In September, 2016 I started a year-long personal challenge of doing something each week that I’d never done before then writing about it. This is week 9.
– T.S. Elliot, Four Quartets.
It seemed, at first, too small to matter and too small to write about. What new thing had I done this week besides make a few phone calls to the White House despite my phone phobia? What had I done other than submit a manuscript to a book contest, despite all the intimate details in it about my life?
Both of these things had about the same amount of fear attached to them. My stomach tightened and my brain threw down half a dozen excuses for why I should wait and do it later (not at all). A phone call would do nothing to end water cannons being aimed at water protectors in sub-freezing temperatures. The line was busy and busy and busy anyway. A publisher wasn’t going to want/shouldn’t bother with the story about some well-off white girl. Look at all the books and books and who-reads-this-stuff-anyway books.
But I’ve been reading Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark and finding comfort there. Her premise is that change often happens slowly, without much fanfare and in ways that we can’t always understand until much much later. We remember the disasters but not the victories. And some of us, who have been unwilling to risk much have often thrown up our hands and simply claimed that it all fucking sucks. But, as Solnit states, “…to say that everything without exception is going straight to hell is not an alternative vision but only an inverted version of the mainstream’s “everything’s fine.”
So I dialed the White House number, waited my turn and stated my request knowing a check mark was being added to the “Mad about Standing Rock” column. And who am I to say how long that column has to be before something changes? And maybe the change isn’t about Standing Rock at all. Solnit writes, “Hope is not a door, but a sense that there might be a door at some point, some way out of the problems of the present moment even before that way is found or followed.”
This reminded me of something a friend once told me when I shared my worries that the novel I’d written and discarded wasn’t worth reading. To very loosely paraphrase, he thought it didn’t matter whether I thought my book was good or not. I’d done the work, made it the best I could, and now it was out of my hands. Maybe someone would read a few chapters and throw it down, thinking it was shit. But maybe someone would read it cover to cover and think it was great. Either way, it didn’t matter. In other words, you never know. That may not have been how he’d characterize his advice, but that, in itself is kind of the point.
“You never know” has always felt like a useless little optimistic punch on the shoulder to me. Something deserving of a “don’t fucking touch me” sneer. I’ve always wanted to insist that we DO know. History has already shown us the answers and the great artists have already shown us their greatness. We should know better (in terms of history) and those before us and among us have already done better (in terms of art).
My false sense of certainty has been a good comfort and a good excuse, keeping me from having to try and, therefore, fail. But I’m beginning to see that trying is all we have. So here is my voice rattled into the ear of some White House employee trying to keep up with the calls. And here is my voice, carved into words, trying to tell a story that someone might need.