This morning the house is quiet and I’m sitting in my tiny office. I love my office. There are books lining my desk, stacked on the floor beside me, above me in the cabinet. This is the place where I put words on the page, where I log into my email to immerse myself in the moving writing of my students. I feel safe here surrounded by all these words I love.
But then I look out into the back yard—at the Maple tree with a few dozen yellow leaves still clinging to its mostly barren branches, at the gray sky, which seems to be pressing down on me—and safety feels elusive.
I went to bed on the early side election night, unable to watch any longer. I didn’t sleep well, but I couldn’t bring myself to check the results in the middle of the night. In the morning, Donny reached for his phone. Though we had feared what the outcome would be, we were shocked. Shocked and devastated.
When we told the girls, they couldn’t believe it either. Zoë was scared. “What will happen?” she asked. “Will we be okay? Will we still live in this house?” I assured her we would be okay, but I didn’t really feel that way.
That afternoon I had to give a lecture to 300 undergrads about reflection and backstory in creative nonfiction, and for a moment I thought, “How can I talk about that today? Who cares?”
But of course I care, deeply. I care because I believe that writing and reading poems and stories and essays in which we are reflecting, examining our experiences, questioning our assumptions, and making connections can change lives—our own lives and our readers’ lives. That is what I told the students that afternoon, and it helped me get into the right headspace—to move beyond shock and despair to a place where I could ask, “What can I do? How can I make a difference?”
But then I began to hear about the hate, began to see the ways ignorant and hate-filled people have been emboldened. I began to read posts about friends afraid to go out in public, friends who wondered which white people were allies and which white people wanted them to get the f**k out, no matter that this is their home.
On Friday, I went to my book group, a group that I’ve been going to once a month for almost 18 years now, a group that has been meeting for more than twice that long. We were reading Warsan Shire’s Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth. Have you read her? If not, you must.
These lines from her four-part prose poem “Conversations About Home (at the Deportation Center)” feel particularly timely:
“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.”
“Look at all these borders, foaming at the mouth with bodies broken and desperate. I’m the colour of hot sun on the face, my mother’s remains were never buried. I spent days and nights in the stomach of the truck; I did not come out the same. Sometimes it feels like someone else is wearing my body.”
“I hear them say go home, I hear them say fucking immigrants, fucking refugees. Are they really this arrogant? […] All I can say is, I was once like you, the apathy, the pity, the ungrateful placement and now my home is the mouth of a shark, now my home is the barrel of a gun.”
Last fall, I interviewed the wonderful Dinty W. Moore for the Los Angeles Review of Books, and I asked him about compassion and its role in the writing life. This is what he said:
“Much of my early writing was about my family, but it wasn’t simply my job to tell people from my point of view why a legacy of alcoholism, depression, and suicide was so difficult. Instead, I had to try to imagine myself inside those people. Why did they act as they did? What were the realities of their lives? I needed to empathize. From a human standpoint that’s a good thing to do because it allows you to forgive and to forgive is a powerful action. From a writer’s standpoint, it’s a good thing because it makes the story deeper and more honest. It’s not just my story. I will never know entirely what my parents were thinking, but I can certainly try to imagine how various early tragedies — they were both orphaned young — created the unhappiness that permeated their marriage and their lives. That unhappiness affected me, of course, but that’s just the barest surface of the story. The deeper story has to do with who we are as human beings and how we get where we’re going.”
For me the key is in the word “imagine.” When we really stop and imagine what someone else might have been experiencing and thinking and feeling—what might have been motivating them—empathy bubbles to the surface. When we truly put ourselves in someone else’s shoes (through reading, through real dialogue, by being curious, by having an open mind), we are not only more compassionate people, we are better people.
Let us practice compassion. Let us read widely. Let us embrace voices that help open our minds, not close them down. Let us use our words for good.
I BELIEVE in the power of words to bring us together. I’m not going to give up on that. Who is with me?
(You can read more about Warsan Shire and her collaboration with Beyoncé on Lemonade here, and you can read her stunning poem “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon” here.)