It’s a pile-on of abuse – children torn from their parents at the border, women’s reproductive rights incrementally eroded, health care revoked, environmental protections stripped away. It’s violence upon people (mostly black and brown), country, and planet that is built upon or supported by the daily lies that pour forth from the rumpled lips of the self-involved know-nothing occupying the White House. We suffer outrage overload, we slump from news fatigue, and we carry on. We go to work, we work out, prepare meals, watch Netflix, and go to bed, hoping, dreaming that something somehow will return us to normalcy – you know, the regular levels of racism, sexism, and disregard for the land.
A friend recently posted on Facebook of her own sense of hopelessness about the devastation to the country and the wreckage to the soul. She asked how others cope. Self-care through spiritual practices, humor, and kindness, some responded. Practical steps such as registering voters, and non-political activism such as teaching kids to read or helping people displaced by disaster, others said.
And then there’s art. And belief in the future. The two came together for me recently.
Earlier this month, I attended the Inside Out In-Residence Showcase in which the four Town Hall artists-in-residence reflected on the events they had curated over the last six months. Photographer Peter DiCampo’s events emphasized the power of the everyday. For one of his event’s, graphic artist Erik Molano invited notable locals to reflect on a neighborhood’s past and discuss how to shape its future. Writer and educator Jordan Alam’s work revolved around the body’s physical memories. Poet and cross-media artist Shin Yu Pai’s approach to her events are summed up beautifully in her own words:
I believe in the power of the arts to facilitate sense-making and dialogue and to inspire radical empathy…to reveal forgotten or buried narratives that illuminate what it is to be human together.
One of Shin Yu’s events featured writer Kathleen Alcala speaking on “History is an Act of the Imagination,” which took place on April 13. After her talk, I joined Kathleen onstage to have a conversation with her about, among other things, the past and present, the living and dead, and faith and science, and how they coexist.
In keeping with this theme, we had planned to open a letter to the future my daughter Ana had written in 1999 when she was ten years old. Earlier this year, my husband and I were preparing to sell our house, which we had lived in for thirty-four years. We had nearly emptied it of our belongings when Ana emailed me asking me to rescue something she had hidden in the stairs, certain that the buyer of the house would strip and rebuild and the thing she had hidden would be demolished. She said she had put it there in the hopes that the next child who lived in the house would find it. I lifted the tread of the step and found a cookie tin, which contained, among other artifacts, her letter to the future, sealed with a stamp and with instructions not to open it until the year 3010. (Ana granted me permission to open the letter ahead of 3010.)
We ran out of time at Kathleen’s event so the letter to the future remained sealed. Shin Yu invited me to open the letter during her recap of her residency at the artists-in-residence showcase on June 7.
It was in the context and spirit of the residency themes – art and social justice, art and the power of the everyday, and art and our humanness – that I read my daughter’s letter to the future. Ana’s consent to my unsealing the letter and reading it out loud came with the caveat that should it contain anything too personal or embarrassing, I was to stop reading. I agreed, though I was sure that the words of a ten-year-old girl could be nothing but sincere and true.
The letter to the future turned out to have been written on a ready-made form from a kit. It consisted of Ana’s responses to three prompts. Here’s what we learned that evening:
• The best things in her life are her family and her cats (she mentioned all of us, including the cats, by name).
• Her personal goals for the future are to be a soccer player, a singer, or an actress because they are all very important things.
• Her wishes for the future of the world are for “people to stop ‘puluting’ the planet and for people to stop killing, hating, and hurting.”
Ana is 28 years old now. She is not a soccer player, singer, or actress. She’s applying her strength and creativity in other ways. With a master’s degree in regional development and environmental policy, she is pursuing a research project in the Amazon basin in Ecuador to assist the local communities in developing a disaster preparedness plan. Among her friends is a doctor from the Dominican Republic who spends half his time in the jungle serving indigenous populations. She is helping Ecuadorian friends conduct interviews in a Kitchwa community for an animated book of oral legends. She’s writing an article on cultural appropriation for a local magazine for which she also does translation.
When my daughters were little, I had only a few ambitions for them. I wanted them to be educated. I wanted them to be good people. I wanted them to happy. They’re both educated and they’re both good people. The happiness part is trickier. Here’s what I think is true though. Happiness isn’t guaranteed, but you can’t even hope to be happy unless you’re a good person.
The ones separating families at the border are not good people. And there is no goodness in controlling women’s bodies, taking away health care, and endangering our planet and our future by denying science for the sake of profits.
Yes, we’re weary of the onslaught of injustices. Let’s resist, in whatever way we can, the lies. Use art – literature, music, theater, photography, whatever kind of art – to, as Shin Yu Pai says, “inspire radical empathy.” Let’s reveal and further the narratives “that illuminate what it is to be human together.”