The Joy of “Ex-”

Allison Gustavson
An Idea (by Ingenious Piece)
6 min readNov 11, 2020

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“Celebrations break out worldwide as Trump era ends” — The Washington Post, Ted Eytan

All I could think of to say after Saturday’s magnificence: “What a blessing in life it was to have as phenomenal a day as we just had.”

It was a day of pure connection. Connection to all that is good and possible, to multitudes of people doing their best in this world to make it a little bit more right, a little bit more just, a little bit more beautiful.

Connection to family and friends across the globe who were watching and waiting and worrying right along with us, and finally to a feeling expressed through the best word that most of us could come up with: exhale.

Connection to those sacred church bells ringing across Europe, articulating light through sound.

Connection with a seismic pressure-release valve that seemed to come straight from the earth itself.

Connection with music, which somehow felt more personal. With trees and snow and young people and a kaleidoscope of voices, of all ages and colors, that have finally broken through the white-knuckled grip. With dogs and dancing.

With Joe and Kamala, whose own clear, passionate, steady voices and radiant smiles were a balm and an inspiration, a dream we hadn’t dared suddenly bursting into our living rooms and lighting up the sky along with those epic fireworks.

It was as though a broken cord had been repaired, with us at one end and possibility at the other.

Saturday’s victory was the result of billions of invisible actions made by millions of Americans — over many generations and over the last four years — who truly believed that we could and must. We are as jubilant as we are because we know that this victory, harrowing and hard-fought as it was, is ours.

My family stayed up that night through the SNL cold open and through the brilliant and profound experience that was the Chappelle monologue.

Ultimately, though, Saturday night had to give way to Sunday, and then to Monday, to this new week. Little non-election things started to creep back in. The garbage disposal needed to be fixed, the dogs walked, the week’s carpool scheduled.

I felt a certain kind of vertiginous grief that the ordinary, messy world dared to encroach on my bubble of elated relief. And yes, the soon-to-be ex-Administration’s refusal to concede — and the obstruction and destruction already taking place both before our eyes and behind closed doors — had to be thought and read about, reckoned with, and, at least to some begrudging degree, feared.

“Interregnum,” the period between administrations, is such a strange and strangely perfect word. Perhaps it’s only because this year’s interregnum is so fraught and ripe with potential catastrophe, but for me, even the sound of that word — in the mouth and throat — has the feeling of something being caught or stuck. It feels phlegmy, almost nauseating.

We all desperately want to move out of this dark era and into a newer, more hopeful one. We’re there in our visioning, but reality has not yet caught up.

There’s a lag, an aerodynamic drag: the drag of his predictable sore-loser tantrums, of white supremacist power hoarding, of Parler, of our own emotional and physical exhaustion, of the four years’ worth of accumulated stress and anxiety still processing in our bodies now that we are able to at least feel the flickering presence of a rear-view mirror.

We sense the untold restorative possibilities — the hard labor to be finally focused toward, rather than against — just around the corner, but we can’t quite dig in. Not just yet.

But as someone whose own life has zigged and zagged somewhat dramatically for decades, this weird limbo space between “the story that was” and “the story that will be” has, for me, become a familiar and fertile waystation.

With much practice, I’ve come to view transitions not as empty, panicky, hand-wringing pauses but as periods of profound integration and recalibration.

After four years of activism and campaigning in Massachusetts, for example, when life suddenly took a right-angle turn and landed our family in the foothills of Colorado, the gap was one of real contemplation: Who have I been? Who do I want to become? What aspects of myself will I bring to Colorado, and what aspects is this new chapter calling me to leave behind? What role do I have to play here, where the slate is so clean I could eat off of it?

Like everyone in the world, and as King George III famously sang, I’m once again asking myself “What comes next?” Organizing for Georgia, of course. Remaining vigilant about the many abuses coming out of the (almost “ex-”) Administration and the many that are inevitably still to come. Watching SCOTUS closely. Continuing the work to dismantle the racism within and without. Calling to unlock the cages, free the children, reunite the families. Making sure that we do all of the things.

We are also, of course, immersed in the unrelenting demands of our everyday lives — work, home, kids, schooling, dogs, cars, garbage disposals. We’re navigating holiday planning with unprecedented travel uncertainty. We’re watching the virus models as they prepare for a devastating spike, and striving for a realistic holiday season that doesn’t devastate our children, nieces, nephews, grandparents either with too much absence or with a risky, dangerous presence. And finally, with whatever shred of energy is left — and even though we have learned that this logic is backward and upside down — we know we must take care of ourselves.

It’s a lot.

But if my own personal, emotional, and political journey has taught me anything, it has confirmed the intuition I had years ago, an intuition which found, for the first time, political expression when Obama’s 2008 campaign flicked on the switch in my mind and heart: it is all up to us.

Life wants us to grow, to know ourselves, to be more ourselves, and to live more out loud. To speak and act on behalf of important things. To follow the example of our heroes and the breadcrumbs of our unique and specific lives in equal proportion.

While suspended in the murk of this dreaded interregnum, let’s not simply dwell in the quagmire created by agents of chaos, nor simply wait and wish for the world we want desperately to inhabit.

Let’s realistically meditate on who we were before, who we are now, and who we will be as we enter this next chapter of a story which — if all goes right — truly has no end. Let’s allow Saturday’s joy to take root in our cells so that we might have a reference point by which to find the place where, as Frederick Buechner famously put it, our own “greatest joy meets the world’s greatest need.”

Over these last four years, I have learned that putting myself into the active service of such ideals — while not always as cathartic as Saturday — is, itself, ripe with the extreme pleasures of connection that were so powerfully accessible to all of us on that glorious day when the election was called for Biden and Harris.

This does not mean working ourselves to the bone, day in and day out, and then falling, depleted, into bed; it means, I think, paying attention, in equal measure, to the landscape of our inner selves and to the millions of ways that “self” interfaces with the world beyond us. I can attest that — more than any product or “lifestyle” pitched by a multi-billion-dollar industry preying and predicated on our doubts and insecurities — such an orientation truly heals.

We fall asleep knowing we gave what we could do the day at hand, and then we awaken to tomorrow, open to discovering our place within its breathtaking interdependent complexity.

Each of us has a role to play. Mine is not yours and yours is not mine, but they are inseparable, which is, in and of itself, a joyous fact. We now know that nothing is static, even in the subatomic world, and that everything exists in an incomprehensible web of ever-shifting relationships. When we live with that truth at the center, life has proven to me, every day is full.

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Allison Gustavson
An Idea (by Ingenious Piece)

> teacher > mom > writer > activist organizer > candidate for state rep in coastal Massachusetts > TBD in Colorado foothills >