It is summer, and I am 11. I’m at the beach with my friends, playing in the calm waves of Lake Michigan. This water that I’ve grown up with I know like the back of my hand. I’ve seen the beaches change from year to year. I run in the dunes as if I own them, the sunsets a constant companion. I know this water and I feel safe in it.
But in our excitement over the birthday celebrations and the sleepover to come, we forget, or underestimate, the thunderstorm that happened the day before. We don’t think about the undertow. Until it’s too late.
In complete opposition to my conservative, evangelical upbringing, I know that truth is subjective. I know this because I have many stories where I will tell you version A, and someone else will tell you version B. And it doesn’t matter how many eye-witnesses there are or how many facts I can produce for version A, there will always be someone insisting version B is the only version.
Your perception of reality is just that – your perception. Valid. But not necessarily accurate. Not necessarily actual, factual reality. I have been trained in the art of self-deception. Maybe we are all walking around embracing the deceptions we so desperately want to be true. What if the versions of our lives we think we have lived are not in fact, how we have lived?
What is truth?
What is real?
What is fake?
Surely some things are?
We’ve been floating along in the water, only to look down and realize the riptide has carried us out to sea and we can’t touch bottom anymore.
What do we cling to when everything is up for grabs? What is our solid ground when so many people are waiting to gaslight our reality?
This is not rhetorical. I need to know this. It has settled down inside me that I need tangible things to cling to. Words of hope that have proved true. Lives who have endured and bring a truth rooted in suffering. People who have been witnesses to their own histories and whose experiences have been validated by time. Truth that exists beyond perception.
My self-confidence was shattered sometime around age 13; somewhere between the 8th grader sneering at my inadequate attempts to imitate the fashion style of Claudia Kishi and my mother sending me to school in the midst of a botched hair dye job. “It’s just half a day. It won’t be that bad.”
For the record, wearing purposefully mismatched socks is an adequate way to be out in public; being forced to have hair consisting of bright red dye that only covers up the long brown roots, and not the previously dyed black hair, is not. In the first instance, I thought my feet looked cool. Purple, green socks on one foot, green, purple on the other. In the second, I knew that half a head of red hair and half a head of black was not cool. Very, very, very not cool. But how can I trust my thoughts and opinions when everyone is standing around telling me I am wrong?
I was broken when I realized those in authority could force me to be humiliated in public and I could not resist.
Who are we if we are unable to resist? Do we become like horseshoe crabs found on the beach, who appear whole, but are actually empty underneath and crack when picked up? Unable to trust ourselves, we wander, at risk, vulnerable to authority that pounces on those without choices. What do we do to regain our lives? To find handholds on reality? How does one find the strength to resist those who tell you you are powerless? Those who do all they can to make you powerless?
What do I grab onto when I am drifting anxiously through time until it, whatever it is, happens? How do I pull my thoughts away from panic when I am wondering if the mountains that surround me are sufficient to protect me from nuclear fall-out?
What does hope look like right now? Will I recognize it when I see it?
This seems like such a bizarre thing to be afraid of. Nuclear war. It boggles the mind, because who in their right mind would ever use a weapon like that? Who would find any benefit in such destruction to humanity? Surely no world leader would actually…
When I moved to a small town in Virginia a couple of years ago, one of the first things I noticed were metal placards placed onto several of the buildings. The signs were yellow and black, faded and worn by the decades, but the nuclear symbol was still easily seen. These were the fall-out shelters. At the time, I thought it was funny, quaint. The Southern way of holding on to the past. Now, I find the thought of them comforting.
Why are we surprised when leaders are despots? When our leaders are the dangerous ones? Have we not seen history clearly?
How do we expect our rulers to rule an empire without being bound by the rules and expectations of it? Does being nice absolve them of their guilt? And what about when they are not nice, when they start out despised and despotic. What does it say about the people who cheer these men into power?
The riptide carries us down past the beach. This year the water was high; it had been a good winter. In some summers, when the water is low, you can walk on the shore in front of the rusty, brown, metal seawall. I have walked on it in the years since. Walked, amazed at how in this gap between water and metal there was once such helpless terror.
The waves crash us against the metal. It’s such a bizarre fear. How can we be in such danger when we know this place so well? Our beach is right there. Look at our towels! We’re just yards away from solid ground. And now we are trying to resist being thrown against the metal. How can this be happening?
History is looping in on itself. White people are surprised that white hate has come to the forefront, and yet why are we? We know we shouldn’t be, and in our surprise rests our guilt, our complacency and complicity, and our shame.
This specific repetition exists because when did we learn to not let white mobs get away with everything? The digital witch hunts against journalists and professors are eerily similar to the mobs that burned neighborhoods and bombed homes when people of color intruded on whiteness. When were they punished? When were reparations made? When did America decide that hate was too great a burden to bear?
Some of us are floundering because we are faced with the ideals of America crashing up against the realities of America, and the perceptions that emerge of who is right, who is wrong, and what kind of country this should be leaves us with nothing solid to cling to. Everybody is right and no one is wrong. Everything is wrong and nobody is responsible. We have trained ourselves in the art of self-deception.
Who will be the friend who goes underwater to lift my head above the waves, and will I have the courage to be that friend? Do I know what it’s like to put myself at risk? The great science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, in an essay on imagination and reading says,
“All of us have to learn how to invent our lives, make them up, imagine them.
We need to be taught these skills. We need guides to show us how.
Without them, our lives get made up for us by other people.”
The space between November 8th and January 20th has caught us all up in its grief and fear as a year and an era fades. We have lost so many creative guides to this thing called life, who showed us what it meant to freely live. What if no one follows in their footsteps? What if our lives are closer to being made up for us than they ever have before? What will it look like to resist and to be free?
The waves carry us past the seawall, onto the rocks, where we clamber out of the water. We climb up the steep banks into a stranger’s yard, crying and shaking. We made it out, every one of us, and we are old enough to recognize that that hadn’t been a given. We reach the beach to see a fire truck, too late to be of any help.
The slumber party is postponed, and we all go home, shaken and alone, but stronger and wiser, knowing that probably for the first time, we are survivors.
There is a small, little book by John Steinbeck that I stumbled on this fall, called The Moon Is Down, and it has been a scrap of hope.
“Orden was silent for a moment and then he said, ‘You know, Doctor, I am a little man and this is a little town, but there must be a spark in little men that can burst into flame. I am afraid, I am terribly afraid, and I thought of all the things I might do to save my own life, and then that went away, and sometimes now I feel a kind of exultation, as though I were bigger and better than I am, and do you know what I have been thinking, Doctor?’ He smiled, remembering. ‘Do you remember in school, in the Apology? Do you remember Socrates says, “Someone will say, ‘And are you not ashamed, Socrates, of a course of life which is likely to bring you to an untimely end?’ To him I may fairly answer, ‘There you are mistaken: a man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether he is doing right or wrong.'”‘”
What are the sparks that we need to have burst into flame right now? What does doing right and wrong look like now? What will it look like soon? How do we find our way out from under the oppression that seeks to dominate us and how do we bring others to freedom with us?
The Moon Is Down is a little story about World War 2, and the Germans in Norway. Towards the end, the brave Norwegian mayor says to the German colonel,
“The people don’t like to be conquered, sir, and so they will not be. Free men cannot start a war, but once it is started, they can fight on in defeat. Herd men, followers of a leader, cannot do that, and so it is always the herd men who win battles and the free men who win wars. You will find that is so, sir.”
What does it even mean to be free? What is the perception of freedom and what is the reality? What war will we win by insisting on our freedom? How do we resist what needs to be resisted when we are person A telling what is true and person B insists we are lying? How do we find what is real amongst all the fake?
My feet need to touch bottom. Now. Daily. I need to find pieces of reality that are true, that I can return to. Something that reminds me that my socks are ok and my hair is a disaster. I need a real deluminator to extinguish the gaslights around me.
In the meantime, as I float here in the mild panic of an uncertain future, I am scanning the horizon, looking for anything that might make me free. I cling to scraps of hope as if they were driftwood sent to save me. I clutch books to my chest as if they were life vests. Music and podcasts and voices from the margins. I am grasping onto the stories of those who have learned not to wait for solid sand but have built boats on the water. I cling and I cling, gathering the scraps to myself as if these words will save my life.
Because what if they do.
Shortly after our little adventure in the water, a sign was erected along the wooden boardwalk that led down to the beach.
Undercurrents may be present.
No lifeguard on duty.
Swim at your own risk.
I have always been proud of that sign. I know it would have gone up whether we had lived or died that day, but the fact that it is there is proof that what happened to me is real. It is true that in the summer of 1993, an incident occurred at a small-town beach in Michigan, which endangered the lives of 5 girls, and this shall be a sign unto you that the world is dangerous, people are afraid, but you shall not be conquered.