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Deep Breath

Two weekends ago, Nov. 7, I saw magic. It was later than I meant to be out on a Sunday night. As with almost every gathering I’ve been to since the election, the people I was with were enjoying each other’s company and what we were there to do (sing, in this case), but whenever someone asked someone else, “How are you?,” the reply was always qualified. As good as can be under the circumstances. A little stunned. Getting by.

Then as we were clearing up, our hostess came running in to say, “Northern lights!” The northern lights are something I’ve always wanted to see, and always figured I’d have to travel up to the Arctic circle to see them. (It is pretty rare here: On a scale of solar-radiation activity from 0-9, it has to be between 7 and 8 for us to see them. Go a few hundred miles south of us and you’re talking no more than once a decade.) It was 15 degrees colder than when we’d gone inside, and bitterly windy, but there they were, green and pulsing. We got lost on the way home, trying to trace our directions backwards and missing a turn, twice, because the road was called something different on this end. But it meant we were driving north again for a little while, and got an even better view. Not just patches in the sky, but full-on shimmering curtains. We stopped and stood in the middle of a deserted road in Mariaville—or was it Princetown?—and gaped. It was easy to believe the Inuit legend that says the lights would dance if you whistled at them.

After a while, as we started to get chilly, from across a dark field we heard excited voices. Someone else was watching the northern lights too.

Here’s the part in the column where I make some insightful comment about how this experience is related to my feelings about the election and the political will to reclaim optimism and hope and move forward. But actually, the northern lights were just damn cool. I could be rebellious about it: No corporate, fascistic, pretending-to-be-moral Republican fundamentalists are going to keep me from enjoying the wonder of creation! Or inspired: I must do more to take back our country so my children will be able to see this same beautiful sight! Or connected to humanity: Those other people could be anyone (even Bush fans!), but they still appreciate beauty just like me.

But again, that wasn’t what was going on. My “wow!” was unadulterated, and I prefer it that way.

Strangely, I haven’t been in a mood for despairing since fairly soon after the elections. Neither have I been in a mood for arguing, witnessing, or insisting that everything’s going to be fine, the arc of the universe, la la la. Not that I’ve stopped spouting off sarcastic, cynical or cautiously hopeful reactions to the news when called for, meaning every last thing I say. But underlying everything I’ve got a strong sense that it’s too soon to make sense of all of this.

I’m holding a lot of paradoxes in my head and trying not to rush resolve them too quickly. I’ve learned over the years that that impulse is rarely a good one.

There’re plenty of conflicting arguments and evidence out there. Was this about moral values, economics, terrorism, or anti-elitism? Are the signs hopeful (passage of minimum-wage bills, easy reelection of those who voted against the war, more people voting for Kerry than ever voted for Reagan . . .) or dismal (echoes of Nazi populism, immediate moves to dismantle all regulatory restraints on corporations, the likely loading of the Supreme Court with right-wing judicial activists, crazies thinking they have a mandate to increase government intervention in people’s lives)? Should we reach out to Bush supporters or declare war on them? Do we focus on process (voting integrity), content, or mood?

The quantity of fascinating, thoughtful and basically incomplete information and analysis out there is amazing. So are the strategies for approaching it. I’ve been revisiting a number of theories that draw the political map differently than a line from left to right. Some are triangles: progressive/libertarian/“conservative” or equality/liberty/stability. Another is a square, with people on two axes: between totalitarian and libertarian on a social axis and left and right on an economic axis. (And there’s the circle where the far libertarians and the far anarchists look about the same except for the very different cultures they’re likely to come from.)

I’m trying to make very few assumptions in any direction. I’m trying to sort what I need to grieve over and what I need to be angry about, and what I need to let go, and what isn’t even true.

I don’t feel that I can afford to curl up in a ball and ignore the world. Nor can I put off acting in ways small and large. But as my partner said after a recent long walk and talk with a right-leaning colleague, “I did a lot of listening.” I’m trying to do a lot of listening, in person, in text and metaphorically. And in the meantime, I’m also doing a fair amount of looking at the sky.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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