In third grade, I discovered that some of my relatives were exterminated—a word that made me think of rats. They were rounded up like cattle, stripped naked, pried from one another, marched in the snow towards the gas chamber and the incinerator, where they were piped out a chimney as glittering dust.
For years after that, I would stumble upon Anne Frank’s words, over and over again, scrawled in secret in the dark: “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”
How? I wanted to ask her. I was angry. How could you possibly think this?
Dear red clay on my bare feet. Dear white farmhouse and smell of horses. Dear shiny pennies, buckeyes in my pocket. Dear stick-on earrings, skinny girl legs, shag carpet, the beige landscape of a station wagon. Dear red plastic sled. Dear sensation of flying. Dear hedge apples, found in the snow, hucked at one another through the trees.
Just after the election, I drove up to my favorite mountain pass with a new love. We sat and stared at the saguaros and the muted sunset sky. We felt the wind on our cheeks and watched the cars creeping up the hill, their headlights switching on one by one. We sat on a boulder so big that it felt like our very own country.
How is it that life simply ticks onward? we wondered out loud to each other. Even on the eve of destruction?
On Election Day, we had gone canvassing. We had begun to feel worried that more people were going to vote for Donald Trump than anyone thought. We drove my Subaru through roundabout streets, a neighborhood girdled against Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. We stood in a driveway just over the chainlinked fence from the plane yard. Their metal bodies gleamed in the sunshine.
It was the middle of the day, and most people were at work. But in one house, an elderly woman looked up at us through a fog of dementia. It’s election day, we said, and her daughter smiled at us politely, but shook her head a little. In an apartment, a young mother came to the door, a baby on her hip. Two toddlers in diapers looked out from behind her legs. It’s election day, we said, handing her a pamphlet, and she shrugged. It’s going to be close, we said. Her face said she was as tired as she was yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that.
Dear tired mothers. Dear grandmothers shot with rubber bullets. Dear Black men gunned down by cops at traffic stops. Dear farmers killing themselves. Dear mothers and fathers and children on boats. Dear 100-mile crack in the Antarctic ice shelf. Dear babies born in the desert. Dear families on planes being turned away. Dear brave people in the streets.
I have been writing the same essay over and over again like a bad dream. It’s got arms like octopus tentacles, and all of them are depressing, and all of them seem not to say anything other than this shit is depressing. I keep wondering if I owe the reader some amount of hope. Do we? Do we owe each other hope?
I stay up writing at night, trying to manifest hope. I try to wrangle the tentacles in 22-minute installments while my children watch Paw Patrol. When my writer friends ask what I’m working on, I sigh and say something like, I’m just really in the weeds. I figure that at least the excuse contains some imagery.
I have fantasies about running off into the wilderness. Someplace where the fish and bears and lightning bugs really just don’t care about Donald Trump’s tweets, or Russia hacking the election, or how terrifying Steve Bannon is, or the disintegration of our democracy. Someplace where I can sit in a tree and scream-sob and fixate on the stars.
What would happen if I stayed out there—made a bed out of leaves, lived on pond muck and the marrow of cattails, roasted a squirrel over a fire? What if I refused to engage, to finish my essay? What if I stayed in the weeds?
Dear fat hornworms fed to the turkeys. Dear glassy-eyed gopher in a trap. Dear javelina shot with holes. Dear baby deer I could not save. Dear kitten saved from the drain. Dear truckbed of suffocated chickens. Dear all of the morning glory I have killed, entire arbors of blue-throated flowers that I have ripped from the horse fencing, their tendrils like thread. Dear all of the roofs I have climbed to gain perspective: houses I’ve lived in, my own once-upon-a-time Arizona barn, a three-story building in North Carolina, and on and on.
One winter, when we were teenagers, a friend and and I scaled the roof of a church. We crawled past the steeple on our bellies and peered over the edge. Baby Jesus had been disappearing from the Nativity scene, and all of the newspapers had been covering it. We thought it was funny, but we also thought that with enough perspective we could solve the mystery. So we waited, keeping an eye on Replacement Baby Jesus from our perch, but no one came. Not burglars or drunk teenagers or rival church members like we’d joked.
We were unseeable. From the road came the sound of cars driving through the slush. The moon rose through the branches of a big pine tree, and the stars came out, and maybe snow even fell in our eyelashes.
Dear Dangerous Leader,
Have you ever laid belly-down on a roof in the moonlight and felt snow fall in your eyelashes? Have you witnessed the beautiful resilience of birth? Have you mussed the roots of a new plant with your fingers, stumbled upon a fiddlehead unrolling in the middle of the woods, smelled rain in the desert? Have you spent a whole night rocking a feverish child? Have you felt a great loss? Have you seen someone die? Have you cried until you felt as though you were a small empty box on the floor?
Have you known the exhilaration of sprinting until you collapse in a fit of laughter? A best friend? A lover who makes you so happy that it stings in your chest? Have you followed a trail of ants and marveled at how they stop, each one, to deliver messages to one another? Have you napped in a cow pasture or smelled the musty breath of goats? Have you known the glorious strength of a woman? The infinite imagination of a child who has not yet begun to contain her thoughts? Have you flown a kite, sled down a hill in new snow, picked wild sunflowers from the side of the road?
Dear Leader, Have you not known love? Have you not known joy?
After Anne Frank wrote the thing about people being good, she wrote this: “I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being turned into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder, which will destroy us too, I can feel the sufferings of millions and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.”
Dear oil companies without souls. Dear politicians without shame. Dear blustery man in your golden tower. You will not win.
We stayed at the mountain pass until we could not see the saguaros anymore, and then we clambered down, skidding awkwardly on rocks in the dark. We drove towards the gleaming city, towards the TVs and the radios and the newspapers, towards this precarious future.
Dear America, may we all climb down from our perches. May we come out of the woods and the weeds.
Read Debbie Weingarten’s story “Precarious Things,” appearing in Terrain.org.
Header photo of snowfall and rooftops by Tim Z via YouTube. Photo of Debbie Weingarten courtesy Debbie Weingarten.