hillary came and spoke in our chapel to a crowd of thousands of women. She didn’t speak with grace or softness; she spoke with strength and confidence. It was almost as if she didn’t care if we liked what she had to say. Someone asked her about her Iraq vote and she answered honestly, carefully, as though she hadn’t been asked it a hundred times before. She voted with the information she had. She regrets the decision. She made a mistake; she changed her mind. I remember leaving the lecture feeling proud, an odd tingle palpable even then—she might be the one.

And today, more than ten years later, it turns out she is.

As a senior in college, I took a course called Women and Development. My professor was Lois Wasserspring, one of Wellesley’s best. The class was small, intimate, a group of maybe twelve women, all seniors I already knew. At the end of the semester, Louis invited us all to her home, a sprawling place in Wellesley Hills decorated with things she’d collected in Latin America.

That night, Lois told us about her experience with glass ceilings. She was one of the first six women admitted at Princeton, and on the first day of class, when she entered the classroom, a man spit on her.

Gloria Steinem was criticized for saying that young women just didn’t understand the feminist struggle. Women everywhere took offense at her critique of Bernie Sanders and his followers, but in all honesty, I agreed with her. I hear women beat each other down all the time. I seem them marginalized. I know how it feels to be seen as prey - all women do. 

Recently, I overheard a conversation between several young women. They were discussing a friend of theirs who’d accused a young man of rape.

Jessa’s my girl and everything, one of the woman said to the other, but we all know she sleeps around.

I’m tired of living in a world where women hate women almost as much as men do. I’m tired of seeing men tear Hillary Clinton apart for the way she sounds and the supposed lies she tells. I’m tired of reading essays by my female students about the times they were raped, the times they were punched, the times they were shut down with a few harsh words. I’m sick of teaching students who got pregnant at fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. I’m tired of hearing the regret in their voices, now that they know better: If only I’d had an abortion. If only I’d turned down the ring. If only I’d stayed in school.

If only I’d known I had a choice—had a voice.

I’m tired of feeling like a raging feminist when I tell a man not to use the word “slut.” I’m tired of hearing other faculty members call my twenty-year-old female students “girls” and not “women.” I’m tired of feeling afraid to walk down a dark street, or to wear a tight skirt, or to look a man straight in the eye. I’m tired of being afraid on the trail in the middle of the day. I’m tired of the number of students who sit down in my office, bow their heads, tug at their sleeves to cover thumbprints on their arms. I’m tired of our junky, underfunded Planned Parenthood – one of two in all of New Mexico.

Today, I’ll take a shower and get ready with care. I’ll dress in my best. I’ll vote for the woman on the ballot, and I’ll say a silent prayer that she’ll win. I’ll permit myself a moment to hope, to remember my grandmothers, to imagine the way my great-grandmothers might feel, watching me vote for a woman for president for the very first time.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016


When you realize you accidentally mailed your painstakingly-edited book to a potential reviewer, instead of a clean advanced review copy - an ARC. When you go over the hours and days and weeks you spent reading, re-reading, highlighting, underlining, marking the tiniest of errors, feeling relieved that you'd found them, feeling delight in marking them, knowing they'll be fixed in the end. When you remember the deadline, the email your publisher just yesterday sent: time is a-wasting. When you think of your book, mailed yesterday, god-knows-where by now, dust in the wind, might as well be.

When you frantically email the person you accidentally mailed the edited book to. This person is a respected author, an esteemed professor, and you have never met her. You are emailing her now, trying to conceal your frantic tears, trying to explain the situation. Look for the book, you type with trembling hands, and wait, gnawing the inside of your cheek. Luckily, she replies quickly and is kind. You are filled with relief. She will mail the edited version back to you as soon as it arrives. You spend the rest of the day reasoning with yourself: a few extra days won't matter, right? Maybe the designer can work fast. Publishers always pad the schedule, don't they? Things will be fine.

Later, though, you stave off tears. You miss your book.

When you drive home, teary-eyed, missing your book, and finally pull into your space, and the world just seems so blah. You hate yourself for mailing the wrong book. You unload your purse, your textbooks, your stack of papers to grade, everything BUT your marked-up book, which is now somewhere between here and Chicago, so vulnerable, so precious, so many hours of labor in those 298 pages. You slog inside, look for the cat, find her sleeping and pick her up, fur and bones and cat, warm cat, and you let your tears dissolve into her fur. You miss your book.

When you decide to have another look in your car, just in case but probably not - you don't let yourself hope, you don't let yourself wonder - and you go out again and look in the backseat and there's a tote bag with a tablecloth inside, left over from the Day of the Dead table your co-worker, Liz, made at work, and inside you feel something hard alongside the tablecloth, a frame most likely, the picture of your grandparents you brought to display on the table, but instead, when you draw it out, it is your book, your marked up book, there all along.

Dear readers, this is me. This is where I've gone: Booklandia.

I'll be back soon, I think.

Meanwhile, happy fall, my lovelies. Happy leaves and pumpkins and turkey and witches and winter on the wind, just beyond.

Love and snowflakes,