I woke up a couple of days ago dreaming of a burning house. I was inside the house, but I wasn’t trying to get out. I wasn’t even particularly disturbed. I had closed the door to my room, trying to ignore the growing conflagration in the rest of the structure, apparently worried only about the collection of books on my shelves.
My first waking thought was: “My house is burning down with me in it.”
And I knew the dream wasn’t really about a house. It was about me, my aging body, and the fact that there truly is no way to escape. It’s burning down with me in it, and I just ignore it. I close the door and try not to think about it.
The dream may also be about the state of our world. Now that there’s no Donald Trump shenanigans to fixate on and now that COVID-19 is becoming something that is no longer an immediate threat to my life (Yay, vaccine!), I’m seeing more clearly the generally disastrous state of things—the racism and the misogyny and the poverty and the precarious climate and the probability of further pandemics and the belligerent ignorance and all the myriad manifestations of inequality and injustice that cluster on our borders and fester in our cities and towns. Our house is burning down with us in it. And we close the doors and try to pretend it isn’t happening. When some of us shout “fire,” others just look around inside their own rooms and shrug, ignoring the rising heat and all the closed doors.
What to do?
As for my aging body, I intend to pay more attention to exercise and other forms of self-care.
As for the world, I intend to emerge from my COVID isolation and keep saying what I see and what I know and writing stories about it. I may even occasionally shout, “Fire!”
For all of us who feel as if a four-year log jam has been broken, releasing the waters of American democracy to flow free once again, there are also those who are experiencing their world closing in on them, as its edges collapse and a sense of betrayal gnaws at their hearts. I find myself wanting to reach out to those people, to tell them that it’s not us, but rather the rigid boundaries they’ve set up around themselves that are the true source of their misery—boundaries of gender roles and racialism and religious absolutism. Over the past four or more years during which they’ve learned to deny anything written by professional journalists or attested to by career civil servants, to believe only what one man on Twitter tells them to believe, their world has shrunk smaller and smaller and now…well, what happens next for them?
The deepest misery of my own life has come in moments of betrayal, when a friend accused me of something that only told me how little they knew my true character or when I finally had to acknowledge that a minister I had admired had indeed done something unthinkable. But each time I have rebuilt my life from the brokenness. And this is what I want to tell my Republican friends: Take a minute. Experience the truth of brokenness. Grieve. And then pick yourselves up, look around and begin to believe that those you have demonized and hated stand ready to help you put the world back together again, to build it back into a world we can all live in together. We will never agree on everything, but can’t we at least stop shouting at one another and begin to listen?
The three books I’ve read most recently seem to follow a theme. Maybe you’ll see it and maybe you won’t.
The first of the trio was Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage, a best-selling Oprah’s choice story about America’s most tortured long-term immigrants, those brought from Africa against their will, still struggling to claim their place in the 21st century. Second was Natalia Sylvester’s Everyone Knows You Go Home, a delicately textured tale of the many facets of the lives of several generations of Mexican immigrants. Third was Chaitali Sen’s The Pathless Sky, set in an unnamed country that might be Lebanon, a love story fraught with intergenerational responsibility and guilt and political conflict.
These are stories about how people struggle to build lives for themselves amid circumstances they cannot control – slavery, racism, poverty, violence, migration, and political turmoil. There are a thousand stories like these being lived out by real people every day and every day we sigh and turn our backs and say if only things were different. Every day people are leaving homes and families, going to prison or to foreign lands where they are treated like criminals or live in the shadows. They leave behind parents and lovers and childhoods and dreams. They go in search of happiness, just a little bit of happiness, just a little something salvaged from a bittersweet past, a little something to offer their children.
I strongly recommend all three of these books. Read them in any order you like. It’s a repeating cycle.