Moving Past Cynicism: Inspired by a Former Student

I’ve recently received several emails from non-blogging friends with links to Paul Boutin’s Wired Magazine article announcing the death of blogs. I, of course, send them right to Alan Levine’s response and then shrug and also point to some of the blogging my former students are doing now that they are out in the world. Since my earliest posts, I have pointed to student blogging and commenting for the window into their perspectives, their learning journeys, their creativity. And here I am, out of the classroom, still reading their posts, still learning from them.

through the barn at sunset

Lizi, for instance, blogs from Russia, comparing the post-college working life there to her experience as an undergraduate on a Study Abroad year in Siberia–longtime readers of bgblogging might remember her Siberia blog and her part in an ELI presentation (liveblogged by Leslie Madsen-Brooks) we made with Barbara Sawhill and her student Evie a couple of years ago); Kyle (whose creative work I have pointed to repeatedly–his multimedia explorations figure prominently at the end of my NITLE talk from this past spring: scroll all the way to the right to see them side by side or just click to his Flickr poem, his Voicethread response to Kerouac, his digital story on memory, his vuvox collage poem) is blogging from his year off in India; Astri has an entire Web world in play with her blogging and website; Tyler has resurrected his dormant blog as he prepares to head back to China. Another has been a frequent commenter on The Smalltown Mamas (and Papas) for Obama blog, a local newspaper reporter and now member of my writing group. There are many more I follow, learn from and converse with as they wend their way into the post-college world.

One who is not blogging on her own is Julia. She chooses instead to take part in blog conversations from time to time, and when she does, watch out! A fabulous writer and thinker, her comments are posts of the slow-blogging variety (though she does not link out). Whenever she comments, I wish she had a blog. Yesterday she left me a comment on my post reflecting on the Obama victory, and in it she describes the roots of her cynicism and how she, too, is turning towards hope. It is a must-read piece, and so, I am pulling it from the unread-depths of commentland and posting it here. Enjoy.

cardinal in november

From Julia:

I’m turning towards the good, too. I’m choosing to ignore, for the moment, the fact that Californians just voted to constitutionally ban gay marriage, and that my father’s democratic candidate in Oregon is fighting for his life in what should be a no-brainer election, and that Sarah Palin is still out there, waiting, reloading. And here is why:

There were many times during this campaign I almost posted to this blog. Almost, but not quite. Firstly, when Palin was seeming to gain ground with a certain section of the American electorate. For someone who found the choice an even split between laughable and insulting, I was shocked to see not everyone agreed with me. I began a draft of a post about how someone can be created from thin air (I began again months later with Joe the Plumber), but something held me back. And soon, America became less and less enchanted with Caribou Barbie every time she opened her mouth, so the point seemed moot.

I almost posted when I saw a news report that Polar Bears are resorting to cannibalism. What did this have to do with the election? Besides the obvious ties to failed environmental policies (or lack thereof), it also seemed an apt metaphor. Again, however, I could not write.
I nearly posted an end-of-days suggestion to the readers of this blog before McCain began to slip in the polls. What if every Obama supporter – should McCain win – purchase a one-way ticket out of the country the day after the election? Would the message be clear then?
I wanted to post after the four debates, pointing out the difference in the candidates’ “performances.” As an actor, this happens to be my specialty, telling when someone is not selling a character: they blink a lot (McCain), they seem to physically seize when the script won’t come to them (McCain), they forget the power of their voice, resorting to monotonic incantations resembling a parrot (McCain), and, finally, they break the one cardinal rule of good acting: listening (Palin). Yet, even here, where I truly felt I had something to contribute, I did not. Could not. And this bothered me.

But all throughout yesterday, I began to understand why. I was too cynical. I awoke yesterday morning excited in ways I had not been in a very long time. I filled out my voter booklet, and walked to my polling station, enjoying the warm California morning. I didn’t begrudge a minute of the twenty I spent in line, and I made sure to punch my ballot extra hard, even making the table quiver each time I pressed down. I handed my ballot to the black female volunteer, thanked her for her service, and walked back home, smiling and nodding to everyone I passed. Then, the strangest thing happened: I fell back asleep. For an hour and a half. My excitement had exhausted me. When I awoke, I began preparing for an election party I was hosting. I printed out Obama quotes and passages from “The Audacity of Hope” and hung them up around the house. I copied electoral maps and had my friends guess which states would go red or blue respectively. I made hot dogs and put out the leftover American Halloween candy. Yet, even with all my excitement, I still did not believe he could win.
Then, almost immediately after 8PM PST, the news came in: it was over. And it was just beginning.
We were not prepared for this. I mean, we’d started the party at 7, convinced we’d be up until 4 or 5 in the morning. And McCain conceded and Obama spoke and the faces of the people in the Chicago crowd said it all. And then, a good friend of ours came to our door, running late from a night class for his masters in Academic Counseling. He is sixty years old; he is from Norristown, PA; and he is black. His look of surreal disbelief, of a lifetime of promises come due, jolted me. On the couch he joined his wife, an Argentinean by birth who just became a citizen this year. This was her first election, not only in the US but anywhere, as she left Argentina before she was legally allowed to vote. For so many people, this was personally a watermark election; for our country, it was a victory over cynicism.

I know this because I am cynical. I come from a long line of Irish politicians, and my cynicism is a result of both nature and nurture. In short, I’m the cynic people like Oprah and Rick Warren just walk away from. Sure I donated money and time to the election, but the cold hard truth is I never donated my heart. Because I was sure we were going to get kicked in the head again and I didn’t think I could survive it. Many people don’t understand this sentiment from young people. “What could you possibly know about cynicism, about disappointment?” Well, eight years of Bush – our most formative years, mind you – will do that. And before him? There was Clinton, who was a president to be proud of, who was simultaneously accessible and inspiring; but Clinton’s “betrayal” (as pointless and irrelevant as it may seem now) came at a time when people my age were just learning about moral matters and the insidiousness of lies. To be disappointed at fourteen, and then have that followed up by eight years of frustration is essentially the recipe for cynicism. But this election has proved something to me. And now I’m blogging because I have something to say that needs to be immortalized in print. I am blogging, selfishly, because I want a record of this moment, a standard to hold myself to in the future when Obama does something to disappoint me, and the Republicans win another election, no matter when that may be: I am done with cynicism.

I’m all about realism, and pragmatism, and a healthy dose of skepticism every now and then, but cynicism and me, we’re through. Cynicism is an insidious mistress because it cannot be contained. One cannot simply be cynical about politics, or, I don’t know, vegetarianism exclusively. If one is cynical, one is cynical about politics, AND vegetarianism, AND humanism, AND, most regrettably, love. This is what I feel Obama’s victory has restored in me, a sense that all is possible, whether it happens or not. That’s the mistake of cynicism: it confuses probability with inevitability.
And my newfound faith is not based on intangibles or abstract self-delusion, but on facts: the tears of pride last night in the eyes of Jesse Jackson and my friend who never thought they’d see this day; in the celebrations around the globe among people who still see America as the city on the hill, even if we no longer saw ourselves that way; in the cries and horn honks that filled the streets of LA and other cities sometime after 8PM last night; in – as ridiculous as this may sound – the facebook statuses of friends who are just as disbelieving and proud as I; and especially in the way my 83 year-old grandfather’s voice broke when he joked to me last night that he can finally pull his American flag out of storage and fly it – and his admission that he never thought he’d live to see it wave outside his house again.

Well, it IS waving again, and proudly. And last night, with the Santa Ana’s blowing winds of change across the Southland, I fell asleep to the faint sound of the flagpole down the street clanking. A sound that used to annoy me now ushered me into a dreamscape; one that I wasn’t sorry to wake up from this morning.

A Glorious Morning to Commit to Making Changes in Our Lives

Like so many people across the United States and throughout the world, I am filled with energy and joy and wonder this morning. I wish my father had lived to see this day. I wish Barack Obama’s grandmother had lived to see this day. What a moment.

yes we can

We CAN transform ourselves; we CAN take responsibility and work for a better world. I live in Vermont, a state that in some ways has come to represent progressive ideals and civic engagement–our town meetings are still alive; I can run into the governor in the movie theater; our federal judge sells his daughter’s goat cheese at the farmer’s market on Saturdays. Yes, I’m proud of Vermonters, again.

But, wow, look at what happened in places where people do not feel so connected to those in power, in places where it is not so easy to participate, to feel included, to have a voice, a say. If a country as divided and diverse as ours can come together like this and demand real change across the political landscape, we can and must do it in our own backyards, our neighborhoods, our towns, our schools, our states by doing more than going to the polls–by participating actively in civic life, by speaking up and by listening to our neighbors, by moving beyond our own personal concerns and needs and wants and building a real conservation ethic.

Sentiments like these spill out effortlessly into this post. I am getting used to writing about politics. Words are easy. Some actions are easy. It was easy, for instance, to get involved in the campaign. It is hard to make the real changes necessary to healing this deeply wounded earth, this damaged world. But I saw something so hopeful while making calls for the campaign–how lonely some people were –how alone in their homes, some of them shut-ins, clearly—and yet how excited they were to be a part of something bigger than themselves. What courage.

I’m making a change in my own life because of those calls. With my daughter, I used to volunteer for Meals-on-Wheels, delivering daily meals to shut-ins across our town. And then I stopped because my busy work schedule didn’t allow for my consistent participation a couple of days a week; more and more the ways I contribute to my community are abstract and distanced, through being on advisory boards to nonprofits, writing and talking, moving out of an elite college to work in small rural communities. But how often do I just roll my sleeves up and do hands-on service in my own community besides being on committees, offering workshops? Time to get to work.

bristol, vermont nearing peak foliage

Yesterday while canvassing in my childhood state, New Hampshire, I was shocked by how almost almost unrecognizable it was to me. I grew up when it was one of the most right-wing states in the nation and yet so important to the candidacy of democrats running for president. My parents were actively involved in the primaries; during election season, we often had candidates in our home. The first vote I ever cast was for my mother when she ran for the state legislature (and won) as a Democrat, a woman(!) in a sea of reactionary white men.

Yesterday when a small group of us stood at a busy intersection waving our signs and our arms, we were amazed by the response: so many waves, so many honks from all kinds of people in all kinds of cars–old and young, truckers and Prius drivers, women with children in mini-vans, disabled vets in their vans. We found ourselves nearly silly with hope. We returned home to Vermont, a state that we knew would go overwhelmingly to Obama, with the very real sense that our neighbors would join us.

At a busy intersection

And it wasn’t just New Hampshire that seemed transformed. Young people, too. The numbers of students in that NH campaign office and campaigning here in Vermont, the deep interest my daughters showed in the process and their eagerness to participate seemed so very different from anything I had seen in twenty years as a college teacher. These young people were thinking about the world beyond themselves.

To hear my daughters’ excited voices on the phone (ages 22 and 19) when the news of Obama’s victory broke–to know their political awakening was such a joyful one–gives me great hope about their generation. One daughter, who works in the heart of Wall Street, believing that change can come from within, sent me all kinds of things to post to the Smalltown Mamas (and Papas) for Obama blog. The other daughter, still in college, contributed actively to the blog and the campaign, sending whatever money she could and making calls to Ohio. For them to hear not just the news that Obama had won and to feel the vibrations of those around-the-world celebrations, but also Obama telling us that the road ahead is long and difficult, that we all need to do our part to clean up the mess, to heal the earth’s wounds, to bring about peace, was critical. They know that it is up to them, to us, to make small and big changes, to educate ourselves about the issues facing us, to contribute our own creative thinking to solution-making, not to wait for someone else to tell us what to do, to move beyond our own self-centered-ness.

Easy to write. But what to do? This first day?

My personal plan is to devote a good portion of each day to rolling my sleeves up:

in my home (more bike-commuting, more energy efficiency in the house, more conserving and recycling and composting, more time spent connecting with my extended family);

in my civic life (more hours in the community contributing in whatever way I can, an even more concerted effort to support local merchants and manufacturers and avoid chains, attending more community functions);

in my creative contributions (thinking even more creatively about the new nonprofit, the advising for other groups, my blogging here; speaking out boldly while learning to listen better).

first fall dawn

Yes we can. WE.