He asks. I fumble. Events crash past, plowing under a vocabulary both dated and outgunned. My words like vestigial limbs grasp at an extinct terrain.
As we drive the short distance home, NPR wallops us with our nightly load of federal ordure. The new Congress just voted to pave the way for a repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Our representatives exhumed an old law which will allow them to slash the pay of any federal worker down to $1. In a stage play of quasi-constitutionalism, those who ask the toughest questions wield no power. The men in charge anoint a public opponent of civil rights as the nation’s Attorney General and an oil tycoon as Secretary of State.
When I snap off the radio with a withering comment, Bug wants to know more. I try to explain how our fine leaders just stripped 20 million Americans of their health coverage. Many will no longer be able to afford the medical procedures they need to keep from dying.
“Are we going to lose our health care?” He asks.
“No, buddy, we’re okay as long as I keep this job.” I hate these answers, hate the wobbly foundation of our okay-ness. Our white privilege protects us, but at what cost? And for how long? “We’ll be fine, but I worry about our friends. So many people in this country deserve better than what these guys will give them.”
“They’ll get voted out next year,” he says. I laugh with a little too much acid. At 10, I probably shared his clean read of representative democracy. After all, we have to start with faith in order to lose it. “I’m afraid we’re stuck with these guys at least for two years. Probably four and maybe more. They’re showing they’re willing do anything to amass all the power. Ignore laws. Change the rules. Restrict voting. Whatever it takes.”
“But they can’t really hurt everything,” he says. His words come out as certainty but a question peeks out from that thin cover of bluster. My fire roars too hot for me to notice.
“Oh, they already have. Remember how we talked about the EPA? Get this. The dude who is going to be in charge of protecting our environment thinks we shouldn’t have any laws to protect our environment.”
Bug takes another stab at optimism but I hurl back another fistful of doom. He wants to know why. Why would they do things that would make their own voters mad at them? Now I’m hitting my stride. In fact, I’m talking so quickly, my voice careens past my thoughts. “Want to know why these guys would do something that would hurt their constituents? Follow the money. Why would they take away health care? Follow the money.” My words like kite-strings soar and tangle all at once. We’re climbing the stairs to our front door. “Without the Obamacare rules in place, insurers can charge even higher premiums for care. And guess who makes enormous campaign contributions to our Congressmen?” I’m pushing past the dog, dropping our backpacks on the floor, slamming lunch containers into the sink.
Bug stands in the doorway with a scowl, his whole body tense. “Next Friday is the worst day ever,” he snaps. He kicks his shoes into the corner and stomps to the bedroom.
I take a breath. No effect. My fear and rage and confusion have boiled right past the top of my eyes and into my skull. I take another breath. Then three more. Once the temperature drops enough to let the horizon resolve into view, I walk back and join Bug in the bedroom. He’s hunched on his bed scrawling battle warriors with his black pen.
“Can I tell you something?” I ask. He shrugs so I go on. “I feel worried and angry about what the new president and Congress are doing.” I tell him that we’ll see some damage in the next few years. Important protections that earlier generations of activist fought hard to put in place will disappear. Our land and water will suffer, as will many of our friends. I explain that this worry and anger make it hard for me to think straight. “But you know what?” I step closer. He glances at me and I bend down to hold his gaze. “It’s important to remember that we still live in a democracy. We have power too. There is a lot we can do to slow them down.”
“Like what?” He asks.
I walk my shoes to the closet and start getting clothes ready for tomorrow. Wisps of ideas, thin threads of light, glint through the smog. I have to slow down and sharpen my focus in order to catch them.
One at a time, I tease them from the air. I offer them to my son. To myself.
Like calling our leaders and telling them that we’re watching. Like learning about the rules that Congress is discussing, and speaking to them clearly from our deepest values. Like supporting Black Lives Matter and Standing Rock and others on the front lines. Like strengthening our relationships so we can take collective action. Like reducing our carbon footprint and sharing ideas with friends about how to do this. Like attending — even organizing — events and actions and public meetings. Like coming together with others to protect the most vulnerable members of our community. Like schooling ourselves in the legacies of the social justice movements that came before, and adapting their lessons to our times.
“Like writing letters to our senators?” Bug asks.
“Exactly like that,” I say.
He peels off the battle drawing and drops it on the floor. “You know,” he says, “we should make a tree.”
“We could plant a tree. That’s a great idea.”
“No, I mean make a tree. Like this.” He leans into his notebook and I sit down next to him. He draws the outline, the bare limbs. “And then every time we do one good thing, we can put a leaf on it.” He draws a few ovals on one branch. “We do more until we fill it up. ” He outlines the next tree, this one with a full crown. “And we keep going.” The third and fourth swell bigger still, the blossoms spilling out to canopy, imagined greenery taking over the top half of the page.
I can barely speak. He tilts the drawing towards me, and my voice wobbles back to me. “That is one amazing idea, buddy. What should we call it?”
“I don’t know.” He looks it over. “The Tree of Justice?”
“Perfect. Yes. The Tree of Justice.”
A prayer, an incantation. We tuck it away then head to the kitchen to cobble together a late dinner.
Friday, January 20th belongs to us whether we want it or not. The day will leave a gash, but it will not rise to level of The Worst Day Ever. Worse have come before. Far worse wait for us still.
We will face them. Spades, pens, words, friends.
Minds sharp. Eyes up.
My son and I make only two tiny pinpricks in the billowing fabric of history. We’ll drive them deep. We’ll drop our seeds through to the soil beneath, and tend the scars, and share what grows.
Image: Gustav Klimt, “Tree of Life”
6 thoughts on “Inauguration Eve: Make Like a Tree and (Be)lieve”
She’s stopped to shop for groceries.
Her snow boots sloshing
up and down the aisles, the store
deserted: couple stock boys
droning through cases of canned goods,
one sleepy checker at the till.
In the parking lot, an elderly man
stands mumbling outside his sedan,
all four doors wide to gusting sleet
and ice. She asks him, Are you okay?
He’s wearing pajama pants, torn slippers,
rumpled sport coat, knit wool hat.
Says he’s waiting for his wife.
I just talked to her on the payphone
over there. He’s pointing at
the Coke machine. What payphone?
she says. That one, he says.
It’s cold, she says, and escorts him inside.
Don’t come with lights
and sirens, she tells the 9-1-1
dispatcher. You’ll scare him.
They stand together. The checker
brings him a cup of coffee.
They talk about the snow.
So much snow.
They watch for the cop.
This night, black as any night,
or a bit less so.
After Second Shift by Lowell Jaeger
At the risk of repeating myself – this is really moving. As a mother and a teacher, I find myself looking at these young people more and more, thinking – you will be the ones who save us from ourselves.
Yes, we’d better hope we’re preparing them well to respond to events none of us imagined, and heal a world they didn’t screw up.
Or maybe we should stop preparing them all together? Kids have an innate sense of justice. We teach them to relativize it.
My experience has been that kids recognize injustice (“Unfair!”) really early – but only in terms of themselves. Then they learn to extend this to others. And this happens BEFORE they start to distinguish “others” into categories.