(Note: This essay was originally published in October 2016.)
I’ve spent this election season with an elephant. It’s a big, oddly colored one with too much burnt sienna, no eyes, translucent ill-defined tusks. The canvas gaps through in a hundred places.
The brushes gather dust. The elephant has been regarding me for over a month, in exactly this state.
You’re a quitter, he says.
Things I have succeeded at in October:
staying up to date on the news;
reading my Twitter feed;
Things I have failed at in October:
putting all the towels in the same drawer;
The dishes, too, are in a heap. How does one correctly load a dishwasher? I’ve never really known.
I come from a stalwart protestant family in the flat part of Ohio, where everyone raises corn or soybeans or refines oil or works in a hospital or the Honda plant. In the rural counties, it’s every man for himself and every woman for a man. The precincts are as red as new blood. The route from my new city to my childhood home is tattooed with TRUMP/PENCE signs, banners tacked to porches, with Proud To Be Deplorable tagged on abandoned civic buildings.
Where I come from, you achieve success by tugging firmly at your own bootstraps, by setting goals and slogging through, by sucking it up, skipping doctors visits, setting your jaw, saving up. Whatever is happening, you smile at your neighbors. You keep your lawn mowed. You say you are fine. You keep going.
My day job is to stare at screens, to pluck out images and arrange them nicely, to put words in a way that makes people want to buy things. I sit at a desk and patter about on the keyboard, fiddle with cords and hard drives and .wav files.
At the end of the day, it all takes place in glowing squares on the insubstantial, slippery world of The Internet. It’s thin gruel for dreams.
So I took up painting to drown out the high-pitched digital buzz in my head. I paint because I want to hold something with mass and physicality, something that might have once been part of a star or an iceberg or contain the tiniest sliver of an ancient land mammal. I want to make something that exists in the world of actual matter, to finish it and put it on a wall, to say There it is.
Except this month I don’t even paint. The phone beckons. Did you know the #repealthe19th people don’t even want women to vote? Did you know that humans have killed 50% of all living things in the past fifty years? The thought that all these dead things might one day turn into paint does not comfort me. I continue to scroll.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a judge or a ballerina or an author: someone who brought justice, or altered ideas, or moved people to tears, or who changed things. I wanted to be a warrior for something. When I was eighteen, Republican and evangelical and hotblooded, I tried to start GodsPeopleVote.com, a site intended to guilt Christians into voting for George W. Bush. The project, thankfully, was never finished.
I survived all that nonsense, and got older, and met people who changed my mind about stuff. I scraped off my old opinions, voted third party, claimed I didn’t care, and swaddled myself in apathy. My old affiliations had left me feeling dirty and not caring felt clean. I couldn’t alter anything anyway.
Then I crept out of the cocoon and accidentally fell in love with the world—the whole, tremendous, mutilated, gorgeous thing.
Apathy doesn’t come so easily now. What one loves, one protects, and sometimes I don’t know how to not care too much. Look — just look! — at what we have made of this planet. Why have we not done better? Why won’t anyone listen to reason? Why can’t I ever complete anything good? Why can’t I be the right person?
Why can’t I even get my laundry done?
Where I come from, if you can’t save the world, it’s your own damn fault. Maybe you should have tried something more practical anyway.
Last week, I escaped from myself by wandering around in the library—one of my healthier coping mechanisms. I found a book called Jewish Death Rites in the religion section and, always up for a good revel in my own mortality, sat down for a browse.
The book was a compilation of essays and poems, and was chock full of references to procedures and rites whose names I didn’t recognize and couldn’t pronounce. There were words like kadisha and meitah and halachah, as well as blessings and prayers for death and intention and cloth and water and a hundred other things. I let it all slide by, a world comforting in its strangeness.
But one part made me sit up straight: it was a single sentence in the story of a woman, Ilene Z. Rubenstein, who is asked to participate in a ceremony—a taharah—to clean and prepare a dead body. She has never been asked to perform one before. She’s scared, excited.
“Was I really ready for this encounter with death?” she asks. “Had I resolved all my old issues as completely as I thought I had? Would I fall apart…?”
She waits at a bus stop, feeling pride and apprehension, aching to tell the strangers who surround her about the moment that encircles her. She cannot. Instead, she gathers herself and whispers a blessing: the Shehecheyanu.
It is, she explains, a blessing for having reached this point.
“Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, shehecheyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higianu laz’man hazeh.”
“Blessed are You Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has given us life, sustained us, and allowed us to reach this day.”
“I don’t actually like this moment, and I feel like an utter failure in it, but it’s here, and I’m still breathing, and the world is turning, and we’re still, miraculously, here, and that’s something. So. Whoever you are, thanks.”
October is a fever about to break. Some days it’s still just warm enough to sit on our deck in the afternoon, but last week I walked out of my apartment and found winter there, breathing, cold and stolid. Walmart is already trundling out boxes of red bows and tinsel garlands from China. It’s only a matter of time before the attack of Silver Bells. Election season is almost over.
And I was about to write that I’m slowly learning to overcome fear.
That’s not true, though. The truth is that it’s 7:05 in the morning, and it’s dark as hell, and CNN is on its hamster wheel again about some emails or something, and I’m hungry, and Ohio has slid back into the Trump column, and today looks like one of those days that I’ll need to remind myself to breathe normally.
The truth is that I’m angry and afraid. The truth is that this election season is threatening to wring out my last bit of optimism regarding my fellow man. The truth is that, in this season, just being civil to people I know and love is taking massive amounts of willpower, and I don’t seem to have much energy to spend on anything else.
The truth is that, this morning, I want to cover the elephant with a sheet so he can’t look at me anymore, and that I have learned that damn Hebrew prayer by heart, but I’m not at all sure I’ll have the strength to say it ever again…other than, maybe, right now.
But right now is the moment I’ve arrived to, alive, and I guess there is no other time for a blessing.***
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