I’m writing this blog post from the most privileged place on earth, an artist’s colony in New Hampshire.
Come as I have to hate the word privilege, to hate its meaning as well as its too-frequent and uncareful use, the evidence is everywhere. This place is designed to remove you from the chains of everyday life, be they your day job, your family obligations, the blasted Internet (just try to get on it here!), endless housework, or any combination thereof. You’re meant to spend time concentrated on your art, so you don’t have to clean, cook, shop, pay for housing or food, or make decisions of any kind.
On election day, another writer and I went to shop for the returns party. We found ourselves stunned and unmoored by all the choices in the grocery store. Each of us wandered around for at least ten minutes and finally just grabbed something at random. (I ended up with exotic-flavored tortilla chips, and she stumbled upon chips as well, though hers were kettle cooked). When we left the store, we were both exhausted.
Yes, we’re breathing rarified air here.
That night, I’d settled into a certain confidence that was not uncommon, though some friends (I will be hearing from you) didn’t let themselves be fooled. I thought we had this in the bag. One of the composers here, someone I’m quite sure is a genius, said, “It’s going to be an early night, I can just feel it.” The kitchen staff baked their tried-and-true election night pie, with an H through it. “It worked for Obama,” one of them told me.
That pie and the composer’s prediction took some of us pretty deep into the night. Everyone, it seemed, was drinking. Then I began to stress-eat the odd tortilla chips, and others did the same. Next thing I knew, we’d switched from CNN to MSNBC, a sure sign that we were looking for change, a change in facts, a change in interpretation. But even Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews seemed stunned. The home team failed to quell us, and the bottles began to run out, so I did what any normal person at an artist’s colony would do: retreated to my cabin, drank a few swigs of NyQuil, and decided the entire thing was a bad dream.
NyQuil is a powerful sleep aid, but it’s not a miracle-worker. I awoke with a start maybe an hour and a half later. Checked my phone. Ninety-nine percent chance that Trump would be our next president. Popped two Tylenol PMs and decided in the morning the news would be different. One of my most passionate, pro-Hillary friends on Facebook, however, had already posted what amounted to surrender—and that post easily neutralized my Tylenol PMs. So I lay in bed and thought about how, exactly, I could escape the world the next day.
The idea I came up with? Not a work of genius. It boiled down to: I’d turn off my alarm and hide. You have to know all hope is lost when such a thing can spark positivity in you. I’m part of the “first rush of breakfast” group here, and I’ve got a system—I duck in early, load up on coffee and fruit, maybe a freshly baked muffin. I grab a hard-boiled egg where hard-boiled eggs are available. I refill my ice water. I say farewell and good luck to my fellow early risers who stay for hot breakfast, and I ride off to my writing studio where I get a few hours of writing in before my pre-lunch run.
But this day, I reasoned, after my restless night, I would sleep until noon, roll out of bed, not bother with dressing or food or anything resembling grooming, talk to no one, and acknowledge nothing. And it was amid the flow of creating this plan that I began drifting into another world. Soon, I was asleep.
I woke up an hour later, at 6:30 AM, and checked my phone again. President-Elect Trump, it said. The day I could glimpse outside was going to be a gloomy one—rainy and no sunshine—this I already knew and had planned for earlier. I would do laundry on Wednesday, I’d declared, on account of the rain and not great running weather. How little I’d thought of the possibility of this. How little I’d thought, period.
So, what could I do now that I was awake? I gave up and went to breakfast. Three of the regulars were there—two men and a woman. The two African-American men, to my absolute surprise, seemed completely unfazed. Gallows humor from the young playwright. Assurances that our country can’t turn into a dictatorship from the double bass player, who’s seen some stuff in his seven or so decades on the planet.
The woman, a composer, looked at me. “Do you need a hug?” she asked. She was the one who’d said, as the returns came in, “I’ve written my GP and requested to be murdered for a $40 copay.” I made a show of being okay. It seemed ridiculous, suddenly, that they were okay and I wasn’t okay. She didn’t miss a beat. “Would you feel better if one of us grabbed you by the pussy?” She said it with such mock sincerity that we all busted up.
“Thank you for reminding me that laughter is possible,” I said.
“We have to laugh. We have to laugh!” the playwright said, as I trundled off to get to work.
I’ve been pained to come up with any kind of response when people ask me what I’m working on, why I’m here, what my novel’s about. The thing is, it’s about the swamp of vitriol we’re living in. It’s about a bully who wins and how sometimes you have to learn how to live when bullies win. Suddenly, the entire project seemed both too big, too small, hyper relevant, and irrelevant all at once. It’s probably how one novelist I know felt when she was deep into writing about a terrorist plane attack and then 9/11 hit. She abandoned the novel. Would I abandon the novel? It seemed so pointless now.
But there was other important work to be done, of course. My mother had volunteered like a madwoman for Hillary, and I could feel her devastation clear as a bell over the 2,000 miles between us. And her devastation made mine feel twenty times worse. She’d texted me early on election day, when I’d said my daughters would call her when Hillary won. She wrote back jubilantly: “My darling dear! To think that back in Las Cruces, you were two years old and your momma was hosting at least 3 to 5 consciousness raising groups each week… that we’d be texting about a woman president in 2016. WOW, and our girls will never know, unless they happen to take a women’s studies class.”
Now, on black Wednesday, I called her. When I thought of what just happened to Hillary the person, not even Hillary the candidate, I couldn’t help but connect her to my mom. They’re of the same generation, lived a similar kind of activism. Hell, had the circumstances been slightly different, maybe my mother would be running to become the first woman president! I’d begun to feel that this whole election had all happened to my mother, specifically. Everything felt suddenly and devastatingly specific.
She picked up the phone immediately. She was in tears.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
I was sorry for so many things: that this had happened; what it meant to women, people of color, Muslims, people with disabilities, immigrants, LGBTQ populations—all people she’s spent her life sticking up for. Mostly I was sorry, though, that I, personally, hadn’t helped. I’d been for Bernie, but other than voting for her and watching the polls, I didn’t do enough for Hillary. I was partly responsible.
“I’m responsible,” I said to my mom.
We talked through it, how this was our rock bottom and we needed to get sober. She pointed out that on the plus side, thanks to a ballot measure, we now had assisted suicide in Colorado. I told her about the composer’s post, begging to be murdered by her MD. We laughed. It felt important that we got to a place that was better than despair, and just talking, we got there.
Meanwhile, my father, on the West Coast, sent out an apocalyptic email.
He, too, has spent his life in activism, and he, too, read the election results as a referendum on his life’s work, as well as his life itself. A gay man who traveled the world fighting the spread of HIV/AIDS, he’d finally seen during Obama’s presidency his bond with his partner of over 30 years legalized. Now he’d just watched their very marriage used as a campaign wedge. In his email, there was talk of deep retreat and despondency and never coming back. There was talk of a life-long media blackout; my dad, the news junkie.
I needed to do laundry and I needed to call my father.
I kept thinking of the double bass player and how I could buoy my father, also a musician, with his story. I’d learned during the ill-fated returns party a lot more about his life, playing with some of the greats of jazz, teaching at a university, and then making a huge, late-career breakaway from performing to composing. One of his first compositions was nominated for a Grammy. He’d won a Guggenheim. Now he’d been commissioned to write something for a 75-piece orchestra. He was my parents’ generation and lived like they did through the MLK assassination, the beginning of the end of Jim Crow, and so much else. “He’s just president,” he’d said to me that morning, “and he’s going to be surprised at all that he can’t do.” Something about his deep voice, the calm wag of his head when he talks, his slow and steady blinking—it calmed me.
I called my father and told him about the double bass player. He read me some emails he got in response to his apocalyptic one. We found a way to laugh. We reminded each other that my daughters, his granddaughters, are worth the fight we have ahead of us.
Later, at dinner, I asked the playwright if he was still feeling optimistic. “Optimistic? Not exactly,” he said, and people started gathering around. “I mean, I have a catastrophic imagination, and I’ve been reading about genocides and oppressive regimes, believe me. But we still have two months left of Obama, and we need to enjoy it,” he said. “I think we have some time before the death squads begin.”
The realities of this, the new and unimaginable consequences, will be crashing into us in waves, but that doesn’t mean give up. We can’t. As David Remnick said in his brisk and heartfelt reaction to the night:
Late last night, as the results were coming in from the last states, a friend called me full of sadness, full of anxiety about conflict, about war. Why not leave the country? But despair is no answer. To combat authoritarianism, to call out lies, to struggle honorably and fiercely in the name of American ideals—that is what is left to do. That is all there is to do.
So what am I saying? Why do stories matter, and what must Lighthouse and the larger literary community do with what just happened? It’s clear that we’re not hearing each other’s stories right now. Some of us are only listening to stories we want to hear. Others are not listening at all. Many people in our country don’t have experience engaging with literature or know the pleasure and clarity that can come with crafting and revising a story of their own. That’s where we can help. Maybe we direct them to simply write about a day in their life at, say, an artist’s colony. Maybe the story’s about trying to find a shred of grace in interactions with other, living beings, especially when it seems hope is all but lost.
This post is part of our annual Lit Counts series, in which writers and readers express why supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop—is important to them. If you agree, consider supporting Lighthouse on Colorado Gives Day. Mark your calendar for December 6 or schedule your gift now. Thank you!
Andrea Dupree is the program director for Lighthouse Writers Workshop, which she co-founded in 1997 with Michael J. Henry.