W(h)ither America?*

Traditionally, November-December is headache season for me.  Whether it’s a result of the changing seasons or the constant damp in the woods or things being out of bloom is anyone’s guess.  I call it Migraine Weather and, in honor of Hemingway, I call the clusters that come on me over these weeks Three Day Blows since that’s about how long it takes for me to normalize between bouts.  They all follow the same pattern: tightness in one temple—left or right, it doesn’t matter—followed by hard, hot jabs made worse when I move my head.  And then the ripsaw.  They used to worry me; they don’t any more.  Sometimes they’re very bad and sometimes they’re not.  Sometimes I can break them early with chemical cocktails of beta blockers and pain-killers that make me pant and keep me off-kilter and sometimes there’s nothing at all that can touch them.

So, regardless of how I feel about things, and regardless of that fact that my current Three Day Blow blew in on Election Night, I can’t in good conscience blame this latest migraine on the American Political System.  Much as I’d like to.  Because that would be easy.  It would be easy to pop some more painkillers and pant and stay in a dark room and wait until it’s over.  It would be easy to convince myself there’s nothing that can touch what’s going on in the country right now.

Very early on in Democracy in America, the great French thinker, Alexis de Tocqueville wondered: “Would it be wise to think that a social change which lies so far back in history could be halted by the efforts of a single generation?  Can it be believed that democracy, which has destroyed feudalism and overcome kings, will retreat before the wealthy or the middle classes?  Will it stop now that it had become so powerful and its adversaries so weak?”

No, it would not be wise.  No, it cannot be believed.  No, it will not be stopped.

Regardless of whatever political leanings I might have, I was proud this week to observe the machine-parts of government come clicking together, to see the innumerable toggles flipped and dials turned.  Regardless of the outcome, I was proud to see the peaceful transition of government proceeding apace and prouder still to see the throngs in cities across American come spilling into the streets in peaceful protest—the faces were anguished, the signs were angry but the right of the people to peaceful assembly remained untrammeled.  On television, a political commentator called the protests “pointless” because the fact-of-the-matter had already been decided and the new status quo was a fait accompli.

It would be wise not to believe this.  Because, it seems to me, the idea of a status quo is or should be an anathema to a healthy democracy.  And, if a democracy is unhealthy—as ours certainly is—then the Founding Fathers have given us the tools to fix the machine and send it on its way again.  Because the machine of government is ours and no one else’s.

On Election Day, after having done my part, I spent the better part of the morning raking leaves.  We’ve got a couple big maples, a corkscrew willow, a lot of different ornamentals.  For a lot of reasons, I’d barely raked at all this autumn so it was a big job.  With the recycling bin full and the work not half done, I began raking leaves into a central mass, circling the trunk of a cherry tree just outside my office window.  I noticed the cherry was sick, some rot had set in that was splitting the trunk and withering the branches.  But the sun was trying to come out and there were patches of blue sky through the rainclouds.  And it felt good to be out doing physical, tangible work as opposed to sitting behind a desk worrying about abstractions like sentences and paragraphs.  The pile grew, larger and larger, and I began to feel better and better.  I had voted, I was working, I had achieved my life-long dream of having a book published and, wonder of wonders, a follow-up due out in France next year.  I took a picture of my magnificent pile of leaves and sent it along to a friend who I knew was worrying down the day; I put a tomato in for scale because I wanted her to have a jokey moment in a fraught day.  Then I went inside, showered, and sat down to my abstractions.


And then I watched the election results as they came in and I thought of Tocqueville and the tyranny of the majority and how it’s not often you can look up out of your life and see the abstraction of thought take concrete form.

I am by no means a political animal.  My motivations lie elsewhere.

This is a luxury I don’t think any one of us, as Americans, can afford any longer.

My inclination was to take to the page and rage, it was to give vent to my frustrations with a machine that has become too ponderous and complex for the body politic to operate, let alone understand.  These days, the machine that we the people have inherited and necessarily tinkered with, has become so labyrinthian that it’s hard to even approach it, let alone influence it.  But rage and frustration are the spoiled little children of fear and I am nowhere near a nimble enough writer to manage much eloquence in the face of all that.

What I can say is, the America of my heart is not the America that is.  Maybe we are close to a real Golden Age and, maybe, being close means being beset by demagogues as they struggle to preserve ways of life that no longer fit the beautiful society we have become and are becoming.  Maybe it means becoming political animals and keeping closer watch on the hands that flip the switches and turn the dials.

No, not maybe.  The machine of government is ours and no one else’s.  We cannot shut ourselves in dark rooms and wait out the next four years.  There’s work that needs to be done—simple, commonsense work like not fostering or tolerating the rhetoric of hate and allowing everyone to feel safe on every street, in every state.  The dead leaves need to be raked.  We must treat the wither in the branch and in the trunk that poisons the whole.

In 1861, the widow of de Tocqueville wrote to a leading abolitionist of the day: “You are a most volcanic people, and when one fancies you are in a dead calm, out bursts a tremendous storm.”

I call it headache weather.

*apologies and respect to Carl Sandburg




3 thoughts on “

  1. Thanks for sending me this essay, of course, being your Mom I zeroed in on your awful headaches, ready to make all kinds of suggestions. But, even though it’s hard for me to admit you and your brother are adults and are perfectly able to handle these types of situations. It was interesting to read and cleverly written, not giving your opinions on the political scene. I’ve never talked politics with either one of you, that’s your own personal decisions to make Thanks for sending me this, very clever. Love you and Kathryn.

  2. Hi Lance, I read this yesterday and I read it again today. Thanks for the beauty and the power of the words. When I read about your headaches I think about Tom Hawkins from American Marchlands. You have such an incredible ability to capture the nuance of that physical pain, and now you’ve captured the angst and growing rebellion of the emotional pain so many of us are feeling today. You are indeed a “nimble enough writer” for such weighty topics. Also, a friend sent me an image that I will send you via your Facebook page because I don’t know how to attach it here. Yes, be active politically, but also, don’t ever stop writing. Also, I’m going to be wearing a safety pin from now on — a quiet symbol of safety for everyone, my way of saying I will do all I can to allow “everyone to feel safe on every street, in every state.” Thank you.

  3. HI Lance,

    Having just read Wilderness I thought that I’d look you up and congratulate you on such a fabulous book. I too suffered from migraines all my life until they pretty well stopped over night. I always likened it to having a small cup inside me that may be low on ‘acid’ and I could eat/drink/do anything or it had acid near the top and a bite of something, a smell, the wind, a light would trigger the acid to overflow and cause a horrendous migraine – ultimately becoming intestinal migraines. They stopped when someone asked if I ate bananas – which I did every Saturday (and had weekend migraines). I can happily eat bananas now – so best of luck.
    In the UK we are watching developments with a real sense of unease and trepidation – I just hope that this guy finishes his watch without the shit hitting the fan and we all learn a lesson from this lurch to demagoguery. All the best, David

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