January 20, 2017
A short piece submitted by Jillian Buckley
November was my first grief. This is a strange thing to confront and admit at twenty-four. I don’t know exactly what this says about the life I’ve lived, or been given, but I have never lost a thing that left me dumb and still and wrecked in its loss. (Heartbreak, I think, leaves a shallower shape.) It is a reckless, idiot luck that I didn’t know I had until November.
I do not know, then — do any of us? — how to grieve for an entire country: for a future, for my home, for female bodies, for bodies, for the masses of people who will die, are already dying. Though it must be done, it is entirely, terribly overwhelming.
And so the grief has shrunk into a smaller thing, as I understand it often does. Something more manageable, still gouging, but that at least fits inside a body: a gut, a ribcage; as comfortable as a cliché. This grief has since changed again, shape-shifted into a thing with purpose and a wingspan, but first came guilt.
I warily, quietly voted for Hillary. I want to say I felt coerced — what choice do we have??!?! some of us asked, outraged and excluded and helpless — but that’s not really fair or true. I can tick off all the vastly uninteresting and lazy reasons I voted the way I did, some of which are better, more compelling, than others. But before I can participate in the next four years I have to admit my vote was somewhat passive and relatively uninformed, and I must feel miserable for not paying attention, for considering myself relatively “politically inactive” and identifying this as a weakness but not a dangerous one. This is humiliating.
I must, too, admit I was (am) privileged enough to be shocked, to have barely registered a Trump victory as a possibility. The grief was (is) acute, unfamiliar and unexpected, and it’s January and I am still reeling — the chemistry of shock, its brief reprieve, gave my body about a week of numb nothing before anything more active took over. This, of course, is the problem. To put it crudely: we should have seen this coming. Because we didn’t, and because we made other choices and looked at nicer things, talked to and trusted only each other, we are here.
Almost everyone I know and respect is angry, afraid, despairing. Some of these people also hold a piece of glittering hope in their hands and try to share it, like cartoonish Hallmark cards: we survived Reagan! Checks and balances! It’s only four years! America always prevails! Few of them seem to take any responsibility, at least not retroactively, and those who do take responsibility take it conditionally, sporadically, and reactively, and only let themselves look at Today, Right Now, all these Bad Things happening. But I’m worried not enough of us know where we came from. That we are blindly blaming a massive swathe of our country before ourselves, and thus perpetuating the violence of misunderstandings.
Panic is a loud and innocent coward, and though its twin voices of Fight and Flight only ever want to keep our bodies breathing, I think we need to pause — we can’t afford to spook at shadows, and must resist the less-lonely and active-seeming temptation of chaos. And I fear, maybe more than anything else, that though our fists are up and our eyes finally open, we are still unarmed.
And so, by blaming myself, I am spending a lot of time swallowing all the mistakes and expired exemptions and splinters of ignorance I can name. Guilt, by its nature, is not active — in its grim and weighty stagnancy, it does not allow for progress. It haunts. All it sees is what you’ve done, and it lives to suffer, it is shy to the future. But guilt allows, in a way that fury-fast impulse doesn’t, a much slower burn: enough time for a bedrock, a new foundation, to form from intense pressure and otherwise useless introspection. If I can only learn at the speed of pain, in other words, then the depth and dimension of retrospection is more substantial and sustainable than anger.
So guilt is fuel, and must be burned. And when it sets itself on fire it will spread — it will not be a shallow shout into an echo chamber, or a re-post of someone else’s borrowed outrage, or pledges to go to more protests. I will talk, we must all talk.
I’m quiet and I am not a leader — I try on leadership traits like drunk personalities (belligerent, manipulative, passionate, loud) — but I will learn, or at least learn how to be a little braver and speak a little louder and try to understand our country a little better than I do. The careful courage of risk, and radicalization, will not come for any of us until we know what we’ve done.