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
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
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
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.