This is grief

I. Denial

NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO

I still clung to a shred of hope when I lay down to sleep that night: there has been some mistake; this is not real. But at six-thirty in the morning on November 9th, 2016, when Fletcher’s radio alarm sounded, my eyelids flew open to a replay of DJT’s triumphant address.

Reality had splintered. We were meant to be in a different reality, one that was now skewing off in another direction, in some parallel universe, and leaving us under these darkening skies.

NO NO NO THIS CANNOT BE REAL

NO WE CANNOT HAVE ELECTED A MAN ENDORSED BY THE KU KLUX KLAN

No we cannot have elected a man who promised to round up ‘the illegals,’ who promised to ban Muslims, who touted an endorsement by the Fraternal Order of Police—a group that you might equate with the routine execution of unarmed black people.

PLEASE GOD THIS CANNOT BE REAL

Only—it is.

 

II. Anger

White fucking women lost this election. (N.B.: I am a white woman.)

How could a majority of white women have voted for him?

Here’s the most moving explanation for this phenomenon that I’ve come across: These women are akin to those who boast about being cool for watching rape-themed porn with their boyfriends: ‘Look at me I’m cool I think rape is funny, DJT for president!!!!!’

BUT HOW DID THE FUCKING POLLS GET IT SO FUCKING WRONG?

Here’s one possibility.

White people may have just systematically declined to admit to pollsters that they were going to cast their ballot for a bigot. (“I personally know many Republicans who won’t admit that they are voting for Trump,” someone told a Politico reporter.) That could be a reason why the front of The New York Times came to predict that HRC had, give or take, an 85 percent chance of winning the presidency. That prediction was based on an aggregation of many polls by many polling agencies. Her alleged odds even spiked to 93 percent in the days after we learned that our president-elect is a serial sexual predator—that, to him, women exist to be ogled and grabbed. (When asked, months ago, about women he might appoint to his cabinet, he couldn’t name a single one—except his daughter. Though he has also, sickeningly, been known to ogle her: “If Ivanka weren’t my daughter,” he once said, in a television interview, “perhaps I would be dating her.”)

If I’m claiming that white women in the middle of this country handed the presidency to DJT, what of their male counterparts, who lined up behind him in far more overwhelming numbers?

I guess I never had much hope that those men would decline to support a bigoted misogynist who is breathtakingly unqualified to lead our country. I’m dissatisfied with that answer, though; I’m dissatisfied that that was my own foregone conclusion. I believe that we are better than that—that all of us, in every corner of this country, are better than that. (More about that in part V.)

 

III. Bargaining

But she won the popular vote!!!

HRC: 60,403,091

DJT: 60,037,301

She got 365,790 more votes than DJT!!!

In other words, only 18.8 percent of our entire country voted for him. (FYI I’m using total U.S. population as the denominator, rather than eligible voting population, because it contextualizes his victory across all of our people, not just those who are eighteen and older and haven’t been stripped of their voting rights.)

I feel a little better. This is not a pandemic. Fewer than 20 percent of Americans cast a ballot for DJT.

And maybe he won’t be so bad after all? He did say in his victory speech that he wants to be president for all of us, not just those who supported him. And he said it was ‘a great honor’ to meet with President Obama at the White House about his transition to the presidency—that’s hopeful, right?

And I’m totally confident that he doesn’t actually believe in anything he said or promised in his entire campaign, except, of course, his claims about his own greatness. So maybe he’ll move to the center? Once upon a time he was pro-choice, and he did promise to fix infrastructure....

Yeah, right.

 

IV. Depression

So it turns out that we are in a different country, in a different world, at a different point on the arc of history, than I thought all along. I was naive as fuck.

We now have a bigoted misogynist president-elect; we also have a vice president-elect who signed legislation allowing Indiana businesses to refuse services to members of the LGBTQ community; who supports using public funds for so-called conversion therapy to ‘cure’ gays; who refused to comply with the Obama administration’s rules designed to reduce prison rape; who co-sponsored a bill that would have eliminated automatic citizenship for children born in the U.S. to undocumented parents; who voted in favor of a bill that would have allowed the detention of undocumented immigrants seeking hospital treatment; and who has (obviously, I guess) opposed the resettlement of Syrian refugees in his state. In terms of DJT’s forthcoming cabinet appointments... no, I can’t even.

That thing about Nazi Germany keeps spooling through my mind.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not

speak out—

because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not

speak out—

because I was not a Trade Unionist.

 Then they came for the Jews, and I did not

speak out—

because I was not a Jew. 

Then they came for me—and there was no one

left to speak out for me.

I have started needing meditation tapes just to sleep at night. They help me out of the wasteland of my thoughts. On a recent night, somewhere between three and four a.m., I had this thought: How good it would be just not to exist at all.

 

V. Acceptance

I will never accept the hate. We must never accept it.

I also see that economic distress and malaise have intertwined with hate in the minds of millions of our brothers and sisters in the center of this country. That is real. And so we must find real solutions for their distress—while disarming the hate.

I accept that this cataclysm has awoken many of us who were apparently sleeping—including me. I accept, and rejoice, because we are no longer asleep. I accept that this terrible new reality has enlivened the most powerful force in our democracy: us.

Somehow, in love and compassion and truth, we must find a way forward.

The two-part art of cleaning the toilet

(Hey there, and thanks for being among the half-dozen to read my blog! If you've read some of my older posts, you'll notice that this one's a bit different. This Life After Loss is changing. Everything changes, actually, so this is merely evidence thereof. What I can tell you is that there's some new content forthcoming—after a six-month lull—so stay tuned.)

Daniel Lobo

Daniel Lobo

Greenfield, Mass., circa 1992. Leonard S. Kramer wore spectacles and black sweatpants with elastic ribbing at the ankles, and smooth trouser socks tucked up beneath the elastic, and a pair of brown loafers that were losing their rubber tread, the bottoms turning smooth and slippery, a sign that they would soon need replacing. But Leonard was not thinking about his loafers. Leonard was imparting a Very Important Lesson to the younger of his progeny, Mattea, nine years old, clad in purple-and-black striped leggings and high-top sneakers and presently standing with her arms crossed, watching her father. Leonard, who was six-foot-nothing when upright and of broad shoulders, was bent over the bathroom fixture, clutching a white plastic brush—somewhat discolored at its southern bristles—and was gesturing with it as he spoke. Cleaning the toilet was to be done in two parts, he explained, and it therefore required a certain degree of patience on the part of the individual tasked with the responsibility.

“First you sprinkle in the cleaning product, like so.” Leonard had transferred the brush to his left hand and was shaking the golden Bon Ami canister with his right, such that the powder snowed and collected on the surface of the toilet water.

“Mhm.”

“Then you scrub thoroughly. I would say a full sixty seconds, at least.” He demonstrated, vigorously working the brush around the bowl and, insofar as he could get the implement in there, its outbound tunnel, as the cleaning agent turned the water frothy and clouded.

“Mm.”

“Now here’s the most important part!” Leonard extracted the brush and held it dripping over the bowl as he depressed the metal lever and the tank rumbled, releasing its liquid contents into the plumbing and filling the thing with a fresh drink.

“Now we look. Did we miss a spot?”

“Uh.”

“See there? It’s hard to get.” There was yet a brown smudge at the opening of the exit shaft. He added more white powder. Once again he pressed and scoured with the brush. Dots of perspiration had begun to prickle on his reddish forehead. “And now? Look, all clean. That’s why the two parts. Scrub. Flush. Look. Then scrub again. You see?”

“Yeah Dad I see.”

“Excellent! Now it’s your job. Every Sunday.”

The mildew-scented letters

You know that feeling of being afraid you lost something but the idea that you’ve lost this particular thing is so terrible that you plainly refuse even to entertain the idea that you’ve maybe lost it, and so you just go on in a purgatorial state of not knowing and clinging to an ever-narrowing ray of hope (which narrowing of said ray of hope you can’t even admit to, that it’s narrowing, because that would acknowledge the likelihood that you’ve lost this thing)? Well, get this. I found it.

Yes, I found the not-lost thing – or rather things, plural. These specific not-lost things being: all the cards and letters Dad wrote to me for all my birthdays and Chanukahs and Valentine’s Days pretty much since I was old enough to read.

So what I’m confessing to you at this moment is the fact that, for many years, I was in the dark as to the whereabouts of these letters. Which even to acknowledge here in this Word-doc-soon-to-become-blog-post gives my stomach a queasy weightless feeling. How could I have spent years not knowing where Dad’s letters were? And let’s be clear as to what we're talking about: These letters represented the entire universe’s written documentation of how Dad thought/felt/cared about me. Thus, for the better part of a decade, I lacked such documentation. Which isn’t to say I doubted that Dad loved me. I didn’t; he loved me.

But Dad had different sides to him. There was goofy Dad who wore a polka-dot bowtie or sweatpants with loafers and who went by the family moniker “Binky.” There was also serious Dad who scrawled notes on a yellow legal pad in his office and cared about making a lot of money. And there was Dad who, I think, became invested in the idea that my brother and I would do a particular brand of praiseworthy type of stuff in our lives, like attending nice schools and landing good-sounding jobs and ourselves making a bunch of money.

And I’ve written here about the refracting effects of time on memory. That is, as the years passed, Dad lost some of his multi-dimensionality in the way that I remembered him. I began to think of him less and less as goofy Binky and more and more as serious Dad. I thought of him as having lots of expectations that I was supposed to live up to, without remembering that he had all these different and authentic sides to him.

And, as noted, during that time – as memory refracted and I mostly thought of Dad as exacting – I was not in possession of any paper documentation regarding how he thought/felt/cared about me, because I didn’t have his letters.

The reason for my cluelessness with regards to the letters’ whereabouts had to do with the fact that my Mom moved out of my childhood home circa 2007 while I myself was gallivanting around the American west. I had duly packed away important things for safekeeping beforehand, including a few precious items of Dad’s into a cardboard file box: a lycra tennis shirt that still smelled of his man sweat; a striped button-down into the collar of which the dry cleaners had stamped his name; a pair of orange polka-dot boxers; his leather pocket calendar with silver pen tucked inside. During the last days of Mom’s residence in our old family home, while I was on a road trip in a baby blue Toyota Corolla from Sedona, Arizona, to points west and north, which involved cooking ramen on a camp stove in a Dairy Queen parking lot in the Mojave Desert and sleeping on the side of a highway near Paso Robles, California, my brother was dutifully labeling the outside of that box in large, clear letters (“MATTEA – DAD’S THINGS”). Then he taped the sucker shut. On moving day, the box was transferred to the basement of Mom’s new house and stored in plain sight.

Maybe you’re thinking that any idiot who’d lost a bunch of letters from her deceased father would have a peak into a box clearly marked with her name and the words “DAD’S THINGS.” Didn’t occur to me, though. Reason being some combination of: (1) I was absolutely not admitting that the letters were lost, thus I wasn’t looking for them; (2) if the letters weren’t in that box, then fuck, maybe they were lost, which eventuality I obviously wasn’t going to entertain for more than a nausea-inducing instant; and (3) to me, the label “DAD’S THINGS” indicated that the box contained, well, Dad’s things – aforementioned shirts and boxers, but not handwritten letters that were from him but that were actually mine.

Anyway, Mom recently organized her basement and had it repainted, after which she toured me around the cool subterranean space so that I could affirm her handiwork. And there, on a stainless-steel shelf toward the back, was the box: MATTEA – DAD’S THINGS.

I opened it. Not because I was looking for the letters (how many times do I have to tell you? They weren’t lost). No, I opened the box because I wanted to see Dad’s things. Which makes perfect sense when you consider that I apparently hadn’t looked at them since 2007.

There, right on top, was a sturdy, translucent plastic bag that contained the letters. They now smelled faintly of mildew, having spent nearly a decade in Mom’s moist basement. But they were otherwise intact. Also in the box was the lycra tennis shirt, though the scent of Dad’s man sweat had faded, and the tie he wore to my high-school graduation, among other things.

I didn’t read any of the letters right then. I didn’t even make a big deal about finding them, since they were never lost. I just tucked the bag under my arm and took it home. And the following evening, sitting on my couch in my underwear, I opened the bag and arranged the letters across the coffee table.

“I love you more than a million mountains.”

“All you have to do is be you.”

I read them all again.

And then I just sat there, on my couch in my underwear, and marinated in the universe of written documentation of how Dad thought/felt/cared about me.

“Slow down, smell the roses.”

I'm your Number One fan.

“Slow down and have FUN.”

“My wish for you is that you see yourself as gloriously as I see you.”

My wish for you is that you see yourself as gloriously as I see you.

I stared at that one, at the words scratched in black ink across a faintly striped sheet of stationary. This one wasn’t only a message of what Dad felt about me. It was also a missive from him to my subconscious.

See yourself as gloriously as I do.

He knew I had a tendency to be tough on myself. What he didn’t know was that he would soon die and that my toughness-on-myself would latch onto a hazy idea that he, Dad, expected certain things of me and, moreover, that I would inconveniently misplace his letters for practically a decade whilst often beating myself up for not living up to that hazy idea of what he (or I?) expected of me/myself.

My wish for you is that you see yourself as gloriously as I see you.

Gingerly I held the letter away from my person so the teardrops didn’t moisten it. Then I tucked it between the pages of a notebook, and went to the frame shop.

Seven days in Mississippi

In 1949, a man by the name of Frank Espada refused to move to the back of the bus.

He was on furlough from basic training in the Air Force in Texas, and was passing through Mississippi on his way to see his family in New York. His refusal to heed the racist admonishment led to his arrest. Then he had to appear before a judge.

“Boy, how many days you have on that furlough?” the judge asked.

“Ten days,” said Espada.

The judge calculated how much travel time Espada would need to return to duty, and then sentenced him to one week in jail. Much later, Espada would come to refer to those seven days in jail as some of the best days of his life  because that was when he decided what he would do with the rest of his life. Evidence below.

Frank Espada became a photographer, photojournalist, activist, community organizer, and teacher, and is perhaps best known for his masterful work The Puerto Rican DiasporaHe passed away on February 16, 2014, and left behind a family bereaved at his absence.

March on Washington, August 28, 1963

March on Washington, August 28, 1963

“Freedom Now,” school boycott demonstration, February 3, 1964

“Freedom Now,” school boycott demonstration, February 3, 1964

East New York Action, early 1960s

East New York Action, early 1960s

“Man With Flag,” Solidarity Day Demonstration, Washington, DC, September 19, 1981

“Man With Flag,” Solidarity Day Demonstration, Washington, DC, September 19, 1981

“Jewish Currents,” school boycott demonstration, February 3, 1964

“Jewish Currents,” school boycott demonstration, February 3, 1964

Malcolm X, after speaking at the school boycott demonstration

Malcolm X, after speaking at the school boycott demonstration

 

Espada’s son Jason wrote to me to describe the devastation of losing his father, who became ill and perished in the space of a weekend. Jason and I talked about grief, about the urgency and importance in 2016 of his father’s historic activism and photography, and about the ways in which the tender humanity of loss enlivens our commitment to justice for our fellow human beings.

It is with humility and deep gratitude to the Espada family that I share the photographs above. See more of his work at Frank Espada Photography and the Frank Espada Galleries.