Listening to and reading the news in the era of Trump has been very discouraging. I have heard many people I love express despondency, rage, or a loss of hope in the face of the sheer force of hatred we are feeling all around us. E in light of the obstacles of the POTUS’ promulgation of “alternative facts”, the Muslim Ban, the success of his cabinet appointments, and his SCOTUS nomination. In response to this despondency, I penned a poem last week, Hope – My Tattered Flag. If you were to go through my blog, you would probably see I write about hope quite frequently.
After I wrote this poem, I spent some time reflecting on hope and Langston Hughes’ influence on my views on the subject, and how that impacted my life. As some might know, my siblings and I, we grew up in violence. I was an escapist, and I escaped, as so many do, into books. There was a point when I was about 11 years old where my older sister and I found a used book of poetry on sale for very cheap. We were able to pool our change together and buy the book and walk away with our newfound treasure.
And what a treasure it was. It saved my life. Specifically, one poem by Langston Hughes. It may seem simple, it may seem like nothing to many people, but at the point I found it, it reverberated.
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.
-Langston Hughes, Dreams
When I found that poem, I had given up. I was only 11-years-old, but I was an 11-year-old living with the unpredictability of a mentally ill mother; the threat of a physically and emotionally abusive father who might at any point gain custody of us children; or worse, the threat of children’s services (at the point, called “CSD”) swooping in and taking us from our mother and separating us children. Forever. My siblings were my lifeline, so the possibility of this happening filled me with a terror that kept me awake at night.
Hope is a difficult thing to cling to, but I can tell you that when we give in to hopelessness – that is when we lose ourselves. Dream was a blessing. It was short, it rhymed, and I memorized it easily. I fell asleep repeating it to myself. I walked to school with it. I rode the bus, ignoring the torments of my classmates who didn’t understand the poor girl in tattered clothes and a book in her hand, living in her head.
Hope is difficult when you’re a child, living a daily battle, defending not only your body but what is real. By the time I was 11, I’d already been forced to read so many books on interpreting facial expressions, vocalizations, and body language, that it made me dizzy. All so that I so I could be quizzed about the body language of my mother’s friends, of our fellow church-goers, and of any random person she thought might be following us. I also had to be prepared to defend myself and my siblings from her accusations. Every twitch, tensing of my shoulders, scratching of my nose, or crossing my legs was a virtual landmine. The tone of my voice, whether I looked right or left so she could tell if I was lying, everything was examined. The constant scrutiny, being woken at all hours to comfort or console someone or to listen and try to convince this ill person whom you love that there is beauty in the world, and not everyone is trying to destroy her… It all takes a toll.
In a world like that, no place is safe. I was skittish, terrified, but more than anything, I was exhausted. I was drained. The thought of enduring seven more years in constant isolation and terror depleted my reserve of hope. And I will be truthful because I am not that little girl anymore, – I was 11 when my exhaustion reached its peak, and I tried to take my life. I would attempt a handful of other times, but this poem and discovering articles on compassion and self-compassion in healing at my local library were pivotal to my recovery and my survival.
At the point I found Dreams, I felt like I was a broken-winged bird and I needed to find a way back to my own dreams, my own hopes, because I was drained of both. I had already memorized many poems, like Nora Perry’s Too Late, Alice Cary’s On Nobility, but this was my first brush with hope.
Now, I am older, and I can say that those words still hold true. We must hold fast to dreams. We must hold fast to hope. We must not let the rot and infection that is hate destroy our souls. We must not let our realities be called into question by an administration that manipulates facts to distort our perceptions of what is real. For this has been happening for a long, long time.
I reject the idea that we live in a “post-truth” world because that is a revisionistic, reactionary term, that revises our history and pretends that once upon a time, there was an imaginary world that was predisposed to the truth. No such world exists. No such world has ever existed. We have history and epics throughout the ages that have laid bare the truth of that saying attributed to George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But we have been so selective in our attention to the past and to which details are important, that our collective memory is skewed. As one of my history professors said, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Historians, however, are doomed to stand on the sidelines and watch in horror.”
What we’re experiencing now has very little to do with what’s true, and everything to do with what’s real. What is, after all, more powerful than the ability to convince a person that something is the reality, and effect a total control over a person’s life and perception of the universe? Truth does not matter to those who simply crave power. To argue about truth with a person who cares little whether the sky is blue or green, but cares a great deal that they can make you believe, is an exercise in futility. We have a governmental structure that promotes “alternative facts” and spews anti-scientific rhetoric because that suits its ego-driven, greedy narrative. It’s not just Trump – he is merely the culmination of the political ideology that thrives on divisive partisan antics, antics which have succeeded in taking the humanity out of politics.
I know from personal experience that you cannot argue with people who deny what is real and who will use every opportunity to twist your reality until it bends to their vision of the world – a world that is often angry and destructive. A world that is utterly devoid of hope.
So, no, I will not bend to this alternate reality, and I will not yield my hope for humanity. Nor will I react to every provocation or opportunity – and there will be many – because I know how exhausting that endless battle can be. I believe in choosing my battles, but I also respect that each person’s battle is theirs to choose.
But we can be affirmed that this government does not represent its people. If we, the people, can become united to strive for a government that does represent its people and has equal representation in every city, county, and state, then we have a shot. But we have to hold onto that elusive mistress, hope. We have to hope for our sisters and brothers who do not view the world through our eyes. We have to hold onto the hope that the world will be better tomorrow because we are working to make that tomorrow better. Hope is not a passive thing, just as love is not passive. We have to work to keep it alive. We have to feed it. So it is with humanity – we forget what it is to stand united because we have been divided too long. We’ve been divided by labels, democrat, republican, liberal, conservative, black, brown, white, red, yellow, immigrant, alien, Christian, Muslim, and the list goes on and on and on.
I hold on to the hope that we can remember our shared humanity, and that we will work toward healing our wounds and forgiving our fellow humans and ourselves. To hold onto that hope, we have to relinquish hate. We have to understand that no one is deserving of suffering, whether we perceive that they played a role in that suffering or not. I watched my mother be beaten by her husband while some people, liberals and conservatives alike, said she deserved it because she chose it, and clearly she had a “lesson to learn.” I will never believe a woman deserves a beating, a child deserves to starve, or a person deserves to live as a slave to poverty for the rest of their lives while their hope dies.
I will tell you what I do believe – I believe in you. I believe in me. I believe in our children. I believe that our children deserve a better future than the one that we’re building for them. I believe it when I say we can remember our shared humanity, and discover what it is to stand in solidarity with our fellow citizens of this nation. We can hold on to this hope and let it feed us while we take the action necessary to stand up in these dark times. And when we stand up, when we rise, we will succeed because we rose together.
The world is not all quiet
Not all sadness, rage, and hate
But the breath between
The quiet before we wake
That shuddering noise
-excerpt from R.R. Wolfgang’s In The Quiet