That hope thing

I’ve been thinking these past few days–no surprise–about what the word “hope” really means. Because I think it’s something neither as idealistic nor as simple as it looks, and I’m trying to figure out how to articulate this.

As the election results came in Tuesday night, I found myself unwilling to feel optimistic about them–not even when Pennsylvania was called, and then Ohio. (But was it too soon? Would the results change?) I didn’t really believe those results at all until Senator McCain gave his (surprisingly gracious) concession speech–which left no doubt that he really was conceding. And then I began to feel this surge of–well, of just feeling good about the world, which grew as I listened to Obama’s acceptance speech.

The feeling remained when I woke up the next morning. It remains now. I felt–hopeful, yes–about my country’s politics for the first time in a long time. And–here’s the complicated thing–that feeling scares me.

Once I’d decided who I would vote for in this election, I stopped paying attention to most election news. I couldn’t bear to watch it–the whole business made me want to run away, to bury my head in the sand. My own decision was clear to me; I told myself I didn’t need to do anything else. Little bits of news would trickle in–nothing that changed my thinking–and then I’d hide again. Friends wanted to talk about the election; this made me uncomfortable, even when I agreed with them. They sent me emails, and I wished they would stop, but didn’t want to be hurtful–and on some level I knew it was good that they cared deeply enough to send those emails.

The truth was, I’d been slowly withdrawing from even the small bits of political action I was involved in–the email lists, the letter writing to my representatives and to my local papers–small things, but things, if asked, I would have said mattered. When everyone else tuned into the presidential debates, I found work to do in my office. The small bits of the debates that I saw in passing made me flinch and head back there–I couldn’t even stand to listen to most of this stuff anymore.

Last presidential election, I went out election day to help MoveOn.org (one of those organizations whose emails I used to get) urging folks to vote. This year, I felt like getting to the polls and voting was almost as much as I could manage. (Until I did vote, in itself an energizing act.) Mostly I just wanted it to be over. And I also didn’t want it to be over–I was terrified of waking up under the same crushing weight of depression I felt four years ago.

I remained a believer in improving the world in small one-on-one ways. If asked, I would have even said that of course human beings can change the world, and have, repeatedly, in large ways and small. Yet I realize now that some part of me had stopped believing that, or maybe just stopped believing it as fully. When you’ve seen an election stolen once (maybe twice) in eight years, when you’ve watched your country pull out of treaties you thought no sane country would pull out of and lose the good will of an entire world in a frightfully short time, when the few things you did do felt like they had no effect at all and changed the mind of no one who didn’t already agree with you–over time, it becomes hard to believe that, politically, something good might actually happen someday.

For me anyway. Others managed to keep acting, of course. Maybe I forgot that eight years is a pretty short time, given the scope of history; or about all the small gains that have been made and that do matter; or about the fact that pendulums never swing in only one direction, not forever.

So anyway, on November 5, I woke up feeling good–and truly believing, for the first time in ages, that the world truly could change for the better, not just over the long term and in a global sense, but in the short term in my own nation.

And that scared me. Because eight years–and all the years before that, too–told me something else: “Could” isn’t the same as “will.” Nothing is certain. Hope isn’t a promise–it’s a possibility.

But the thing is–and the thing I think I’m trying to articulate here is–those of us who are feeling good this week, who are talking about hope–we get that. But we feel good anyway, because–well, even that sense of possibility-without-promises is powerful stuff.

As writers, we tend to write the books we need to read, and I’ve been finding myself thinking a little about Liza, the protagonist of Bones. Liza lives in a world where the worst thing really has happened–where the very world around her has been destroyed. Not surprisingly, she mistrusts hope from the start: she calls hope treacherous, tells herself she knows better than to feel it, tells herself hope has no place in her world. It takes the course of a long journey and an entire book for her to really believe in hope, and even then, she reminds herself there are no guarantees: No one could promise, she thinks, not after the War [that destroyed her world], not after so many other things that couldn’t be undone.

Those of us who are hoping now–we too know there are no promises, no guarantees. But in our world–which hasn’t ended yet, which in the end isn’t as dark as Liza’s–many of us are seeing, for the first time in–a short time by historical standards, a longer time by human ones–the real possibility that some things will change, and change for the better. We’re not denying the problems–but we’re not denying the possibilities either.

The realistic possibility that things will change for the better–it sounds so simple, and yet it’s such heady, such world-changing stuff. Getting there will take work, there will be setbacks, not everything we want to change will change–we know that. Hoping doesn’t mean we’re ignoring it. It means we know it, we understand it (understand, too, all the times we’ve failed before), but we’re also not letting it keep us from seeing the real possibilities that exist now. We’re allowing ourselves to hope that the best, not the worst, of the possibilities will come true. And to look for ways we can help them to do so.

Hope isn’t naive or foolish–but it is scary, and it does take strength. Yet sometimes, it can be a catalyst that helps set things in motion–that helps the changes to happen–too.

And it feels a whole lot better than despair.

I think I’ll go sign back on to a few email lists. And write a letter to my senator, before he returns to congress this winter.

Post-election linkiness

This blog will return to its writing-and-life-in-general focus any day now, but the past two days I’ve been just wandering around in a happy post-election haze, surfing the net, reading lj, checking friends’ facebook statuses, and generally getting nothing at all done.

stormywriter on what electing Obama means to someone who’s grown up under the Bush administration: I had a thread of quiet certainty that the world I lived in would be worse than the one my parents lived in, and that my children would inherit an even worse world. It was not despair; I had never known anything else, so how could it be crushing? I shrugged and let it go, never knowing that there could be something else.

tammypierce on has never been so happy to be proven wrong: Up until yesterday I would have sworn that America wasn’t ready to elect a black man as president. I wanted him to be president, and I contributed as much as I could to his campaign, but in my heart, I didn’t think the rest of the country was going to look past the color of his skin … Yesterday was one of those days when, in years to come, people will ask you what you did, and how did you feel. And your memories will be so much better than our last such day, September 11, 2001.

jenlibrarian on looking around her school post-election: finally. here is someone for you, kids.

katemessner shared day-after-the-election headlines and front pages from around the world with her students: … my favorite classroom conversation started when the kids checked out a newspaper from Barcelona. On the front page was an image of an African American man, but it wasn’t Barack Obama. It was Martin Luther King, Jr. We talked about the Civil Rights Movement as a long, long road and noted that even MLK might not have imagined the scene in Chicago’s Grant Park. One of the girls at the front table nodded, looking up at the image of King on the screen and said quietly, “It was like he was there last night, too.”

fjm on why it’s been far longer than 40 years from oppression to the presidency: The Civil Rights Movement did not start in 1955. That’s just when masses of white folks started to take notice.

penknife on how we have to address the concerns folks have about gay marriage: The fact that a marriage with traditional gender roles isn’t the only option doesn’t make it not an option. But accepting that means accepting that there are multiple ways of doing marriage right, and I think that’s really hard for a lot of people to wrap their heads around. There’s a lot of work to do here. It means having some hard conversations with voters, and I think we haven’t yet figured out the best messages to reach them on these points … We’ve got to keep trying.

Election day

I recently started riding my bicycle again, so in the chilly dawn I biked down to my polling place a little before 7 this morning. There was a line at the local elementary school where I vote–I’d thought about waiting until after folks with day jobs went to work to head down there, but I was awake, and I wanted to get this done. lnhammer, who does have a day job and who made it out of bed a few minutes before me was already there. Folks laughed a little as I greeted him and then took my own place in line, but when they suggested I stand beside him, I told them that was okay, I could wait my turn.

It was pleasant, waiting in line with other folks from my neighborhood–students and retirees, a family who brought their toddler along, as they had for the primaries (twice then, once with each parent, but this time they were voting at the same time). A couple of people pulled out cell phones as they waited. “Yes. I’m here.” “I’m in line to vote.” “If I’m late, just open the room for me.” “If you come and vote, you get free coffee at Starbuck’s.” But no one who saw that line turned around and left, at least not that I noticed.

It wasn’t that long a line really–maybe a half hour. I cast my ballot, for president, for congress, for local propositions that took a bit more time and research than either of those races did. Our ballots are neither lever nor touch screen–we fill in the ovals by our choices, much like one does on standardized tests. (Do they still do that on standardzed tests?)

When I left, the line was nearly gone, just a few folks waiting outside the door. I headed just beyond the 75-foot “no campaigning” barrier, to a bake sale run by the school, and picked up a doughnut. Then I bicycled back home, the sun already beginning to warm this desert city. As I did, I realized the fears I felt around this election–and there are more than a few–had momentarily melted away, and I simply felt good: about voting, and about being a part of my community.

And though I’d thought about voting early, just then I was very glad I’d waited until election day to cast my ballot.

(kmessner is collecting voting stories and photos from around the country here. Share yours, and tell her about it!)

Thirteen candidates who may not be on your presidential primary ballot …

… but who are on mine.

Sandy Whitehouse of Vail, Arizona is running on a platform of placing restrictions on mining and supporting rural fire departments.

Peter “Simon” Bollander of downtown Tucson, Arizona is running on the strength of his acting experience.

Leland Montell of Tucson has a fairly standard Democratic platform, with perhaps a slightly more liberal take on immigration.

Chuck See of Tucson is running on a platform of election reform and fixing the world.

Libby Hubbard (aka Doctress Neutopia) of Tucson is running on the Utopian platform. I think.

Loti Gest of Tucson is an elusive figure whose views are hard to pin down.

William Campbell of Tucson is running on an environmental platform. Like many presidential candidates, he also has a myspace page.

Philip Vaughn Tanner of Tucson is running on a platform of improving health care and education and reducing dependence on foreign oil.

Edward Dobson of Tucson has finished five “very good” novels and loves his wife.

Tish Haymer of Tucson is running on the strength of her affiliation with the Tucson Weekly, which has been encouraging local candidates to run for president as part of Project White House.

Michael Oatman of Tucson is running because this is the first year he’s eligible to run for president, on a platform of health care for everyone, rebuilding the middle class and stopping the transition from a republic to an empire, because that didn’t work out too well in Star Wars, now, did it?

Evelyn L. Vitullo of Tucson is almost as elusive as Loti Gest.

Richard Grayson of Apache Junction, Arizona, like so many other early candidates, has withdrawn from the race to focus on his congressional campaign against Republican Jeff Flake. He was running on a platform of Medicare for all, immediate withdrawal from Iraq, and a dollar-a-gallon tax on gasoline to help achieve energy independence.

That’s the Democratic ballot. There are also several Tucsonans and Arizonans on the Republican ballot; you can get a rundown of many of their views as well at Project White House.

My Side of the Mountain

Just read–for the first time, oddly, though I saw the TV movie as a kid–Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain. A lovely little book.

Except for its complete dismissal of women and girls.

My Side of the Mountain was written in 1959, and is a straight-up wish-fulfillment survival tale: city boy Sam Gribley, who has been told by his Dad that “the land is no place for a Gribley,” runs away to the woods to prove his father wrong. Sam lives off the land, tames a hawk, lives off acorns and fresh caught fish, sews deer-hide clothes, carves his own home out of a tree–the works.

Sounds just like many of my childhood fantasies. I spent hours and hours in my weedy suburban backyard, imagining myself deep in the woods instead, living off the plants I harvested there. I camped in the Catskills–the same mountains Sam runs away to–every summer. And best of all, Sam is a bookish runaway–he gets all his survival knowledge out of books and by trial and error. I could easily imagine my 10-year-old self wanting to be in this place.

Except we’re told this fantasy is strictly boy territory. We’re told over and over again that of course “every boy wants to run away to the woods,” and “boy” isn’t just a shorthand–no one in the book imagines this as anything a girl would want to do. Girls barely exist in Sam’s world, and they always represent civilization, not the wild: an old woman who wants Sam to make himself useful; Sam’s Mom, who eventually decides Sam can live in the woods, but only if he moves out of his tree and into a proper house; even the small town librarian who kindly loans Sam books, but never leaves her town and never seems to want to. Only the men Sam meets are wholly sympathetic to his fantasy. Only the men long to be a part of it themselves.

Which makes my 10-year-old self stand up in indignation.

The only time Sam himself thinks about girls is when he grumbles about his sisters, and also when, once, he ponders how it’d be useful to marry a slender-legged girl so that his children, like the deer, would be adapted to the snow. (My adult self nearly threw the book across the room when I read that; girls do not exist just to give you wilderness-adapted children, Sam Gribley!)

Every time I read a book that dismisses women so blithely (and I ranted up and down the house when I recently revisited Asimov’s Nightfall, too), there’s this assumption that we should be able to ignore this, or at least to accept that the writers were a product of their time; that the world was different then and they couldn’t help themselves. But it’s not like strong women didn’t exist in the 1950s; those women worked in quite a few professions that literature assumes they didn’t (my mother-in-law was a working scientist then, and her advisor was female as well); and their daughters were camping in the same mountains Sam Gribley ran away too, thanks in no small part to Juliette Low’s Girl Scouts, who’d been around more than 40 years by then.

Sometimes I think the problem isn’t that I lack historical perspective, but that the writers of the time lacked the ability to see the world around them clearly, and so wrote about the world they were told they saw instead.

I may be a present-day reader, but Girl Scouting is the reason I fell in love with the wilderness, too; the reason I spent summers and weekends hiking and camping and riding horses and watching campfires reach for the sky and wishing I never had to return to civilization at all.

Girls have always dreamed of escaping the bonds of the world around them and running away to somewhere else–not all of them, maybe, but some of them, always. Girls have always dreamed of doing all sorts of things. Often they managed to do those things, but even where they couldn’t–the dreams were still there.

And it’s hard to feel fully comfortable with a book that, however lovely otherwise, tells current 10 year olds that these women didn’t exist.

A compassionate response

It turns out one of the slain at Virginia Tech was the husband of a Girl Scout leader and father of an 11-year-old Junior Scout. I realize, as I mourn for them, and for everyone at Virginia Tech, that Girl Scouting has become one of my communities, too.

But that’s not why I’m posting this. I’m posting it because I really found comfort in the National Girl Scouting CEO’s compassionate response, and I wanted to share it.

TO: Girl Scout Council Board Chairs and CEOs
From: Kathy Cloninger, Chief Executive Officer
Subject: Recent Tragedy at Virginia Tech University
Date: April 18, 2007

CEO Wendy Mellenthin, of Girl Scouts of Virginia Skyline Council, wrote to me with the sad news that Girl Scout troop leader Linda Granata lost her husband in the shootings at Virginia Tech University where he was a professor. The Granatas’ 11-year-old daughter is a Junior Girl Scout.

Our heart goes out to Linda and her family, and to all in our greater Girl Scout family who are touched by this senseless tragedy. National Board member Linda Foreman’s children, who attend Virginia Tech, are physically safe, as are all of the Campus Girl Scouts. But emotions are fragile today as we count our blessings, or mourn our own losses, or our friends’ losses.

“Make the world a better place”…what do these words mean to us now? We can’t stop those bullets. We can’t erase the anguish. It feels awful to be so helpless and vulnerable and full of anger and fear and disbelief. Yet we are not powerless. With the values we learn in Girl Scouting, there ARE things we CAN do. We can try, at every opportunity, to help all people appreciate each other. We can model sisterhood. We can reach out to troubled friends and be there for them. We can raise our collective voice and teach how to honor each others’ differences and seek common bonds. We can accept the hard task of throwing away hatred and striving for compassion. As individuals, and through our Girl Scout Movement, we can do these personal things to create a world where madness happens less and less.

To the Granata family, to Campus Girl Scouts at Virginia Tech, and to everyone around the country who is touched by this awful event, we hold out our hope for healing and for growing into a safer, friendlier, more understanding community in the hills of Virginia and all over the world.

The danger of safety

I was reading research today suggesting that one of the chemicals in anti-bacterial soaps may interact with the chlorine in tap water to create carcinogenic chloroform. I thought of how anti-bacterial soaps are already problematic, because they may encourage the evolution of stronger, harder to fight bacteria–the sort that have survived the anti-bacterial soaps, and so are resistant to them.

And my mind made this leap to wildfire management policies. For many years, we tried to stop all fires, because it was completely counterintuitive that we might want to let small fires burn. That we needed to let small fires burn, because otherwise the forest became overgrown–became where larger, harder to control fires are likely to burn instead.

I’ve watched the mountains in my backyard burn, because we’d tried too hard to protect them.

With bacteria, too, it seems we may need to let ourselves be exposed to the mild stuff–the stuff we have defenses against, or else the stuff we don’t have defenses against will find us instead. There’s some evidence that childhood asthma and allergies may be the result of defending ourselves too hard, too–that the immune system, denied anything real to attack, becomes twitchy and bored, and attacks other things instead.

It’s almost as if the universe is trying to tell us that if we protect ourselves too much, we only put ourselves in greater danger instead. That we need to learn to endure the small things, to bend instead of break, or else the bigger things will find us. We can’t hide behind walls, because walls only invite things capable of breaking walls down, and the people behind them, too.

The world is fraught with peril, and much of American culture seems to be about staying safe, staying protected, staying behind those walls. We do it without thinking, half the time.

But it doesn’t work. If we don’t learn to weather the small fires, the large ones find us instead.

Sometimes the large fires find us no matter what we do. But even then, maybe if we’ve spent time coping with the small fires, we’ll have developed some skill, some technique, some clue that will at least give us a fighting chance against the big stuff, too.