Donald Trump is my president

Dear United States of America,

I first knew you as a thousand and one telephone poles whooshing past the car windows on the drive from Central Florida to Oklahoma City. Crossing America meant Cracker Barrel and, if we were lucky, a hotel with a swimming pool. Later in life, the drive began in Georgia, but the result was the same: it ended up in a foreign landscape, but familiar hugs. Visiting our family made us special and different in its own way; sometimes Oklahoma would come up in conversation and friends would remark that they’d never been anywhere near it. I’ve been to Oklahoma,’ we could say, and we would tell about cows and cowboys, oil rigs and spicy food and about just how flat a place could be. America, you are a thousand and one places perfectly foreign and absolutely familiar.

You are the suburbs of my growing-up, tacky and prosperous and petty. You are the mountains I call my homeland, rolling and wise until the afternoon thunderclap. You are the county fair, the rodeo and the revival. You are the pool table where I drank Mountain Dew and listened to stories of jail, abuse, and abortion, where deep poverty grabbed me by the collar and dared me to not to look away. There, too, I learned honesty and hospitality and love from those storytellers, and they saved my life.

You are the burned-over industrial city where I brought a wool peacoat to the fight against blowing torrents of Lake Ontario settling under an eerie city glow. You gave me food stamps there, and every penny they saved me went to fund my first semester of seminary—maybe someday you’ll tell me somehow whether you are glad of your investment. There, there was a foreign place that could very well have gotten the best of me; but from the beginning there was, too, a man who felt like home.

You are the little town of a big city where I learned to sail, lived with 23 others in a mansion, rode the last Green Line train of the night, served food to Michael Pollan and Michael Dukakis, smoked cigarettes on a roof under the Citgo sign, and had the theological shit beat out of me. You are all the people I met the likes of whom I’d never known before, a school full of outspoken Koreans and Puerto Ricans and gays and tree huggers and Black people and even a South Dakotan, who grabbed me by the collar and loved me hard.

You are the wonders of the world I’ve seen without a passport: The Atlantic, Niagara Falls, Sedona, Lake Tahoe, Chilhowee Mountain, the Potomac, Half Dome, Eufaula Lake, the Grand Canyon, the Adirondacks, Amicalola Falls, the Rockies, the Pacific. Your land, America; if I ever despair entirely of your people, I will take solace in the land that bears us all up.

Of course I learned about you, too, in school, most often about your unprecedented birth and your unbearable schism only fourscore and seven years later. I am grieving for what I did not learn, like the family history everyone was embarrassed to tell a child; I am grieving every day for a different person who built this nation and in return received influenza, musket balls, beatings, broken treaties, broken bones, families rent, chains, poverty, lynchings, tenements and typhoid, internment camps, segregation, deportation, death. Still, with every grieving person I say that I will always dwell in grief and yet must always dwell in some kind of hope. There is no innocent country; and though I know now just how fantastical it is, I perhaps love the idea of you all the more now, America. That some hotheaded Yankees would plunk themselves down and Declare Independence as if they could just do such a thing. That they would brashly scribble that all men are created equal without knowing what they could possibly mean, and then invent the mechanisms for all of us to spend the next 240 years telling them what they had meant. Government of the people, by the people, for the people. You made it happen first, and it has always been a bold and silly, roundabout and beautiful experiment, burdened by evil but straining toward justice.


 

If there is one thing I can say for sure about President Obama, it is that he has not only governed, he has led this country. He called upon the best in us while demanding the utmost from himself, and we could always look to him when we needed an example of humility, grace, and strength.

In the waning days of his administration, President Obama repeatedly exhorted us to participate with him in the peaceful transfer of power, not sullenly or forlornly but by allowing the strength of our convictions to propel us to become better citizens. If you do not like your democracy, you can change it. Since the election, you already have. Keep on calling your representatives. Keep on learning about your local government. And keep on helping your neighbors cut their grass. Democracy and neighborliness are hard work, but they do not have to be lost arts.

America, we are tacky and brash and very few of our English accents are really all that nice-sounding. We are so many fractured groups, nothing we ever do will be cozy, or elegant, maybe not even civil. And in my opinion, we have spent a very long time doing a very bad job at this democracy thing. I’d say we elected an enemy of democracy. But he cannot destroy it. Democracy can only destroy itself.

Because I have loved so many Americas, I will not capitulate to President Trump’s monolithic vision of one. But because I have loved so many Americas, I will participate in its democracy, the only government I know that tries to honor them all. I will remain subject to this crappy and ever-evolving republic; I will capitulate to the will of my fellow citizens that he form the executive branch of our government. Then I will do everything I can to advocate that we make our democracy less crappy, from improving the education system that undergirds this form of government, to convicting fewer people as felons.

But I will not arrogantly pretend that I alone choose my president. To say that Trump is not my president would be to say that this is not my country.

And that, beloved, I cannot bear.

when singing is hard

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photo: Ben White

Dear bestfriend,

I knew that you knew that I knew that I failed to call you after the election out of nothing but sadness. Acedia, the desert monks called it, and later sloth: when you know what needs to be done and you just don’t. You wake up sad and let the long day ahead flatten you before it even really gets going. Most pitiful and boring of the seven deadly sins.

A tiny part of me tried not to think about you for too long, in the week after the election, because your work with refugees has always overwhelmed me with a fierce protective pride and I knew and I saw on facebook how deeply sad you were. You go every day and you chip away at the mortar between bricks and you slowly bring down the walls between these fleeing people and their new lives. We sat on the phone this weekend and wondered without saying it how so many could choose fear and blame and walls. We mourned for what our nation loses by rejecting refugees. And we fought down panic for those living in tents somewhere in between the loneliness of no country, in between a past of rubble and a future of more tents and more waiting.

We shared the little things we’ve done to try and move forward in the past month, but underneath all that, a terrible sense of smallness. Don’t just blame it on Trump, either; call it a quarter-life crisis. We have been doing our little things for a while now, and so much has only gotten worse. Maybe we should just acknowledge that we are suckers for trying to triage a world that seems bent on destroying itself. Maybe all we’ve been doing is making ourselves feel better about, or more righteous than, an objectively shitty place. We could be excused for deciding to leave behind our idealistic youth, over time knowing less and caring less and just donating a comfortable amount to charities that flatter us in their promotional materials.

Some days that seems like the only sane way out of despair. And here it is, the darkest time of the year, when it feels like we have more obligations than ever to people who don’t make us less lonely. How do you catch your breath when you can’t stop, and when every quiet moment threatens to drown you in visions of walls and wars?

I think what you do is you go see Messiah. It is one thing to be spiritual and go for walks or pray or bake things and try to meditatively get through whatever next thing. It is a more important thing right now to seize upon the miracle that Advent is here in a great grab at the most tangible celebration you can find, namely a three-hour symphony performance that you don’t get away from without worshiping Jesus. I can say nice things that you already know about Jesus coming as a baby, but what you really need is to sit yourself down to hear the angels proclaim the damn fool’s truth that that baby is the King.

This is no longer the time for a subtle piety, my darling. This is the time to declare ourselves the fools, the poor, the babes. This is the time to give out money to people on street corners, to spend an evening wrestling Christmas Snoopy onto the lawn, to stand still and weep at carols we’ve always known. Maybe in the past, those little things we did felt like nice auxiliary ways to be faithful alongside the real work of the important people and pragmatic programs that would ultimately make the world measurably better. Now that they might be all we have, we find out whether we ever really believed those acts of madness meant anything. Whether, really, we ever believed this ridiculous manger-story. Did we really think the Redemption of the world and the cosmic defeat of the Roman empire came as a wrinkly red baby to a teenage girl, his “reign” announced to farm hands and the bumbling old mystics of some sketchy-ass religion?

You go see Messiah, friend, you will believe. When someone sings you half the Bible you sit up and notice that we’re still in that story. Fill up with music and take heart, let yourself imagine that we really are halfway through one of the tales Sam asked Frodo to remember. If God came as a baby then the greatest lie is that the humble unnoticed doesn’t matter. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. And that is all that matters in the end. Go hear the story. Go as a child who never thought it audacious to cast themselves as Frodo. Go as a weary idealistic-but-cynical sucker. Go as the one who hungers to hear the prophet in that opening line, comfort ye my people. Sing through it, cry through it, hug the person next to you; remember that every time you waste your time in worship, give without getting, and let your heart crack open a little further, you are doing the holiest world-changing things that can be done.

When the powers that be declare war on the stranger and the least of these, the only way out of despair is to go a little mad. Look, love, this Christmas we could burrow into the comforting familiar and pretend like that will protect us from these long, long odds we face. But let’s not miss the chance to tell things on mountains, kiss the feet of peasant children, and thunder out like Zechariah, Who DARES despise the day of small things? He is coming, He is coming, He is coming.



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