As winter settles in and deepens here in Maine, I am painfully aware that we in the United States have entered into a very cold, dark, and perilous time, one that leaves me with an almost perpetual sense of carrying a leaden ball lodged within the center of my stomach. My heart aches, and my jaw regularly clenches in anger and frustration, and I am all too often these days navigating this sweet little life of mine within the constraints of grief and sorrow. And this pain, while different, is similar in some ways to how I felt while I was caring for my mother before she died of lung cancer. She wasn't entirely lost to me yet, but with each day I felt her slipping further away from me, and the anticipation of her passing left me feeling hollow, heavy, and empty.
The growing threats to my grandchildren's health, security, and to their very futures leaves me grief-stricken, and the daily assaults on my democracy, my planet, and to a way of life that I had the luxury of taking for granted for so long, has left me in a nauseating state of shock and disbelief. I fumble for words, search for answers, and ache for hope.
The outcome of the 2016 election should not have left me blindsided. As in the case of most catastrophes, there were warnings of the coming disaster, foreshadowing's of what would eventually arise. There were calamities in the Midwest where countless Americans lost jobs, homes, dignity, health insurance, and faith, who struggled to survive in an abandoned segment of the country that would eventually be deemed "the landscape of despair."
There were so many betrayals of middle-class Americans perpetrated in this "flawed democracy" by parties that were no longer found credible or trustworthy by many of the people they claimed to serve. My America became a place where laws were shaped and land and lives diminished or destroyed by greed and big money; where economic and social inequality continued to grow at astounding rates; where corporations were granted the rights of citizens, and the pursuit of profit became the great axis upon which our broken world turned.
I tell myself that there have been other dark days in America -- slavery, the great depression, McCarthyism, the Vietnam war, the assassinations of Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and the Kennedys, the shame of Watergate and other calamities that don't immediately come to mind. I tell myself that I cannot give into the despair that seems to be constantly peering over my shoulder, and climbing into bed with me at night. I coax myself into doing the "next right thing" -- writing a letter to my senator, showing up at my representative's office, following the instructions of Moveon and Indivisible. I'm bone tired though. I want to curl up with a novel, turn off the news, focus on my own privileged life. I can't begin to express how tempted I am to throw up my hands in surrender in spite of the fact that I've barely gotten started.
How do they manage to keep going, those activists that have spent entire lifetimes fighting for social and economic justice, clean water and air, and governmental accountability? There have always been too many of 'us' and too few of 'them.' By 'them' I mean the ones who have kept fighting, and by 'us,' I am referring to the ones (like myself) who have lived our lives for the most part in oblivion, striving primarily for our own security and success, and for that of our loved ones. 'Us' meaning those who are sympathetic enough to shed a tear, make a modest financial contribution, or say a prayer for the suffering of others, but for the most part then quickly turn away. And now, in large part, I suspect, because of those of 'us' who were distracted by our own interests and ambitions, those other 'them's' -- the ones who possess the lion's share of wealth, power, and privilege -- may have managed to purchase our country and close the deal.
I'm not by nature an optimist, pessimism appears to be as fixed in my genes as the brown eyes that I inherited from my ancestors, and that peer back at me at each Byram family gathering. And yet, I am aware with every weary fiber of my being that permanently giving into despair is not a viable option. I tell myself that I need to stay strong, stay motivated, stay the course. I reassure myself that it's alright to feel the despair, anger, frustration, and anxiety that gets kindled within me with just about every new news cycle, providing that I don't surrender to it. But most of all, I draw from the wise women both living and now past who have weathered their own individual and collective dark nights, and had some understanding of how to navigate them.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes, analyst and author of Women Who Run with the Wolves, cautions that during dark times we have a tendency to concentrate on all that is broken and unmended in our world, an inclination that only serves to weaken and disempower us. She urges us to not lose heart, that we must stand up and show our souls, and promises that "we were made for these times." Every heartache, disappointment, injustice, failure, and triumph that we have faced along the singular paths that each of us has traveled, has served to prepare us for days such as these.
Audre Lorde, writer, and activist informs us that combatting despair doesn't mean turning away from or minimizing the enormity and danger that is posed by the forces that we are up against, but that we must teach, fight and survive with the greatest resource available to us -- our very own selves. It means acknowledging both the enemies without as well as those that dwell within us -- the voices that live in our own heads that warn that we are not strong enough, wealthy enough, smart enough, young enough, old enough, advantaged enough, numerous enough to win. It means heeding our wise ancestor, Alice Walker's warning that "the most common way people give up their power is by thinking that they don't have any," that we believe her when she tells us that we each contain our own unique form of genius, and that "a people do not throw their geniuses away. If they do, it is our duty as witnesses to the future to collect them again for the sake of our children. If necessary, bone by bone." Not giving into despair means recognizing that our work now is not an isolated mission, but a continuation of the sacred and often brutal labor of women who came before us to claim their power, their voices, their rights, and to protect the very earth upon which we each tread and depend. Within this context our struggle has meaning beyond our own individual lives -- it did not begin with our births and will not end with our deaths. It means that we must not surrender to despair, we must push through it -- and beyond it.
Th role of an activist is hard, long, and painful, and is, as Rebecca Solnit observed, ""not a journey to the corner store, but a plunge into the dark." Solnit understands that many of us have been so much better at "imagining the end of the world, which is so much easier than the strange sidelong paths of change in a world without end." On my darkest days, I am most definitely among those with vivid and terrible fantasies of the end of my democracy, my country as I know it, of my grandchildren's hopeful futures, and the slow, heartbreaking death of my unspeakably terrible, and immeasurably beautiful planet. When I surrender to my worst nightmares, I am so overcome with anger and heartbreak that there is little room for the sweet, elusive dreams that I so dearly want to hold onto. I am anchored by my grief, head down in surrender, frozen in the claustrophobic territory of despair. And here I remain, until finally, I am called forward again by the voices of women like that of musician and activist, Joan Baez, who urges me onward with her bold assertion that there is an antidote to my despair, and that antidote is action.
Corinne McLaughlin, author, educator, and director of the Center for Visionary Leadership advises that acknowledging and honoring what is right and good and beautiful about our country is as important as what we currently resist, feel threatened by, and hate about what is rising within it. That we must create a vision for what we fight for to stand firmly beside that which we are fighting against, and that we nurture ourselves and one another as we struggle to give birth to our dreams for a more just, more equitable, kinder world. And author and activist, Terry Tempest Williams gently reminds us, "Finding beauty in a broken world is creating beauty in a world we find."
And then there are those brave and constant spirits of the women who share my own tiny piece of the universe here in Maine -- women like Patricia Fogg, Jennifer Jones, Kim Simmons, Anne Marie, and Stacy Leafsong. Unless you live in Maine, these names will most likely be unknown to you, although you too are blessed with women who bare different names but share the same remarkable dedication and resolve. These women walk beside us. They teach us, implore us, inform us, and urge us on. They live and work among us -- and they are among the best of us. It is these beautiful, strong, determined women who give me hope, strength and shore up my faltering resolve. And so, here I have it -- famous women, wise women, my neighbors and friends, living and dead women -- my village, my tribe, my hope. They are my light in the darkness and a timeless reminder that, in the words of Annie Dillard, "There is no one but us. There is no one to send, not a clean hand or a pure heart on the face of the earth or in the earth -- only us" unfit, not yet ready, having each of us chosen wrongly, made a false start, yielded to impulse and the tangled comfort of pleasures, and grown exhausted, unable to seek the thread, weak and uninvolved. But there is no one but us. There never has been."
And so I go on"
Tammie Byram Fowles