№9 Controlled Burn
Last Saturday I went to a conference for artists and entrepreneurs. During one of the sessions, a panelist talked about his struggle with anger. He said, “Some days I feel like I’m spewing fire and I wonder if I’m burning myself the most.”
There was a collective moan from the audience, a group of like-minded progressives. No one needed to explain what everyone might be angry about.
Someone from the audience said, “We need to do a controlled burn. That way we can replant and feed everyone.”
When forest rangers burn a section of the forest, trees grow back better. I understood “controlled burn” in this context as doing something to help all people get along better. I wanted to be friends with that woman. I wanted to get with her and launch a controlled burn movement. To start, we’d set up conversations between people with different political views. But the more I thought about it, the more it felt impossible.
I’ve been fucking pissed since November 8, 2016. I hate Trump. His face causes a gag reflex. But more than Trump, I feel so much rage against the regular people who voted for him. I went to a new doctor right after the election. The nurse told me she voted for Trump and I walked out.
Days later, a good friend who’s taken writing classes with me for years said, “At least we don’t have a liar in the White House.” I haven’t spoken to her since.
And my neighbor, an older Jewish woman, supported Trump, she told me, because she thought he’d be strong on Israel. I asked about everything else. When I mentioned abortion, she said, “You’ll never have to worry about that. God forbid your daughter needs one, you’ll fly her to Denmark.” I can barely wave to her now.
Some Trump voters are people I once loved.
I’m so crazy mad I want to spend all day tweeting. To feel affirmed, I scroll through the feeds of my favorite political commentators like @JohnFugelsang, @DecryptingTrump, and @FeelingCrabby, which is my mom. My mom is so angry and in her words “grief stricken,” she stays up hours past midnight tweeting. I’d probably do the same if I didn’t love sleep.
But all those angry tweets do is fuel fire, which further divides people. That’s not a controlled burn.
I think what’s burning me the most is that this election has shown me I’m not who I thought I was. I thought I was open to a range of opinions. I thought I was someone who brought people together. When I have a party, I invite my Latina, lesbian friends and my Jewish friends and their husbands.
In eight grade, my best friend, Shellie, wrote another friend Julie a mean letter. The gist of the letter was, “You’re a leech.”
A bunch of girls signed it. I signed it.
I don’t remember the fallout. Did Julie cry? Did she retaliate by launching a stink bomb in the cafeteria? Did she turn against herself and inflict self-harm? Did we get in trouble? I don’t even remember thinking Julie was a leech.
I do remember that a few years later, when Shellie and I had an irreparable fight, Shellie and Julie became friends again. Best friends. I was out.
Since the election, I’ve been thinking about what happened 36 years ago — the shit move of mine and the surprising unification of Shellie and Julie. I think that because I followed without question, I was even worse than Shellie. Like everyone knows Hitler was a beast. But the SS officers who silently followed orders were worse.
That’s why Julie and Shellie became best friends later and why Julie and I barely rekindled our friendship.
I can hate Trump and also sort of admire him for his brazen assholeness. But the people who silently voted for a guy who makes fun of people with disabilities; who doesn’t give two shits about the earth; who brags about assaulting women; who wants to build walls; who’s racist; who lies? Those people.
Why did they vote for him?
Why did I sign that letter?
Was I hurting? Did I feel so bad about myself I needed to put someone else down? Did I so badly need to fit in I would do whatever my friends did? Or was I too lazy or preoccupied to protest? Whatever the reason, I was a follower and I made a big mistake.
I know people voted for Trump for all sorts of reasons. Maybe even some good ones: they thought he’d protect us worldwide; they thought he’d make us richer; they wanted change. Whatever the reason, I need to remember that they were hurting, or feeling so bad about themselves they needed to put someone else down. Or maybe they simply needed to fit in and did what their friends and families did. Those are the people I’m trying to forgive.
If I can — if I can forgive myself for signing the letter — I’d be a step closer to reconciliation and a step closer to creating a controlled burn. But for real reconciliation, I’d have to be open to understanding the other side. I’d have to stop thinking Trump voters made a mistake.
What I should have done, 36 years ago, was talk to Julie. I should have said, “I’m sorry.” And I should have figured out why I signed the letter. Maybe then Julie and I would still be friends.
What I should do now is invite my neighbor over. I should ask her what her motives were and try to understand.
This is №9 of my #weeklyessay challenge I started the week I turned 50. Ray Bradbury said, “It’s not possible to write 52 bad stories in a row.” I say, “It’s not possible to write 52 good ones.”