originally appeared on One Minnesota Writer January 20, 2021
Welcome back to One Minnesota Writer. Here in the first month of 2021, it’s taking all of us a while to move into a sense of hope or calm. The holidays were a very brief and isolated respite, the pandemic front and center at all times. And then all hell broke loose on January 6, a not-entirely-surprising turn of events. The desire to write anything left me. I was glued to news broadcasts that day for nearly 10 hours straight. I still haven’t fully processed what happened. And I know that’s true for millions of other people here in the United States.
Here is what I wrote this past Sunday. Finally, the desire to put something down in words returned, all because of our small dog, Truffles.
The emotional upheaval of recent months culminates in my spanking the dog as she pees on the rug less than an hour after she’s peed outside in her usual spot. She is surprised, her small body swiftly dispatched to the other side of the now-soaked entry way rug. I yell at her even though she’s deaf. She knows. She tries to slink by me, go up the stairs, but I reach toward her to take her outside again before she forgets what she did, and she bites me for the first time ever. She does not break my skin, but the teeth marks on my finger are purple. That’s when I find her old crate, the one we haven’t used to train her for several years. I quickly put her into that crate where she’ll be safe for the next 20 minutes while I regroup.
I am livid and I am surprised at my own response to her mistake. Almost 14, she is getting more difficult as she ages, insistent on her own schedule instead of ours, and we are not always accommodating. The vet recently examined her, so we know she’s just as smart and stubborn as she’s always been. But today, she stepped right into my own horrible mood. After a morning of national news that revisited all the tensions of our tattered democracy and saw the mayor of our own St. Paul, Minnesota, talk to a national audience about the National Guard guarding our state capitol until the inauguration, we aren’t feeling terribly accommodating towards anyone or anything. We are scared. We are anxious. We are tired. Make that exhausted.
Later, the dog sleeps in her bed beside the chair where I write. I am still upset with myself for losing my temper at a small creature who has no idea why I’m acting like a depressed, off-kilter human. She curls up into her usual C, dachshund ears drooped over the side of her bed, snoring. Sometimes those short memories that dogs have are a gift. I think about my own memories, how they play over and over until I figure out how to pack them up, let them deteriorate into fine grains of dust I can brush away. Past hurts are particularly hard to dismantle and send off; they seem to lodge in the base of my throat and choke me, stunting the practice of deep breathing into calmness. I come from people who yell, argue, wave their hands. I come from people with a “my way or the highway” kind of attitude toward their children, whose approval equaled love for a long time
I see that same sort of attitude playing out toward elected officials who grapple with a pandemic and a terrible failure of a president. That this realization throws me backwards into those old memories is a startling reaction, one that I can’t shake as I watch white supremacists insist that their ideas are the only ones that are right. It’s taken me years to understand that my parents were a product of their time and place and culture; it is up to me to move on to a different way of being in the world. They wanted me to be educated and that was what I went out and did. I remember my mother worrying that college would encourage me to lose my Catholic faith, but she wanted me to go anyway. Somewhere in her logic, she must have concluded the risk of ignorance was greater than the risk of questioning the faith in which I was raised.
I’m not sure why I am revisiting that particular memory other than to try to understand people out there now who have uncompromising attitudes. They frighten me for their complete lack of ability to see beyond their own anger, entertain other paths to an outcome, trust those who have public health as their guiding mission, or put down their guns.
Firepower, like a bad temper, cannot be put back once unleashed. My own anger directed at a small dog could not be put back and I am lucky that nothing horrible came of it. So is the dog. Imagine if I’d had a weapon in my hand when the dog made her mistake and I used it. That’s how I view the people who assaulted the Capitol in Washington D.C. – crazily upset people without reason, without filters, without the pause that might offer a breath. However, their upset lasts more than the five seconds I spent on my poor dog; theirs lasts long enough to get transportation to the nation’s capital and plan tactical maneuvers. Theirs lasts long enough to acquire zip-ties and ammunition and bullet-proof vests. They will not go curl up in their beds once someone scolds them for what they’ve done. They’ll plan the next assault. And the one after that.
My partner Mick and I are anxious for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to begin the business of taking this country in a different direction. They have a lot to clean up from the past four years – an inadequate pandemic response, battered relationships with other countries, a national dialogue that is utterly toxic. We so hope for calmer news cycles, a break from our daily “what has our President done now” routine of the past four years. We hope for a kinder, safer America even though we know damn well that the right-wing extremists are not leaving. Keeping them in check is a worthy goal.
When I question how my parents would have dealt with the twin threats of a pandemic and an insane president who incites racists and violence, I can’t see a clear answer. That they are no longer here might be as great a gift as the dog’s short memory. I think these past four years would have broken their hearts. They would have been ashamed of this country for which my father joined the Navy and served on a minesweeper, ashamed that the overall public good was not put ahead of the power and greed of a few.
And that’s what the real charge of a leader is, isn’t it? Overall public good. To lead for no other reason than personal gain results in division and disaster. We’ve seen it every day since January 20, 2016. Now let’s understand it and move toward the strength that is in numbers – numbers of healthy, educated citizens who have the ability to consider more than one answer to the question of what could make America great. Or, at the very least, kind.
As I wrote the above words on Sunday, my thoughts pinging from one idea to another, the clearest thought I had is that we have to temper our reactions, give ourselves a moment to pause before acting, stop ourselves from blurting everything that occurs to us on Twitter or Facebook or elsewhere. I believe that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will offer these kinds of tempered reactions: measured, careful, educated, based on fact. With today’s inauguration, we have an opportunity to build a better country than we’ve seen these past four years.
And we have a chance to be better people. There’s one very large voice that is now gone, leaving us more room to speak kinder words, issue a call for constructive action.
Let’s get to it.