Well – it’s here. I sort of didn’t believe this day would actually come – but of course, I knew that it had to. And now it’s here. Inauguration Day. Eight years ago, I was on the Mall for President Obama’s first inauguration. It was one of my dad’s “bucket list” items to attend a Presidential inauguration, and the historic nature of President Obama’s was appealing. So – we went; Steve, my dad, and I. We spent the night in the West End apartment of a friend who had (probably wisely) decamped to another state for the weekend, so that we wouldn’t have to fight the Metro on our way in. And we walked down to the Mall early on Inauguration Day morning. The crowds were intense and we ended up probably a half mile back from the Capitol steps – all the way down the grass at the Smithsonian Museum of American History (which felt fitting, after all). The cold was intense, too. I spent most of the day hopping up and down, trying to stay warm in my warmest ski parka, while my dad waited in interminable hot chocolate lines. But at the end of the day, we’d seen Barack Obama sworn in as the 44th President of the United States and we walked home beaming.
This year – I have no desire to fight the crowds and attend the inauguration. I don’t even plan to turn on the television. My office is closed, as are pretty much all offices in downtown D.C., and I’m planning to spend the day in front of my computer, working from home, and ignore the fact that something huge and upsetting is going on just across the river. I’ll take refuge in work and then, if I get through my to-do list, I’ll open a book and turn to my lifelong comfort – words.
We all have our ways of coping in times of national (and personal) stress. Steve likes to take out his frustrations in a video game. I know people who pound it out at the gym or who pour themselves into knitting, baking, running, or innumerable other pastimes when they’re stressed. For me, salvation and clear-headedness are found mostly in two places: on the hiking trails, and between the covers of a book. And since Election Day, I’ve taken particular comfort in my old friend – words – when the going got tough.
On Election Day, I left the house and walked to my polling place (living in a walkable neighborhood again after a few years is such a delight). I cast my ballot, exchanged a few jokes and pleasantries with the Hillary campaign folks gathered just over the “no campaigning line” on my way out, and walked to the Metro to head into the office. As I walked to the train, the enormity and historical significance of this election overwhelmed me and I started to cry. I really believed that my candidate was going to win (she did pretty much sweep my little liberal Northern Virginia bubble, and I was proud, later, that it was our votes in the D.C. suburbs that delivered Virginia to her). But I still felt all weird and shaky for some reason. So when I got to work, I grabbed a cup of coffee from the kitchenette and fired up my work computer to read the only thing that I thought was going to comfort me in that moment – the Declaration of Sentiments.
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…
In college I visited Seneca Falls, site of the historic signing of the Declaration of Sentiments and the birthplace of the women’s rights movement (now a national historic park). I can’t wait to take Peanut there someday, and show her this important place to her heritage. And on Election Day 2016, as I read articles about women in Rochester waiting in long lines to leave their “I Voted” stickers on Susan B. Anthony’s grave, the Declaration of Sentiments seemed like the words I needed to have in my head. I left the document open on my computer screen all day.
Of course, we all know how Election Day turned out. Everyone coped differently. Some avoided all news coverage; I found myself sucking down article after article on The Washington Post and The Atlantic‘s websites. I know, I know. Reading those publications wasn’t going to do much to explain to me How This Could Possibly Happen In America. But I wasn’t looking for those kinds of answers just then. I was looking for comfort, remember? They delivered that comfort, weirdly, amongst the doom and gloom.
Alexandra Petri, the hilarious voice behind the ComPost blog (and one of my favorite satirical writers) wrote:
You go to Baba Yaga’s chicken-legged shack on the edge of the forest. “Please,” you say. “Take anything you want. I will make any trade. My free press? My bodily autonomy? My voice? My right to a place at the table?”
Baba Yaga looks at you, confused. “You must trade something you still have.”
(From “The Five Stages of Trump Grief,” November 11, 2016).
And Garrison Keillor, that giant of the intellectual community (and D.C. darling) gave us these words in the Post, which were shared and shared and shared in my Facebook feed and which I must have read a dozen times if I read them once:
We liberal elitists are now completely in the clear. The government is in Republican hands. Let them deal with him. Democrats can spend four years raising heirloom tomatoes, meditating, reading Jane Austen, traveling around the country, tasting artisan beers, and let the Republicans build the wall and carry on the trade war with China and deport the undocumented and deal with opioids, and we Democrats can go for a long, brisk walk and smell the roses.
(From “Trump Voters Will Not Like What Happens Next,” November 9, 2016.) Keillor’s words were the only thing that made me smile on November 9th. All of his plans sound great – well, except for maybe meditating, which is something I’ve never been able to get the hang of doing. But reading Jane Austen, raising heirloom tomatoes, tasting artisan beer and traveling? Sign me up.
In the days after the election, I devoured satire, along with social justice reading lists, calls to action, hand-wringing blog posts, and articles that began to take apart the question that historians will study for years – how on Earth…?
(Busted. That’s The Secret Garden playbill she’s reading, not Hamilton. We’re not taking her with us when we see the show on Broadway in October. Oh, yeah, did I tell you we finally got tickets?!)
I stay and work with Hamilton. We write essays against slavery. And every day’s a test of our camaraderie and bravery.
(John Laurens as portrayed by Anthony Ramos in Hamilton.)
It’s not exactly a change to say that we are listening to Hamilton a lot in our house. The whole family loves the soundtrack – from Steve, who now knows it well enough to know when to adjust the volume (for instance, before just about every Hercules Mulligan line except for “Yo, I’m a tailor’s apprentice, and I got y’all knuckleheads in loco parentis.”) down to Nugget, who has recently started to bust out with “Frow my shot! Shot!” at the cutest possible moments. Of course Peanut is a huge fan of the Schuyler Sisters – especially Angelica – and she requests “Wait For It,” her favorite song, every morning on the way to school.
Hamilton, as just about everyone knows at this point, is truly a musical for our times. In telling the story of the American Revolution through hip-hop, rap, salsa, jazz, and so many other styles of song, Hamilton also speaks volumes about the current state of our great experiment. The cast has been outspoken throughout the election process, using their fame to reach millions of people with their message of inclusivity and diversity. And of course, the music is awesome.
I think your pants look hot. Laurens, I like you a lot.
As I’ve been listening on an almost daily basis after the election, a few lines have jumped out as particularly poignant or relevant. They’re usually delivered by one of my favorite characters in the show – John Laurens. I have a soft spot for Washington, of course. But Laurens was a historical figure about whom I didn’t know much, and Anthony Ramos’ portrayal of Hamilton’s best friend and fellow aide-de-camp to Washington is one of the best in the show, I think. Laurens – an ardent abolitionist – also has some of the most thought-provoking lines for our time.
When you’re living on your knees, you
Tell your brother that he’s gotta
Tell your sister that she’s gotta
When are these Colonies gonna
And of course,
Tomorrow there’ll be more of us.
Yes, there will. To quote Hamilton – “Laurens, do not throw away your shot.”
Eventually I had to take a step back from news coverage. I didn’t totally eliminate it – I’m still checking my preferred news sites every day – but I couldn’t immerse myself in it anymore. I’m always reading a book, so it’s not really news that I read books after the election.
The first book I requested from the library after the election was The Audacity of Hope, President Obama’s manual for change written while he was a U.S. Senator. (I did really enjoy his bio on the back flap. “Barack Obama is the junior U.S. Senator from Illinois.” I was all, NOT ANYMORE!!!!) I was craving the thoughtful words of a sane person and The Audacity of Hope fit the bill nicely, although it did cause me to shake my head a number of times and think, these are such good ideas. How many more amazing things President Obama could have accomplished if only Congress hadn’t obstructed him every step of the way. I agreed with basically everything President Obama wrote – except that I can’t “acknowledge that the recreational hunter feels the same way about his guns” as I feel about my library books. Sorry, Mr. President, but nobody feels as strongly about anything as I do about my library books. (I’m kidding! Or am I?)
I’ve also continued to try to challenge my shelves with books by people of color. Most recently, I finished The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead’s slave escape novel with elements of magical realism, and In the Country We Love: My Family Divided, Diane Guerrero’s memoir of coming home at age fourteen to find her undocumented immigrant parents had been seized for deportation and that she was on her own. Both were absolutely harrowing, and both felt necessary for the week leading into the inauguration. Then, craving inspiration, I turned to March: Book 3, the final installment in the graphic memoir by Civil Rights icon, Representative John Lewis. In the months between the election and today, I’ve read plenty of varied things, but filling my head with the necessary and important words of writers who challenge what we’ve just elected has felt like something that I had to do.
I also know plenty of people who have turned to comfort reading. Although that wasn’t what I did after the election, I probably will after the inauguration. Some good escapism is going to feel very necessary going forward. I predict I’ll be spending plenty of time in Barsetshire – both Trollope’s and Thirkell’s – and between the covers of my Persephone, British Library Crime Classics, and Folio Society books. I’ll still be trying to challenge myself and read different perspectives over the course of the year, but the upcoming months are – I suspect – going to test us in new ways, and I’ll be turning to old friends for comfort.
Do you take refuge in words during times of national stress? Any recommendations for either comfort reading or social justice reading that I should check out?
*Title from the Hamilton line, delivered by Anthony Ramos (playing John Laurens) in the song “Stay Alive.”