The city is slowly shutting down in preparation for what might have been considered a celebration, if not of a candidate then of the pageant of democracy. Every four years the inauguration of a new president is a dose of glory, a proof that our experiment is working.
However, the military zone erected around the Capitol and the White House — the fences and barriers, the trucks and troops, the shuttering of hotels and house-rentals, Metro stops and parking garages — is proof that something is terribly wrong.
Tens of thousands of National Guard soldiers have been arriving from all over the country to protect the Capitol, and state and county governments have boarded up and closed. Stay away from each other, mayors and governors say, and don’t touch the sacred house that holds us together.
“Man is wolf to man,” my daughter Virginia told me the other day. “It’s a Latin expression,” my husband confirmed, “Homo homini lupus.” I thought of the men with rifles, Molotov cocktails, stun guns, and baseball bats who attacked the Capitol. The noose they erected. The Confederate flags they paraded in holy places. The way humans have beat each other to death, gassed and tortured each other, blown each other to bits, molested, poisoned, and decapitated each other. Wolves are lambs compared to humans.
In times like these, I see how the seed of insanity lies inside every one of us. Our brains are so vulnerable, so powerful. Both a wondrous gift, and a dangerous weapon.
Wolves are prone to viruses like rabies, and it is suspected that this is why they occasionally attack humans. The virus infects the mind, making animals violent, confused, and excitable.
As Luke comes down the stairs in the morning, he snaps his fingers, like he does these days as he transitions between one thing and another. Today he empties the dishwasher before he pours his bowl of cereal. Yesterday subverting the rules, today going along with them.
“Chakras, chakras, everyone loves chakras!” he sings while grabbing two plates from the dishwasher and stacking them on the hutch. It’s a line from his favorite show, Avatar.
“Guru Pathik says that chakras are like pools of water along a stream,” he explains. “Sometimes they get clogged with leaves, and the water can’t move. The leaves that clog it are emotions like fear and guilt.”
“And madness,” says Diana, a fellow Avatar fan, who has just come down in the flannel pajamas her grandmother sewed.
“You mean anger?” I say.
“And love,” says Luke.
My grandfather — who grew up on a Tennessee farm, went to Harvard Business School, and rose from stock boy to top executive — loved God and his country. I always wanted his devotion, his patriotic glow. I wanted to believe his uncomplicated portrait of America, the glory, the innocence, the power. I longed for the time when our nation was noble and true, when its children were capable of achieving anything we put our minds to.
What he loved was an idea, a myth as spellbinding as it was untrue, and I could tell how he dug into it with more and more desperation as he saw the promise falling apart.
When we love our illusions too much, they destroy us. How many of us, believing we could be a star, have wanted to kill that part of us that didn’t make it? Idolizing, fearing, or hating those who have succeeded where we didn’t? The terrible dream, like a virus infecting our brains, can fill us with self-hatred, cannibalizing ourselves, attacking each other.
My husband got his second dose of the Pfizer vaccine last week, the new mRNA one that scientists hadn’t dared to try before. Calamity instigated innovation, pushing us to the edge, making us jump.
Some believe that the vaccine is the solution, that this moment marks the slow rise after having fallen to our nadir. But if the virus did not cause our problems, how can it solve them?
When the world seems to be a smoking pile of ashes, I feel myself wanting to give up. I seek the sweet forgetting of slumber. I walk through my house in a daze, living from one small moment of grace to the next. The steamy smell of sleep in the curve of my daughter’s neck in the morning. Sunlight shining on the cat’s black fur making a rainbow in every hair.
And then I come around to confronting my despair. I am devastated by the hypocrisy of this beautiful terrible country that I have loved. We have to witness the horror. Feel the suffering. Stop clinging to rosy myths.
The fire of crisis is necessary sometimes. The light of destruction reveals what we did not want to see. Havoc makes space for the world to be reordered.
As Eddie S. Glaude Jr. said on this day when we honor Martin Luther King Jr., it is time to “give voice to the trauma in our souls on behalf of a new world. Fight for the beloved community. The beautiful struggle.”