One Week to Go: A Daily Chronicle
I begin this diary one week out from the 2020 presidential election. It will be a stressful week. Accordingly, I intend to write a brief essay each day that chronicles how I got through that day. The essays will be tightly focused on a single moment or emotion because, for many of us, survival under the Trump administration requires so many micro-adjustments on an hourly basis that providing an accurate record of them would be impossible. So, selection and censorship turn out to be virtues for this little exercise. My primary audience for this project is my ten-year-old daughter who asked me the other day, as she walked through the room where I was watching a clip from one of Trump’s more unhinged speeches, “What is he raging about today?” Raging, indeed. There’s a lot of it going around now, and I’d like to leave her a note or two about how I survived it.
Day 1, Tuesday 27 October 2020 — I watched Fingers at the Window (1942), a second-rate, film-noirish kind of thing that starred Lew Ayres, Laraine Day, and Basil Rathbone. There’s an axe-murderer on the loose, and Chicagoans are concerned. They rarely venture out at night, the stark streets are empty, the shadows are finely cut, and the anxiety level, as it should be, is high.
I found myself obsessing over the coolness with which the film handled an axe murderer. I knew, of course, that film noir demanded that I accept human tragedy with style, with a certain distance that is stark, attractive, and unreal. I felt comfortable cultivating this distance, I discovered, because Trump’s administration had unfolded before my eyes with a similar starkness, violence, and unreality, and I had gradually distanced myself from his macabre theater by watching him as I might watch a bad murder mystery on late-night television. I had put distance between him and me until, finally, I watched the President of the United States as I watched a second-rate murder mystery.
I had, over the course of four years, transformed Trump into a lousy, film noir murder mystery. That was a big mistake.
Day 2, Wednesday 28 October 2020 — Last year marked the sixtieth anniversary of the appearance of Kind of Blue, Miles Davis’s landmark record that has collected every superlative that music folks can give it. Robert Palmer summed it up for me when he said, “it has no detractors.” I came to it late, in graduate school, but I was introduced to it by a real jazz guy who one night, over as many beers as we could drink in an evening, took me through all five cuts on the record.
I remember every detail of that evening. We started late, and I played the album on what was left of my college stereo system: a pair of KLH bookshelf speakers, Pioneer amp, a Technics turntable. My friend and I were hunched over that record in the exact acoustic center of the speakers — a bowed and devotional posture — and every time my friend wanted to make a point about what was happening in the music, I dutifully raised the arm of the turntable, took the mental note, and resumed the session. The best moments were when I stopped the music so that he could tell me what was coming — I still remember the sweet taste of foreknowledge, as if I were being initiated into a secret society. At the time, my first wife and I had rented a small house on a 500-acre farm south of the University of Virginia where I was studying Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, and English literature, and I remember the sense of engagement that arose from that listening session: I brought Blake, Horace, Sappho, and an Indian sage or two to this party, and it gave me a new sensibility. Which is to say it gave me a new way of looking at the world which is what new sensibilities, if we’re strong enough to recognize them and then invite them in to shape us, are supposed to do. I was reshaped that evening.
Now, six days out from Election Day, I’m playing Kind of Blue all day, and I’m remembering that way of looking at the world: rigorous, ordered, sharply intelligent, but expansive, with room to move, a place for the most eccentric aspects of our personality, the ones we were born with, and are now and again ashamed of, but depend upon each day for our own individuality — that’s what I’m reassembling for the stretch run to Election Day because in Blue’s world, everyone is welcome, and the huge space of it makes rage in any form unsustainable.
Day 3, Thursday 29 October 2020 — One of America’s greatest and most dangerous art critics, Dave Hickey, is also one of our finest essayists. Art for him is a portal to living, and living, by any reasonable definition of the human animal, is what we humans share more than anything else, except most of us don’t chronicle in essays the canyon-deep complexities of how we go about our living. At least not the way Hickey does. He’s dangerous because the way he lives has some fairly radical, maybe even destructive pathways that, by his map, are very attractive. I’m lucky not to have encountered his work when I was a drinking man.
Anyway, I recently reread his essay, “Idiot” that tells the story of his decision to curate a biennial exhibition in Santa Fe. Here’s the first sentence: “My downward spiral into idiocy began when I agreed to curate a biennial exhibition at SITE Santa Fe in 2001.” What struck me was the phrase, “my downward spiral into idiocy” because I realized — not the right word; maybe “flashed to the killer epiphany” ought to replace “realized” — that I too had been involved in a downward spiral into idiocy and that it had lasted now for nearly four years. It began when my wife, a very smart political scientist who understands polling data, called the election for Trump as others were saying, no wait. She did what she had to do as a political scientist with a political preference: went into a period of mourning, but knew that she could only indulge it for so long because there were questions to be answered after the election. Why did Trump win? Why were the polls wrong? Who voted for him? And why? Constructive and helpful kinds of things.
Not me. I read a lot though. Like the most depressing entries in Virginia Woolf’s diaries because she has a comforting way of talking about depression; books on why democracies fail, how tyrants appear first as very small people and then, lie by lie, grow into the monsters that we remember; how we can prevent this; how we can’t prevent this. I started reading Trump’s tweets, which over the years of his presidency have increased in frequency, derangement, and rage. I read them daily, sometimes hourly, and so I escalated my tolerance for them; I crafted what I thought were clever responses to them; I went to war on Facebook; I thought of myself as a resistor.
And so began my very own downward spiral into idiocy, fueled by fear, anger, and a genuine, though misplaced, sense of responsibility as an American citizen. But like all good propagandists, Trump seduced me into fighting him and followers on their own turf. So far, only a few folks have been able to do that, and I’m not one of them.
I was Don Quixote, and Trump had installed himself as my windmill.
I have no idea what Hickey thinks about Trump, but as I have been rereading his essays, I have tracked the great joy of living that percolates just under everything he addresses. He seems to suffer like the rest of us, but he also seems to have a knack for focusing, sometimes at high cost, on the things he loves: painting, gambling, drinking, reading, and most of all, on thinking out loud in his essays about painting, gambling, drinking, and reading. Here’s some Hickey-style joy, experienced when he read On the Road:
It made me feel breathless and weightless, as if the world were expanding and I was being blown through it like a bubble. It made my world make a kind of sense, and bestowed on my restless parents a kind of hipster nobility.
So I read this, felt some joy stirring, and immediately went to my big book of Vermeer prints. I love the weird domesticity of his work and the big open skies that can, in a moment, dwarf it; I reread Milton’s “Lycidas,” a thorny, self-obsessed confession of the poet’s massive ambitions, and like Hickey, I blew back in a bubble to my graduate school days when everything lived in the realm of potential and I realized, with the force of liberation, that everything still and always does. I was a graduate student again, reading the world anew with fresh eyes, and renewed commitment to the possibility of discovery.
Note these words and phrases: reading, new worlds, fresh eyes, commitment, discovery — these are words and phrases that cannot draw breath in Trump’s world.
In short, what Trump cannot manage, control, or direct are Americans pursuing their loves and interests with a single-mindedness that defines each of us joyfully as individuals and collectively as a nation. If you love Vermeer, you will eventually learn a great deal about gender, women, and the spaces that contain those women, and ultimately contain us all. And you will vote accordingly. Pursuing our passions, whatever they are, without apology and with aplomb, creates a citizenry that won’t tolerate limitations on those pursuits.
Our country needs phone-bankers, door-to-door advocates, and organizers. But in equal measure, we need those who stare at Vermeer and learn the joyful and difficult lessons that rise from those canvasses. We do this together, using a liberal democracy to do it, or it doesn’t get done.
And so began my upward spiral out of idiocy.
Trump has probably never heard of Vermeer. That’s a good thing; he’ll never know what hit him.
Day 4, Friday 30 October 2020 — A legendary jazz story. A New York story. And it goes like this: in the summer of 1959, the jazz saxophonist, Sonny Rollins, who was born in 1930 and had been playing professionally since he was a teen-ager, and who had already recorded twenty albums and was widely considered the most influential saxophonist of his era, decided it was time to move out of Harlem, head down to lower Manhattan, another country in effect, and play alone, tilting his horn upward toward the sky, on the pedestrian walkway of the Williamsburg Bridge. He did this for two years, at times for sixteen hours a day.
“Playing against the sky,” Rollins said, “really does improve your volume and your wind capacity.”
No one who hears this story forgets it. And ever since I first heard it years ago, I have found myself reviewing it periodically, like a Zen koan, pressing it hard for information, for inspiration, and really, now that I think of it, for direction. For a simple answer to a simple question that still, here in my late sixties, I’m asking myself: What am I to do with my life?
I’m not a saxophone player, so I read Rollins’ “volume and wind capacity” metaphorically, and it comes out in a prayer, a kind of petition: May I find somewhere, somehow, the strength and capacity to say at just the right volume whatever it is I have to say, whether anyone is listening or not.
Let me find that bridge, I’m saying, pitch a tent, and live there.
The story also concerns another iteration of the radical freedom we once thought was uniquely American. Most of my friends, at least, no longer believe this, or need to believe it, and that’s a good thing. But I’m thinking a lot about this expressive freedom as Election Day looms because those same friends also believe that many of our freedoms are up for grabs. The spirit that drove Rollins to undertake such a project, to leave his public career behind in the service of his art, was a radical spirit, and it required a liberating sense of freedom to complete it.
I think of Rollins and the Williamsburg Bridge in the same way that I think of John Lewis and the Edmund Pettus Bridge — both were avenues to an imagined liberation that we are still struggling to realize. It took a deeply social and engaged imagination to visualize this liberated landscape, and it’s taking a sustained, exhausting, and vital effort to get there.
Accordingly, I’m listening to Rollins all day long, and I’m trying to catch, if only for a moment, that same spirit of resistance and joy and humility that once upon a time drove a very gifted young man in a very young country to play his heart out to the sky above him.
That’s the spirit we need now, the image we must carry in our hearts, the music we must hear. And that’s the spirit and the music that our President cannot attack or diminish because he cannot understand it, he cannot hear it. It’s all around us, though, this music, so let’s join hands, those of us who hear it, and listen to it.
All together now.
Day 5, Saturday 31 October 2020—Panic Twitter—and you know what I mean: your followers and those you follow are sleepless now, wondering about the fate of the nation, looking for secret stashes of Xanax, asking increasingly desperate questions like In all seriousness, can we survive if Trump goes in again?—that Twitter where you find solace, and misery, and company has ramped up now to levels I’ve never before seen. We are, to return to the 19th century for a word, fraught as a nation.
Recently, I’ve been reading Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet, because I was tired of being a citizen of a fraught nation, and Rumi, at least in his verse, is never fraught. Maybe he was a wreck in his personal life; poets often are because the words they use to tell their stories are not dependable—like children, words are unruly and have lives and meanings of their own. But here are two lines that have been bouncing around in my head all day:
Let the beauty we love be what we do. / There are a hundred ways to kneel and kiss the ground.
Political seasons have a way of dictating what we do and what we think we ought to be doing and, therefore, how we judge our lives, because campaigns are so tightly focused on specific outcomes that have a clear effect on our daily lives. Not to offer some kind of support when important elections are looming is selfish, particularly in a liberal democracy where your vote does, in fact, matter.
But political work for most of us is not the beautiful thing that we love. For some people, it certainly is, and we owe these folks a lot because the best of them have made it possible for us to follow whatever it is that we consider beautiful, to kneel and kiss the ground whenever and wherever we want.
I went on a run today thinking about these good people, carrying with me a bit of the anxiety I’d gotten from panic Twitter and feeling some guilt because I wasn’t phone-banking as some of my friends were doing.
I was a couple of miles into the run when I got to the top of a small hill that overlooked a field in a nearby park. There in the middle of the field, alone, on a yoga mat, was a woman, in full and chilly sunshine, stretched out in an unimaginable yoga pose.
She held it for as long as she was in my field of vision. Utterly still. Utterly committed to the beauty she loved, utterly determined that the beauty of the pose be the thing that she did. Under sunshine, in cool air, by herself.
Her way of kneeling and kissing the ground.
I kept on running of course, but I left the panic right there on the edge of that field, now the still point of my turning world.
We all have to vote. We all have to do whatever we can to make sure that voting matters in this country. That it never becomes a meaningless gesture.
But to show that we have done that, to show the rest of the world and ourselves that we will work for free choice and an active, educated citizenry, we must all kneel and kiss the ground every day of our lives, each in our own way.
I learned this today as I ran by a woman holding a yoga pose. I learned something else too. I learned that if we keep our eyes open, we can find teachings everywhere, unintended teachings, spontaneously arising teachings, but teachings all the same.
And speaking only for myself, I need those teachings now more than ever before.
Day 6, Sunday 1 November 2020—Mary Oliver, an American poet and Pulitzer Prize winner, died in 2019 and left behind a substantial body of work. Her poetry has been called plain-spoken, simple, Romantic, as in Wordsworth-styled Romanticism. She wrote about animals and plants, water and light, clouds and tides. Anyone who has a mind to do so can find something to like in her verse, and I have known people who don’t read contemporary poetry but have taped a copy of “Wild Geese” to their refrigerator. She was the kind of writer that often gets labeled as a national treasure.
But she also wrote prose, and many of these pieces are gathered together in Upstream, a collection that appeared in 2016. In her piece on Walt Whitman, she said this: “What cannot be told can be suggested.” I see now that when I first read this essay, I placed a tick-mark in the margin beside this sentence, put the sentence in brackets, and read on. That was a few years ago.
In fact, I was reading this book during the first year of Trump’s administration. I must have bracketed this sentence because, like many of my friends, I really couldn’t say what I was feeling. Of course, I could say things about tyranny, about resistance, about political violence, about all forms of human oppression. I could play the sage who knew past history and brought it to bear on present events. I could post graphs and charts about who believed what and why. I could focus on facts.
Facts are useful because facts can be told neat, no ice, without the power of suggestion.
But I also bracketed this sentence in 2016 because now, four years later, I am certain that I live more deeply, more alertly, when I live by suggestion and nuance, by all of those things that cannot be told, but still influence our lives in substantial ways. I was thinking in 2016 that suggestion and nuance would get me through the next four years when facts would be unhelpful.
I knew what had happened when Trump won the election and took office; I didn’t need facts to tell that story.
As Trump’s general ineptness, shallowness, and emotional violence became more and more apparent, as he violated many of the constitutional norms that I once took for granted, I became paradoxically aware of a deeper, suggested strength that had been with me for decades, and that I had once cultivated, but that I had increasingly ignored over the past four years.
But how to define that strength and identify it so that I could nourish it? I found the clearest definition in Elizabeth Mattis Namgyel’s The Power of an Open Question. In that book, she writes: “Strength is our willingness to stay present in the face of uncertainty.” There it was. An old Tibetan teaching. That was my notion of strength too. And I had lost sight of it.
Trump brought to Washington an uncertainty that our country had never seen, and it was often difficult to watch, but simply opening myself to it, watching it unfold without judgment, in short, staying present for a moment or two, revealed a way of watching this uncontrolled, and apparently uncontrollable, man burst into rage, burn intensely, and fade away. Until the next hour, or half-hour, when he repeated the cycle.
It was a way of watching that led to a nuanced growth and stability in the face of the most extreme behaviors. And this happened somewhere deep inside of me, so deep, that it couldn’t be told; it had to be experienced, and then if I attempted to articulate it, I could only suggest it. Stability of this sort, and the peace that comes of it, don’t live in language’s domain.
What I saw, though, by staying present, was suffering, and what I did, the longer I stayed present to it, was construct an inner space to witness the suffering and to plan how I might contribute to stopping it.
Staying present . . . that’s the method. And it’s a method that can be taught, but it must be practiced constantly, without expectation, because it will manifest within each of us in different ways.
As I scrolled through my Twitter feed this morning—doom-scrolling, as it’s now called—it dawned on me that there is nothing left to say about the Trump presidency in the final days before the election. His partisans are his partisans, his opponents his opponents, and neither group is on the verge of convincing a member of the other party to cross over.
So I intend over the next few days to stay present to my own little arena of inner chaos, to watch its fireworks flame into view and burn away, to encourage those who need encouraging, and to applaud those who deserve it.
I really can’t do much more than that. Staying present . . . my teachers tell me it’s a full-time job because it yields self-knowledge, the most precious resource we have. Because I’ve always considered myself an unsteady student, I’ll keep my expectations for this assignment low, but I will take it as a fact, and not a suggestion, that if I stay present long enough, good things will come of it. How else I might proceed at this moment in our nation’s history I simply don’t know.
Day 7, Monday 2 November 2020—It’s a bright day here in the northwest corner of Arkansas, but I’m not fooled. The adjective that would occur to the exhausted writer is “crisp,” but again, I’m not fooled, although I am tired, and I’m not going to be seduced by that word. I know that tomorrow, Election Day 2020, might find me looking back on this adjective-less day as the paradoxical forerunner, the grim harbinger that preceded the arrival of the barbarians at my gate if Donald Trump is re-elected to the office of the President of the United States.
Best leave this day as it is, no adjective, with lots of sunshine angling over my desk.
The American pianist, Keith Jarrett, recorded The Melody at Night, With You, in his home studio in 1998 as he was recovering from chronic fatigue syndrome. He dedicated it to his wife, Rose Anne, who “heard the music, then gave it back to me.” I’m listening to that music now as I scan the news for any kind of irrational, folksy reason to believe that Trump will no longer be our President come 2021. I envy Rose Anne, who received those beautiful melodies reassuring her that everything would be OK. As I listen to each song unfold in its carefully considered place—Jarrett is a consummate artist of structure and placement—I begin to understand the notion of inevitability as a kind of grace, a way of letting go, of doing whatever I deem both effective for my community, however I might define it, and true to my soul, wherever I might locate it. And having considered and honored both of those concerns, and acted in accordance with them, I let go of the results of my actions and my country’s decision. These results, whatever they may be, and as I now understand them, are inevitable.
Rest easy, my dear, the songs seem to say, and get some rest. Tomorrow is a new day.
I wrote yesterday about the transformative reality of things that cannot be told: I had in mind, for example, the arc of a leaf in free-fall, the swoop-line of the hawk above my hickory, the last bird-song I hear at night. I confess I cannot write about these things in a way that will equal their effect on me, but today I have another confession.
I’ll let Audre Lorde say what I’m feeling on the eve of the most important election of my lifetime:
I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised and misunderstood.
Over the past four years, our country has seen much bruising and misunderstanding. We have heard lies coming from the White House at a rate unequaled by any other administration in American history, and this has injured us as a nation because it has diminished the capacity of our public language to bear the load of truth.
This injury will take some time to repair, and the healing will only happen when the words that our Presidents speak bear a traceable relationship to the actions they take. Success in those actions cannot, of course, be guaranteed. When it is operating as it should, democracy promises nothing but a fruitful noise from its participants. When we’re lucky, that noise will resemble a consensus of sound, a composition by Keith Jarrett, in effect, and when that sound arises, our nation moves forward, fitfully and in starts, but forward all the same.
Honoring the fierce and necessary spirit of Lorde, then, I can say at least, twenty-one hours out from the opening of the polls here in Arkansas, that I have said what is most important to me in this diary, I have made it verbal, and I have shared it.
I began by claiming my daughter as my audience, and I will close with a postscript for her:
May you find your place in this unspeakably exhausting world, Elizabeth, and may you come to see what the world asks of you as your opportunity to help that world along its way and to take part in its grand pageant. May you overlook the bruising and misunderstanding that you will face long enough to say what you wanted to say and to give the full measure of your love to those you have deemed fit to love. And may your notion of “fit to love” grow larger and larger as you move through the years of your life.
That’s enough for me, at least, and no matter what happens on Election Day, I will stand beside you, Elizabeth, for as long as I am able, with this declaration in my heart.