As a former Virginian, I find springtime in New England to be not just disappointing (in its lack of flowers, green and warmth) but also violent. And I’m not talking about the snowstorm that’s supposed to come tonight, nor about the way the ice on the river cracks as loudly as a thunderstorm, nor the way the water rushes down from the Green and White Mountains and floods our Connecticut River banks. I’m talking about the deeper forces that caused the Greeks to name this particular sun cycle after Aries, the Ram (temper, temper) and to associate this zodiacal sign with infants and toddlers. (The Greeks also, I just found out, named the month of April after Aphrodite, who was, by turns, charming and aloof.) Stravinsky must have known something about New England springs, because there is nothing gentle and flower-like about his wonderful, terrifying Rites of Spring. It’s more like a rowdy college keg party, with plenty of Bacchanalian madness thrown in.
Perhaps because it’s spring; perhaps because I’m pregnant, or perhaps because of where we are in this prematurely intense election cycle, but I’ve felt like a frayed nerve for the past few weeks. I cry at the drop of at hat; predictably at that manipulated point in every movie where director hope you will cry, but at other times too: when my father calls to say hi; when my almost two-year-old asks for tomatoes and then spits them out in a glob on the table, and also when she says, “I need cuddle you,” and puts her arms around my neck.
But mostly, I’m a wreck about this election. I’ve been following it fanatically since the Iowa caucus, when I first began to believe that Barack Obama might actually pull off a win. I argued fiercely with fellow lefties who said the country was too backwards and racist to embrace an African American with a foreign name. It’s not about race, I said. This is a visionary, a leader who comes along once in a hundred years! And look! He reaches across party lines! I stayed up way too late most Tuesdays in February watching results come in, mourning when we lost Massachusetts, high-fiving strangers with Obama buttons the day after Wisconsin. I spent every lunch hour pouring over the latest polls on RealClearPolitics.com. I have had many dreams about hanging out with Obama in coffee shops, just chatting about the issues and commiserating about life on the road, and also asking him questions about his church.
Which brings us, of course, to THE issue. Up until the point where Reverend Jeremiah Wright became a YouTube star for his God Damn America moment, Obama was leading both Clinton and McCain in the national polls. In every theoretical match-up, he beat McCain while Clinton just barely lost. And then the endless looping of what I saw as a not untypical African-American preacher doing what many theatrical preachers of all races and political persuasions do: saying things to wake their congregation up and remind their congregation (and perhaps those outside it as well) that our nation is on a dangerous and wrong path. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell both said our nation got what it deserved after 911.
Though I wasn’t bothered at all by what Rev. Wright said, I was very bothered by the reaction to him. And I was thrilled and amazed by Obama’s speech on Building a More Perfect Union. (Predictably, I cried through much of it, but again, that seems to be par for the course these days.) Like many who have written much more eloquently and extensively than I, I believed this to be a transformational speech; one long overdue. I was raised and educated to believe that racism was the number one problem this country faced, and that until we addressed it and vanquished it, our nation would suffer greatly. It’s an incredibly complex problem, and the solutions require all of us to practice understanding and work harder to put ourselves in the shoes of others. I figured once Barack finished saying what needed to be said, we’d all shake ourselves awake and get to work—start practicing understanding, start talking honestly with one another, start recognizing that we need to put our money where our mouths are, and all that.
That’s not exactly what seemed to happen. Instead, I heard more strange insinuations that Obama wasn’t a real patriot, had issues that were distracting the American people from the crises at hand. The poll numbers didn’t move. My best friend called me to tell me her step-father had told racist jokes at their Pennsylvania Easter table. And the media seemed only interested in how the speech played out politically, not that something important had finally been said. I spent our cold, way-too-early Easter in tears, despairing for our country, despairing for my African American friends, heartbroken and furious.
I did my work on this anger, because I have learned that I can’t live with it, and what I came up with was this: I want the world to be about 100 years ahead of where it is now. I bet a hundred years from now we will not be talking about the first woman president, the first Latino president, the first Asian American president or the first African American president. Maybe we won’t even be talking about the first homosexual president. These will all be benchmarks long passed. I’m hopeful too that in a hundred years, we will have solved many of the problems that plague us today. If I look back a hundred years, I see Jim Crow. If I look back 200 years, I see slavery. I hope this ugly period we’re in right now seems as antiquated and backwards as those do.
The morning after Easter, I put myself on a strict diet: no more NPR, no more New York Times, no more RealClearPolitics, no more arguing. My prescriptions include reading Thich Nhat Hanh and Mary Oliver and going outside for walks with my daughter: the kind of walks where your heart rate never goes over 75 bpm because your companion is running up and down the knoll, kicking around dead leaves and collecting pine cones and doesn’t care a whit about getting anywhere fast. And wouldn’t you know it? I feel a lot better. I am still sad and disappointed, but I can see myself and my friends who are working for peace and justice as cogs in the wheel, just as the suffragettes were in the early part of the 20th Century, just as the abolitionists were in the 1840s, just as the feminists and black power leaders were in the ‘60s and just as the advocates for gay rights were in the ‘70s, ‘80s and today.
I know that spring will come. It always does, sooner or later. And I know this as a musician: a great song is one that has great substance—music with integrity, melody and rhythm plus lyrics that lend themselves to many listens, many ponderings, sometimes many interpretations. Those songs might not crack the top ten, but they will be listened to for decades (maybe even centuries) afterwards. What Barack Obama said on March 18, 2008 was akin to a great song. Whether or not he wins or loses, we will look back on that moment as one in which a brave man told the truth in a way that was meaningful, eloquent and provocative.