learning an American Tune

And I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered.
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease.
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
or driven to its knees.
Oh, but it’s alright, it’s alright,
for we lived so well so long.
Still when I think of the road we’re traveling on,
I wonder what’s gone wrong.
I can’t help but wonder what’s gone wrong.

Paul Simon’s American Tune inserted itself into my psyche out of the blue this week, apparently pacing in some Vietnam War era space while waiting for the chance to have its meaning resurrected. I keep hearing the words, sometimes just in my head, sometimes on repeat through the speakers, and often enough coming out of my own mouth. If I sing them to myself I’ll remember to breathe, in and out. I play the Bach chord progression on the piano and try to make sense of the world.

Since the night of last Tuesday’s election, I’ve been cycling back and forth from anxious to angry, a knot in my stomach and a quickened pulse even when I’m not explicitly aware of where the angst is coming from. I’m not alone, of course. Coming to class and the office on Wednesday morning, there was a somber, weighted blanket on all things. Disbelief mixes with confusion to set a paralysis.

“How are you doing?”

I think I ask Colin this because I know that neither of us have words to describe that weight. He tells me it’s not all that great. I have nothing more I can add except for a nod. He’d posted earlier, the day after the election, that he was sorry for his complacency. Farther down the hall but on my same highlighted thread of Facebook posts, John points fingers and holds others accountable. His aim is accurate. Stacy, just down the hallway in the other direction, but in the same feed, oscillates from despondency to vigorous fight. She does the calculations for how new policies for deportation and immigration could look, or for how much sea level will rise as we follow the pledged policies of a President Trump.

Clearly, we’re collectively wrought. Still in a daze the morning after the election, I walked into Stacy’s office and gave her a fist bump without saying anything else, because I knew that anything more and I was going to break down. And, pretty much, there’s the sense that we’ve all been crying. None of us have slept well. Up and down the hallway, we all look like shit. We’re all too polite to say anything, but we know. “How are you doing?” is not just a pleasantry, but the smallest of offers of an ear. But we’re all speechless. The challenge is that I look to my friends — who happen to be among the very most thoughtful and integrity-full colleagues I could imagine — to right the ship and even the keel.

It’s all wearing. More and more this has all felt like an affront to values. I will accept that there are people like Donald Trump in this world, but I can’t accept that we can collectively shrug off statements that are outwardly vile. Before, as a private citizen, he was simply spouting off hateful rhetoric. Now, he’s accountable to our collective citizenry. Here’s where I rail about how that collective is comprised of those who have marched for civil rights, who have suffered sexual assault, who have felt threatened because they wore a hijab or a skirt or an earring, who are trying to protect a planet and scientific integrity, who are simply trying to give a world to our children and our students that we won’t be embarrassed about after they unwrap this hand-me-down gift, as if that was the best we could do.

All of that comes down to a very distilled and concentrated kind of anger and anxiety. Selfishly, I’m angry because of what this does to me. But that’s so minimal. I’m angry like so many of us because of what this does to undo what we thought we’d worked for. I’m seeing now that I didn’t do enough. Still, it’s frustrating when all being in this together means that some populist can, either out of malice or out of ignorance, pull the rug out from underneath. This hurts me to the core as an educator. I thought there was a clear path of progress, and I was looking forward.

I’m angry because I can’t breathe slowly and deeply enough to fully cope. I’m think I come back to this essay entry because I want to write myself out: out of the anxiety, out of the fear, out of the despair, and simply erase what’s transpired over the past week.

It doesn’t work.

I’ve learned that there’s a lot for me to learn. It took me a few days to realize that what I’m feeling is a very small piece of what it feels like to be the minority, the threatened, the one whose rights or body or intellect have been assaulted. I’ve known those were real things, but I’m sure I haven’t felt them on another’s behalf in any significant way. The knot in my stomach is quaint. Really, I’m not the victim here. I’m responsible. Complacency is my privilege, and if nothing else I need to turn this around and use privilege for the benefit of others — especially those who don’t get to write through anxiety under a solid roof and from within a quiet neighborhood.

But maybe I’m most angry because of what this does to my friends and my family. Here are the people that I lean on, every day, and to see them all equally scattered not only shakes me, it Breaks my Heart. As I see everyone else in their own justified state of rage, of fear, of disenfranchisement, I need to back them up. I need to give everyone room to figure this out, and I need to give them a close space to feel safe.

Today, though, whether they know it or not, people I love are pulling me up. Don’t get me wrong: You all still look like shit. There’s a grimace in the smile, but there’s hope. Colin said that he is seeing light; John helped host a meeting to lobby for climate change action; Stacy is maneuvering to march on Washington with a million other women. I see this with some awe. I’ll put a safety pin on my shirt again tomorrow and pretend that I’m that strong to be a comfort to someone else. That’s that privilege I need to cash in. That’s my responsibility to my family and to my friends.

Simon concludes American Tune with a reminder that we’ve been in these places before. (Although, I can’t imagine when he was writing these lines that he could have imagined they’d be pulled out of retirement 40 years later.) There’s some comfort here. Maybe we’ve been in this place before. Maybe the despair — “You can’t be forever blessed” — is necessary therapy.

We come on the ship they call the Mayflower.
We come on the ship that sailed the Moon.
We come in the age’s most uncertain hours
And we sing an American Tune.
Oh, but It’s alright.
It’s alright it’s alright.
You can’t be forever blessed.
Still, tomorrow’s going to be another working day,
and I’m trying to get some rest.
That’s all I’m trying, to get some rest.

And, maybe, some rest is a good idea. There’s work to do. I’m grateful I have friends who will pound their fists on the table, pour temporary antidotes into a pint glass, and then reach down and pull me up. We have work to do, I know. Just some rest, first, and then, dammit, there’s work to do.