Over the past weekend, I ran into a couple of writer friends in the coffee shop downstairs from the Politics and Prose bookstore in DC. Are you here for the reading? I asked. I was there to see Beverly Lowry present her new book, Who Killed These Girls, about the yogurt shop murders in Austin, Texas in 1991.
No, we’re just here trying to figure out how we’re going to get through it, said Dave.
The next few years, added Paula.
Yeah, I said, needing no further explanation. Let me know what you come up with.
Clearly, I’m not the only one who is struggling with the results of our election, which seem to grow more disturbing and far-reaching every day. I have to re-accept it each morning upon awakening, the way you do after someone dies. Donald Trump has been elected president of the United States. Yes, really. Now get out of bed.
It’s been hard to think positive or to think at all. I find myself spaced out and semi-paralyzed, spending hours mired in anxiety and vague dark thoughts, missing engagements and making stupid mistakes because I’m too busy staring into space.
In case you have forgotten, Donald Trump has been elected president of the United States. Yes, really. And your doctor’s appointment was forty minutes ago.
I’ve found a bit of comfort for these strange times in a fable I heard in yoga class and a joke I found in a novel. There’s a good chance you’ve heard one or both of these before, but I doubt I’ll come up with anything more useful in my etiolated state of mind, so here goes.
I go to a great Sunday morning class at Midtown Yoga on Preston Street. The teacher is a woman named Tami. I am known to be quite a crank about yoga teachers, as the sermonizing of the lithe in their spandex often sets my teeth on edge. But Tami truly seems to have a calling, offering a blend of mental focus and graceful movement that would be inspiring even without the things she says, which are often helpful as well.
The Sunday after the election Tami read us a story, and it has stuck with me.
An old, poor farmer had just one broken-down horse, and it ran away. How terrible, said his neighbors. What bad luck.
The old farmer said, Hmmm. Maybe.
The next day, the horse came back with three beautiful wild horses. How amazing, said the neighbors. So fortunate!
Maybe, said the old farmer.
The day after that, the farmer’s son tried to ride one of the wild horses; it threw him, and he badly broke his arm and leg. Oh, no! That sucks! said the neighbors.
Maybe, said the old farmer.
The next day, the army came through town, conscripting young men for the infantry. When they got to the man’s house, they found his injured son unfit for service. Hallelujah, said the neighbors.
Maybe, said the old farmer.
I believe the folk tale ended there, but of course it wasn’t over. That’s the whole point. A black president for eight years! A woman candidate on the ballot! Oh joy!
Maybe, says the farmer, who has just received an eviction notice from Donald Trump.
The joke, which is about lizards on the ceiling, suggests a different approach to the situation – a micro rather than a macro perspective. I found it in a novel called The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma by Ratika Kapur. I loved this book, the first-person narrative of a seemingly prim and proper woman in Delhi who is unhappier than she cares to admit with her husband working overseas, her job as a medical receptionist, her life in a crappy apartment with her in-laws and her sixteen-year-old son, Bobby. She is particularly obsessed with Bobby, who has recently come home so drunk he had to be hospitalized and has announced his intention to quit school. I’ll quote the section with the joke at length so you can hear the voice of the book.
[My husband] says that I worry about everything too much, he says that I worry without reason, and that the sky won’t fall down if I sit down and relax for some time. And then he tells me that stupid story about the house lizards, about how two lizard-friends on the ceiling of a room were talking one day and one of them suggested that they go on a little outing. Absolutely not! the other friend said. Who will hold up the ceiling?
Maybe it is a funny story, maybe it is also a lesson for some people, but it does not apply to my life. Maybe the sky or the ceiling won’t come crashing down, but if I took a little holiday, if I took two or three days or as my husband tells me to, my house would become a garbage dump, and in this dump my son would be starving to death, my father-in-law would be lying on the floor in a diabetic coma and my poor mother-in- law would just be sitting in one corner watching everything around her break down….
Mrs. Sharma is fooling herself, of course. She is holding up that ceiling with every molecule of her being. But she doesn’t admit it until after she has taken very extreme measures to get out of ceiling duty, beginning with having an affair with a man she meets in the metro.
As for us house lizards over here in the US of A: Perhaps we’re beginning to believe that we’re actually doing something by worrying so much, perhaps we’re committing to worry as a form of passive resistance. We’ll worry in shifts, if necessary, to keep the anxious energy level high.
There may be some better focus for our devotion.
At the MFA program where I teach at the University of Baltimore, our motto is a quote from the poet William Stafford: “A writer is not so much someone who has something to say as he is someone who has found a process that will bring about new things he would not have thought of if he had not started to say them.” (If you’d like to read the short essay this comes from, here it is.)
This describes the approach I took in writing this column, and I wonder if it has wider application for us shattered citizens in our numb and stunned states. Nobody knows what to do, and nobody knows what to say. We can’t let that stop us. We should snap out of it. We should start moving, and talking, and writing, we should go to the march on Washington in January.
We should crawl off the ceiling and see if some wild horses show up in the yard.
University of Baltimore professor Marion Winik is the author of First Comes Love, The Glen Rock Book of the Dead, and other books. Visit marionwinik.com to sign up for her monthly email.