Not Dead Yet!

A good weekend spent snuggling with Felix in New Hampshire, crunching through the snow on an early morning walk, evading all traffic on the drive back to Brooklyn, which translated into time to vacuum the house AND
make art with Happy.  I borrowed one of her signature phrases for this.  We’re going to turn it into postcards to send to those folks in DC…

Countering Fear with Tattoos, Trees & Language

My friends tell me that we are living in scary times. Many of them are having difficulty sleeping. The reasons for their fright are real: Around the nation, attacks on minorities and other hate crimes are on the rise.  In Washington, D.C., people who have proven themselves to be without conscience will soon be assuming seats of power. A great number of Americans appear to be in the grips of mass delusion. 

But fear is not the answer. Fear shoots up the blood pressure.  It leads you to lose your cool and your power of discernment. It can introduce a state of paralysis or panic-induced violence. Fear plays into Trump’s hands.  If you are petrified, or sputtering in rage, you won’t be so good at fighting the forces unleashed in his name. Your resistance will be far more effective if you are mobile and flexible.  Rather than stoke fear, let us stoke courage.

A simple way to do this is to be thoughtful about language. Compare your body’s responses to the directives: “Be frightened” and “Be wary.”  Consider the effect of talking about “a dangerous situation” rather than a “scary” one. Use words that bring on alertness, nimbleness, calmness and awareness. 

And while you’re at it, don’t overdose on speculative news.  Be aware of current events, but also be aware of the plants growing around you, the song the child beside you is singing, the taste of an apple.  Having been a student of history, I usually balance today’s political happenings with those of the past.  Alas, the research I’m doing these days is for a novel that takes place in 1938 Vienna, so my historical reading is looking all too contemporary.  Still, it is interesting to consider the way history spirals around, revisiting itself in different guises. The long view encourages me.  The knowledge that people have been in similarly dark situations before, as they will again. We are not alone.  We are part of a struggle that’s been going on for a very long time.

Right after the election, my friend Annie suggested a bunch of us bolster ourselves with a tattoo. When I was eighteen, I had a Hopi symbol of the sun tattooed on my arm, so as to carry a bit of the desert with me when I was surrounded by the concrete of New York City. I love that tattoo and had not, until Annie made her suggestion, seen the need for another.  But as soon as she planted the idea in my head, I wanted a tree. I spent the next couple of weeks remembering the various trees that had gotten me through difficult times in my life, and drew an amalgam of them.  Here it is, freshly rising from my flesh:IMG_4458

I love trees for their vibe, their beauty, their endurance, their mobility even as they are rooted to the ground.  Jason, who likes to keep up on science news, told me that the genome of a gingko tree is three times the size of the genome of a human being.  This is probably because they’ve been around so long, adapting to wildly different climates and conditions.  Scientists think that they first sprung up in the Permian Age, back when the continents were one big landmass, and crested dinosaurs left footprints in the mud.  Now they spring from neat rectangles of dirt, geometric breaks in the sidewalk of my Brooklyn block.  In the spring, their fruit drops to the pavement, emitting a smell of sweat and decay. Soon after, stick thin old ladies appear.  Speaking a language that I do not understand, they squat down and scoop the berries into plastic bags, harvesting them.

Jason told me that the adaptability of the gingko trees enabled them to withstand the atomic bomb.  Checking up on this, I learned that not only gingkos, but 32 other species lived through the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  170 individual trees, among them oleander, eucalyptus, chinaberry, black locust, weeping willow, fig tree, and Japanese black pine managed to keep growing through all that destruction. The Japanese named these trees the hibakujumoku, translated as “survivor trees” or “a-bombed trees.”  Each one is marked with a plaque that tells visitors how far they were from the explosion.  The tree closest to the Hiroshima blast was a weeping willow, which stood 370 meters from the hypocenter. Its trunk was destroyed, but its roots survived, from which new buds sprouted.

On Leonard Cohen & The Election

songs_from_a_roomI remember being seventeen, in 1986, nervously flipping through albums in the C section of Melody Records, right off Dupont Circle, in Washington, D.C.. I loved music, but I was not immune to the terror of others’ opinions, and the guy slumping behind the cash register looked intimidatingly cool.  I did not know if Leonard Cohen was cool or not, but I’d heard his song “Dance Me to the End of Love,” and was intrigued. There were no albums with this song on it, but there was Songs from a Room, with an admirably minimalist cover.  So steeling myself for the cashier’s judgment, I bravely purchased it. I was rewarded when I got home and heard “Bird On A Wire” for the first time. The way those words were arranged. The tonality, jive, pain and resistance brought together with that raspy, sensual voice.  I was instantly hooked, and have been a Leonard Cohen junkie since then.

Learning of Leonard Cohen’s death in the midst of my election night grief almost lightened my mood.  He was a mordant wit in his life, why not carry through with it to the end?  What a perfect moment to bow out.  The last record he made, and released this summer, also exhibits his impeccable timing.  Its title cut weaves disco, a synagogue choir, and his octogenarian voice stating simply:  “You want it darker. We kill the flame.”

Leonard Cohen knew how to deal with the dark.  He dove into it, investigated it, and sprawled about within it, enjoying its fruits.  The face he showed us was that of a man neither afraid of the darkness within him or the darkness without.  He must have had fears.  He was human.  But he kept them at bay, or perhaps he learned to transform them into songs that worked as a communion for his millions of fans. Perhaps he took his darkness and turned it into music.  Isn’t what we’re supposed to do—whistle in the dark? 

Isn’t that what we should be doing now, in this mess that Mr. Cohen left behind?  We should not turn our faces from the dark.  We should not pretend that it’s not there.  The political ground has shifted dramatically and dangerously.  We still have an unusually humane and decent President, but come January, the United States will be led by an unstable and vindictive man who has unleashed waves of violence with his venomous rhetoric.  Around the nation, incidents of white thugs attacking minorities are on the rise; even in the 99% Democratic haven of Brooklyn where I live, at a French cafe where I often drink an afternoon cup of coffee, a 49 year-old woman, bemoaning the results of the election with her friend, was punched in the face by a Trump supporter from another table.  In the halls of power, white supremacists like Steve Bannon grin at the camera. 

The prospect of a far right executive branch, coupled with a Republican Congress, and let’s not even mention the Supreme Court, has affected many of us so viscerally that it has been hard to do anything for the past week except hug one’s friends, cry, crawl into bed and/or drink large doses of whiskey.  And yet, even in our sorrow, we are seeing the beginning of a nation-wide resistance.  Since the election, The American Civil Liberties Union has received the greatest surge of support in its one hundred year history; over 20,000 people have donated to Planned Parenthood in Vice President-elect Mike Pence’s name.  Muslim and Jewish organizations are coming together to renounce Trump’s plan to register Muslims.  These are dark days, but we are beginning to whistle.

There are many ways to whistle and many ways to resist Trump, but at the bottom, it boils down to persistence and love. That means not giving up, and being kind to our family, our friends and our neighbors.  All of them.  Love kept inside doesn’t do much good and often sours.  Love needs to be exposed and shared through songs, through art, through touch, through thoughtful protest and intervention. We hold each other up.  We make beauty while we are here.  Trump only wins if we stop doing this.

Want more direction? I have found the following links to be helpful:

Kara Waite’s Excellent Guide to Calling Your Representatives:

Million Women’s March 

Maddy Myer’s Bystander’s Guide to Standing Up Against Islamophobic Harassment (and other types of Harassment Too)

Rufus Wainwright and a choir of 1500 singing Hallelujah

The Glory & Splendor of NYC Young People’s Choir singing Bridge over Troubled Water