Settle in, friends, for a longer read. Get a fresh cup of tea; prepare a snack of the sweet or savory kind. Tuck your knees up under your seat and if you have a quilt, pull a quilt up over your lap. If you have a pet, pat the space next to you so your pet will come sit by you.
I don’t ask for much — I keep not doing a PaperGirl Pledge Drive because I just can’t bring myself to full on ask you for money — but this time I do want something from you and I want it fiercely. Read this post, please, and read all the way to the end. I initially broke this up into three different posts, but I can’t risk parts being jumbled up, so I’ve fashioned a chapter book.
Pendennis, I’ll have you know, is on my lap. I literally went to the shelf to get him when I started this piece this morning and I put him in my lap as I wrote. I need him as a source of strength because I am afraid to write what I am writing, have been afraid to write this for a solid year. I write to you all in the spirit of Pendennis.
To begin, I have to tell you a story.
In 2007, I was working with the Neo-Futurists, the theater company you know I love very much. I was about a year into my ensemble-ship and I was more alive as an artist than I had ever been before, more satisfied with the work than I had ever been. But there was a big, fat fly in the ointment. I had a secret, and my secret isolated me from my new, brilliant, talented artistic family, something that I could not speak about for fear of…well, I didn’t know what, but I was afraid. The entire cast — indeed, the entire company, from ensemble members to the staff to the board and beyond that to every donor and audience member — were vocally, vociferously liberal in their politics.
I was not.
A few years prior, I had read some books and met some people and had some conversations that dazzled and inspired me and I had a cascade of revelations. Until then, I had always aligned myself with my Iowa-Dem-to-the-core family, but there was a lot about the liberal worldview that I had come to object to, had always sort of mildly been repulsed by — I cannot delve into details right now — and with the wind of dissidence in my sails from all this book learnin’, I finally copped to it, much to the horror of my mother and sisters, who have never wavered in their views.
The thing was, I didn’t align with the conservatives, either. What was so electric about some of the ideology I was learning about, which was libertarian, basically, was that it was neither of those blunt, hulking sports teams known as Republican (red jerseys) or Democrat (blue jerseys.) For a good many years, when asked through which political lens I viewed the world, I’d say, with a bit of a bratty attitude caused as much by my political affiliations as my being in my mid-twenties, “I’m a libertarian.”
Okay, so back to the Neo-Futurists. There were many political plays in our show, which changed week to week. I was cast in 2006, during the Bush administration and during that time, Bush was loathed and lambasted in our show; his policies and supporters, of course, got the same treatment. I was a castmember during the first Obama campaign and election and Obama was basically worshiped, even as he appointed to his cabinet some of the same people who had all but engineered the financial collapse of our country, even as government surveillance increased, etc. Through all this, I kept my mouth shut.
Most everyone in the cast wrote political plays for the show. There were impassioned conversations about politics in rehearsal. But I was mum; mum in the show, mum in the room. Then one day, though I don’t recall the breaking point, I decided to break my silence.
I wrote a play called “Donkey Punch.” In it, I sat on the stage in a single spotlight and talked about the proposition of universal healthcare (I was skeptical); about the war in Iraq (I was not entirely opposed); I talked about illegal immigration (how aspects of it made me uncomfortable.) Between each of these statements, I had cast come out and beat me with red, white, and blue pillowcase puppets I had made into the shape of donkeys and elephants. At the end of the play, I rose to my feet and said, quite plainly, what the play was really about: It was about how afraid I was to be the only non-liberal in the room, how I was afraid that now that the people I loved knew that I was different, they wouldn’t like me and they wouldn’t want me there.
So began a terrible time. Some nights, I was booed from the audience, hissed at. The play lasted in the show just four weeks, which is not a long time for a strong piece in that show (politics aside, the aesthetic structure of the piece was true) but I couldn’t take it anymore. It wasn’t the audience that was killing me: It was the ensemble. Not everyone, I must rush to point out, treated me badly, and more on that in a moment. Though most of my ensemble-mates treated me like my family did around all this — shocked and disappointed but sort of willing to ignore it — several members of the ensemble hated me. That’s not an exaggeration: They hated me. One of them proposed a piece at the following week’s rehearsal that aligned me with Hitler’s favorite filmmaker, Leine Riefenstahl. Another stood up from her seat and, pointing her finger at my face, told me I’d be sorry about what I was saying when I got sick one day and needed insurance; none of us could know that within a year, I would be gravely ill at Mayo Clinic. The other very angry person was the villain from this post, so it didn’t bother me as much, but still, and even with the lukewarm acceptance from other cast members of my outing myself as a non-liberal, I was a miserable creature, furious at myself for coming out, furious at a group of people who said they were tolerant but were the rabid opposite. I was afraid of the audience every time the play came up in the show. I was afraid that I actually didn’t know what I was talking about. Most deeply, I was in anguish that the politics got in the way of what the play was really about: Fear.
In the midst of all the grey storm clouds, there was a lining so silver, it has turned to gold in my memory. There was one person in the ensemble who showed the kind of courage in friendship you read about in great literature. Think Horatio. Think Samwise.
After the conversation around my play had reached a fever pitch (this was with one performance under my belt and when the finger-pointing and the Hitler references had been made), Neo ensemble member Bilal Dardai caught up to me as I ran, sobbing, to my car, and hugged me, and spoke words I will never forget:
“Mary. Mary, wait. Okay… Look, I don’t like your play. In fact, I really, really don’t like what you say in it. But I respect your right say it. And you’re really brave. I’m in your corner, even though I hate some of what you’ve got in that corner. It’s gonna be okay. They feel strongly about their politics. Just… Just shake it off. Your play… Is important. It’s important. I stand by it.”
And so he did stand by it. Even though he hated my politics, he protected my right to talk about them. Bilal knows how much his actions of protection and solidarity in the face of vehemently disagreeing with my views meant to me then and now; I have told him many times and in writing this, I tell him again, now, for all the world to see.
That is the story of “Donkey Punch” and now we speed through the years.
One of the things I liked about identifying as a libertarian — in fact, now that I consider it, probably the thing I liked about it — was that it seemed to announce to the world that I was a person who thinks for herself. I don’t vote straight ticket, thankyouverymuch. I look at the issues how I want to look at them. Just because I agree with you on Issue A, that does not imply, sir, that I agree with you on Issues B and C. Buzz off. I loved that being a libertarian was being a pain-in-the-you-know-what, being less easy to lump with the group.
My libertarianism was based also on an extremely rosy, Horatio Algerian view of the world, all bootstraps and elbow grease. Why shouldn’t it have been? My mother, after being heartbroken and abandoned by my father over and over again for 19 years, not only started her own business and put three girls through college but built a small empire with a needle and thread, forget bootstraps. At that time, having quit my job as a waitress, I was making a living as a freelance writer and stage performer. America was a great country. I had proof all around me that if you try hard and do the right thing, this country is your oyster. And so my thinking went for some years.
But, because I so pride myself on being a person who is always trying to read more and think harder, because I want to be the kind of soul who is always discovering and questioning, because I took a certain pride in being so independent I would even turn my back on my family’s Democratic political views if I had to, I kept right on reading and thinking, discovering and questioning; some years a little more, some years a little less. And so it was that about two years ago, I found that I was beginning to change my mind.
You know that feeling when you’ve been food poisoned and it just starts to come on? Those very first twangs and kicks in your stomach, that jet of sour that you suddenly find shooting along your jaw? That’s what it feels like when you realize you might have to change your mind about some of the political views you used to crow about. That’s how it felt to me, anyway. It was, and is, an intensely uncomfortable experience. Because political opinions are so loud, so self-righteous. They’re impassioned and final; they’re pristine, they’re endorsed by history, or culture, or God. Our political views are the megaphones of our values and our values are born from that which we love and that which we are afraid of and when you feel like what you love or what you were afraid of is changing, it’s embarrassing. Your pride is in grave danger and this just plain sucks. My sister Hannah and I were at each other throats many times about things I said or ways I felt about this or that issue and when I found myself questioning what I thought, oh, no. She was right, I was wrong. No one likes to lose an argument. And my sister could be so biting, so arrogant about things. I didn’t like it that she would eventually learn I had turned away from some of the things I held true and thus be smug and satisfied.
As I began to realize that some of the things I used to believe I no longer believed, I felt like I had been walking around with my skirt tucked into my pantyhose for five years straight and had just noticed that was not a great look for me. I felt stupid and, even worse, I felt like I had caused the family pain for nothing. Wait, no: The skirt in the pantyhose was worse. My family would get over it.
The beliefs I had about the world being an oyster for everyone, well, they weren’t based in reality. The wage gap, the color lines, the issue of being a woman instead of a man — these handicaps are real. Some of my beliefs weathered the storm, like my firm belief that politicians and billionaires are all corrupt and in bed with each other. But a lot of the things I ignored or argued against before? They had to go.
And now we come to the end of Chapter II and I must pull myself from the past and put you directly into the present with me and this is the hardest part, this moment, because I have been avoiding it for so long.
I have been living in another closet.
It was made by my own hands and I have kept the door shut tight because I’m terrified that what happened ten years ago with the Neos will happen again, that when I tell you how I feel, you’ll leave me. You’ll stop listening. You’ll forget Pendennis and plays about vacuums; you’ll not send any letters, now, and you’ll say, “Ugh! I knew it!” Worse — way worse than any of that, I’m afraid that I’ll cause more tiny cracks of division among regular folks in our troubled nation and the happy soil of the PaperGirl comments section will fester with typo-ridden political manifestos and back-and-forths between people arguing, Facebook-style, over all this. I can’t bear that. I’d rather shut it all down than see people “talk ugly” to each other, as my grandmother would say. My closet has been my protection against that possibility. And it worked for me, and for you, I suppose, for a long time.
But last night, as a sledgehammer came down and cracked the bedrock on which my country was built, so did my heart split in two. When I saw families that couldn’t get to each other because of Trump’s Muslim ban, when I saw the faces of every immigrant on the boats at Ellis Island being turned back by an anguished Statue of Liberty, rather than shelter them with her generous robe, instead bar the golden door of opportunity and send them away from freedom and back into tyranny; when I saw that, my friends, I wept tears so bitter, they burned. I’m coming out now, because the pain of living inside is worse than telling you: I loathe our president and I am committed to actively resisting him and his policies.
Don’t leave. Listen.
Again and again, I have stopped — literally stopped — my hands over this keyboard, halting my impulse to tell you how deeply I oppose Trump, both the man and the president. Countless times, I censored myself. Because you don’t come to me for politics. Because I want this blog to be an oasis. Because what do I know. Because I have changed my mind before. Because maybe it will get better. Because if you disagree with me and never come around again, what will that accomplish? Who cares about my opinion, anyhow? I’m not an expert and I’m not a journalist. I’m a quilter. A student of writing and a person trying to figure out her life, just like you.
I didn’t say anything when he was on tape talking about grabbing women by their private parts, even though I felt like I couldn’t breathe for two days. Instead, I wrote a post about how wonderful women are. When it was coming to election time, I didn’t tell you who to vote for. I just told you to vote. When he was elected and I felt panic and shame, I wrote about quilt blocks. When he signed the order for the Mexico wall, I didn’t blog at all, didn’t tell you the horror I saw just ten days ago, at the Berlin Wall Memorial, how I just got back from seeing what happens when you wall people off from each other, how sick it is, how nothing good can come. I didn’t blog the day 250,000 people took over downtown Chicago to protest our president because I didn’t know how to tell you that I was one of those people. I marched with my friend K—, who has seen me weep and gnash my teeth over when, when it would get so bad that I would have to talk.
But I’ve been doing research on the AIDS quilt and an image kept coming to my mind. People who were dying and the friends and family of those people, as they marched for the FDA to approve drugs that would save lives, they held up signs that said “SILENCE = DEATH” because no one was talking about the disease that was killing hundreds of thousands of us. Then I watched a documentary about civil rights and the madness of our prison system and Martin Luther King was quoted at one point. He said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
That’s me. He was talking about me. I’ve been the silent friend. I have been complicit in that which I oppose because I have said nothing. I have a readership of thousands. I could speak up about what I see and what I believe and call out wrongdoing, abuses of power as I see them. But I haven’t, until now, partly because I’ve felt hopeless, that it won’t do anything, anyway, that we’re all just too entrenched in our beliefs and it’s too late. Mostly, though, I’ve stayed quiet because I was afraid. That’s over, now. Because this isn’t about me — it never is, not really.
Writing this is all I have done all day. I started it around 10 this morning. I have not been out of the house. I have not put on “real” clothes. I have had a low-grade headache all day and I have been crying, on and off, all day long. I made some spaghetti at one point, ate it. I took a restless, crappy nap around 3:30. I feel so weird, like this day was marked in the Big Book of Days for one thing and one thing only: this. It has taken everything out of me. I am scared to hit the “Publish” button and I know, looking at the clock, astonished that it is nearly 8:00 p.m., it’s time.
I don’t want a blue ribbon for this post. I’m not brave. If I were, I would’ve done this a long time ago. All I want is for you, each one of you, to know how much I love you. And how much I appreciate you reading the ol’ PG, day after day, year after year — because I need you. It’s not the writing I need; it’s you. I have my diary. I have my column. I have the book that I’m writing. I write articles for the school paper. I write emails. But this blog is special. It’s like nothing else that I write because you’re on the other end of it. I’m not alone because of you. I read all your comments. I love them. You are my friends. I love the Trump voters the same as the Hillary ones. Exactly the same. Just like Bilal loved me.
Bilal’s parents, by the way, they’re from Pakistan. That my true friend in my time of need was born to immigrants from the Middle East, this is not an unimportant detail.
PaperGirl will not become a political blog. I pledge to you to not “go off” about things unless I really think them through. I pledge to not get histrionic, or hysterical, or knee-jerk. Believe me, I feel like I walk around with the wrong information or not enough information about anything to talk to you about anything, so you won’t get tirades now, just because I’ve broken the seal. I won’t try to to change your mind about anything that you hold dear; you have exquisite reasons for the things you believe. But before I go, I will tell you one thing that I come by honestly, that you can see plain in my testimony and that I cannot leave you without saying, just this once:
It’s okay to change your mind. It’s okay to say you’re keeping your options open. It’s okay to say yes and then say no.
You don’t lose when you say, “I’ve been thinking. And I’ve changed my mind about a few things.”
I believe in you.