Shay and I sit on the porch, exhaling. It has been a week, a year, and a close-to-four year thing. There’s still so much wrong with our country, Covid cases are rising daily to proportions of great anguish, millions of people voted for someone who denies reality (the pandemic, climate change, etc.) and the rights and dignity of so many humans, and untold beings suffer.
So much is too much or not enough, especially over this week when I’ve been hitting the GABA (to help me calm the $%#% down), the Pepto Bismal, and the pillow only to wake up anxious or excited at irregular intervals. I’ve done more math, including all sorts of contortions with percentages and adding very big numbers, in the past three days than I have in the last decade. There have been many hopeful or freaking out phone calls punctuated by big bouts of googling various angles of the same question. Yet in the end it seems certain a good outcome (mostly) will prevail.
Life, as Ken often reminds me, comes point-blank at us, often overfilling our imagined capacity. Then there are pauses, like right now. I sit with my tired brain and finally calm digestive tract, surrounded by the sunlight-filled leaves of the hackberry tree, the loving eyes of our old dog who struggles to walk, and the balmy air of a sweet autumnal day. Once again, I’m so happy and grateful to be here in every possible way.
Gaslighting. What a useful word that, when I first heard it, snapped a whole lot of abuse and shaming I suffered into a new and true reality. That’s because gaslighting is manipulating someone into questioning her take on the world, and at its most extreme, her sanity.
The term for this systematic psychological manipulation originated in Patrick Hamilton’s 1938 stage play Gas Light and was popularized in the 1944 film of the same title (starring Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotten). In Gaslight, ahusband convinces his wife that she’s insane, mostly by incremental changes in their home, such as slowly dimming their gas lights while acting as if nothing has changed.
Having grown up with a father who constantly beat into me (by word and by hand) that reality was a land that didn’t include me or I obviously couldn’t even grasp, I grew up sensitized to many manner of experiences that reinforced gaslighting. Being a woman in a patriarchal culture with the added layer of working in academia for 33 years (which, even among spectacular educators and student-centered learning, has plenty of tiny gaslight villages) provided me with lots of grist for the mill.
I’ve been a teenager told her calling to be a poet was a pipe dream. I’ve been a young reporter, activist, non-profit employee, and faculty member told that her ideas were “interesting” with a patronizing chuckle or told I didn’t understand how things are because I was too young, female, naive, sensitive, intense, or other terms was used to put me on the shelf. As I developed new things that did mirror Reality with a capital R — such as Transformative Language Arts, which focuses on learning who we and our communities are through arts-based inquiry and experiential learning — I faced years of academic edition gaslighting, often manifested in men telling me what was and wasn’t real scholarship or the purpose of an education.
How many times have I and so many of us (especially if you’re female, LGTBQ, living with serious illness or disability, a person of color, or low income) sat in rooms where someone *calmly* and *logically* mansplained to us why what we asked or said was irrational, unrealistic, impossible, or just crazy-wrong? How many times have we heard “Let’s not let our emotions run away with us” by someone who was backhoeing in made-up rationale actually based on their emotions and on burying our spirits? How many times have we heard we’re too much or not enough?
Even writing this post, I realize my hands are shaking and my heart is racing because I — like so many of us — have had to endure people in power trying to turn down the gas lights of my own and so many others’ innate power to create, speak our truths, and live authentically. Make no mistake about this: gaslighting is all about power. It’s designed to take away, diminish, or otherwise obliterate our power to believe in ourselves, to speak and act for change, and to feel the full weight of our voices and visions.
Which brings me to why I won’t watch the debates.
The two specimens from the party in office exemplify two sides of the gaslighting coin. One screams, belittles, sabotages, name-calls, changes course in a split-second, and yells some more. The other talks steadily wearing a mask of calm logic completely impenetrable to all reality except for a fly landing on his head. Both divert, obstruct, talk over others, and are obviously convinced that any agreed-upon rules or norms don’t apply to them. They also both use the formula of lie, deny, and repeat multiplied exponentially until they and their followers believe what they say is as solid as bedrock.
I’m not saying the challenging party is perfect, but they are talking some undeniable reality: Yes, climate change is real. Yes, Covid-19 is far more deadly than the flu, and hey, America has 4% of the world population, and over 20% of the cases of this lethal and, if you survive, potentially life-long disease. Yes, people of color are systematically targeted by many police departments, and they die and suffer at much higher rate due to racism, the pandemic, and economic disparities.
I believe that the debates are important in showing us more of what this next election is truly about, and they can be helpful in both mobilizing the base (for both candidates) as well as helping undecided voters decide. But as someone who is a recovering gaslight survivor, I have left and will leave the room each time they’re on, taking long, slow deep breaths, reminding myself that I’m not in any danger at this moment, and opening my heart to all of us who have been told there’s something deeply wrong with who we are and what we know. And I will tell us now and again: you are enough.
I never felt like much of a vigilante before, but lately, I can’t help myself. After shopping at our very safe food co-op where everyone was wearing masks except for one young family, I eyed said family in the parking lot, right next to where I would be returning my empty cart. “Should I?” I asked myself, followed by, “Why not?” I gingerly walked over to them, standing 10 feet away of course, and cheerfully said, “Hey, please wear masks next time. The numbers are going up, and we want everyone to stay safe.”
One of them looked away like this masked poet with messy hair in old bike shorts and a tie-dyed shirt was crazy, and the other shot hate rays from her eyes. I shrugged and headed back to my car, once again unsure if speaking up is going to change anything in a world where so many people are actively embracing stupidity, carelessness, ignorance, denial, or something else that eludes me. But then that’s the job of being a masked poet: speaking up and spreading awkwardness, then speeding away quickly.
Not that I always have the nerve to say something: when traveling through Missouri to get to a relatively safe harbor in Arkansas (writers’ colony where I would inhabit thoroughly disinfected rooms without having contact with other humans), I had to stop at numerous gas stations, thanks to a small bladder and a whole of iced ice. Did I see anyone working anywhere who had a mask? Of course not, and the only exception to the maskless were three women coming out of a bathroom. I wanted to shoot my fist in the air and yell, “Right on, sister!” Furthermore, the good working people of quick shop world looked at me like I was from outer space because of my mask. I got back in my car and pumped more sanitizer on my hands.
Coming back through Kansas, I still didn’t encounter any people donning masks, except for the employees at a very mechanized Taco Bell, who passed my burrito to me through a plexiglass contraption, which I appreciated. But at least the older woman I saw stocking cigarettes in southeast Kansas smiled at me and called me “Honey.”
Then there’s the grocery store encounters that led me to write to two national chains, one for a store where half the employees wore their masks pulled down under their noses, and another where the manager had his mask hanging around his neck. My polite but pointed conversations with them didn’t go so well, and in one case, I had to ask a woman, much older and likely much more at risk, to step back when she got face-to-face with me. At least one of the chains (Aldi’s) took my complaint seriously, and we had a prolonged conversation about how people working there needed more education (my point — I didn’t want any of these front-line workers fired).
I know masks are a hassle, and I struggled mightily with my glasses fogging up until I found some tricks that worked for me (the right-sized mask for the face, and making sure the top of the mask is tight and secure), but I’ve noticed I’m actually getting used to wearing a mask. Back in March (many years ago, it seems), I rushed through grocery aisles just throwing anything in my cart in an effort to get outside in a hurry and get the mask off. Now I’m relatively okay with my nose and mouth under layers of cloth.
I also realize those of us who aren’t front-line workers only have to endure little bouts of maskfulness. My son Forest, who works 40 hours each week at our food co-op, has to wear his mask for eight hours at a time. People working in hospitals, doctor offices, clinics, restaurants, manufacturing, and so many other industries have had to seal up half their face as a way of life.
Although I’m mostly home, just edging out once a week, I’m astonished at what I keep seeing. Some of my friends say it’s just too much for people to accept that the old normal isn’t coming back around for longer than they can endure. One friend equated our relationship with the pandemic to grief: we keep cycling through all the stages, and some people are especially at home in denial or anger. Whatever the case, I’m dumbfounded as to why everyone isn’t building their mask wardrobe.
There’s a well-worn saying among many of us about speaking truth to power, and while asking people to wear masks isn’t quite a same, it feels like something, if we can do it without evoking defiant reactions (which I’m surely not often successful in), is worthwhile. After all, given all we’re learning about the truth of what helps prevent the virus (masks!), we do have the power to be what my people call mensches: decent humans. Let’s mask up and use our power!
I thought a global pandemic was enough: enough pain, suffering, fear, restriction, uncertainty, and dread. Turns out I was wrong. We now have violent riots (most of which, from all I’m reading in the news and hearing from eye witnesses, seem fueled by outside forces bent on division and hatred) topping off hundreds of peaceful protests, the national guard called into 20 states (as of this morning), a president ratcheting up the tension with deadly threats, and a whole lot of people being further exposed to the coronavirus. I don’t dare ask if attack monkeys are about to fall from the sky or dog-size locusts will soon sweep across the land.
In the world of cognitive dissonance, which is our world writ large lately, there is also this: the wind sweeping up and across the cottonwood tree in that way that tells me summer has landed. Three indigo buntings on the ground under the bird feeder. Carpenter bees floating above the windows. Moxie the dog pressing her jaw into the deck and falling asleep. The early evening shadows competing with the last long rays of afternoon across the grass, which is full of ticks, chiggers, and other summer pests.
There is all of this: “I can’t breathe” — George Floyd’s last words as well as the last words of too many others murdered out of hatred and bigotry — and all this summer air inhaling and exhaling us, day by day. I understand that I can’t fully understand what it is to have my life threatened because of race, to live with the weight of that for days, years, generations. But I can respect the rage and pain, and for all those suffering, I can, remembering a song Kelley Hunt leads us in at Brave Voice each year, breathe in the peace I’m so privileged to find right here and now, and breathe out love for all who are hurting. I can also do the usual things: march, write, give money, support people acting for the good, and keep educating myself on what it means to be an ally.
I can also embrace another slant of cognitive dissonance as I wish for the peace that surpasses understanding to take root everywhere right now.
The tagline for the filmBig Sonia is “Holocaust survivor. Grandma. Diva.” True that, but she’s also quite the Holocaust scholar, fluent in a dizzying amount of books, films, articles, and other accounts of what Sonia repeatedly and accurately calls “unbelievable.” Like many of us but even more so, Sonia Warshawski has been grappling with all the big questions regarding the Holocaust for a long time: How and why could this happen? What does it mean? Who embodied the worst of humanity and the best? What does not never forgetting mean in our everyday lives?
When it comes to the question of how someone survives the Holocaust and makes a new life in a new land after losing most of her family and finding her home community in Poland what she called “a ghost town,” Sonia embodies the answers. I got to witness this first-hand when she showed up as a student in my Osher class, “Triumph and Terror: How Two Men Survived Nazi Horrors.” The three-session class in Prairie Village, KS, based on my book, Needle in the Bone: How a Holocaust Survivor and Polish Resistance Fighter Beat the Odds and Found Each Other, focuses on both the Holocaust and Polish and Jewish resistance movements. While I usually mainly explore this history through the lives of Lou (a Holocaust survivor) and Jarek (a Polish resistance fighter) who met in Lawrence, Kansas and became best friends, Sonia brought us a new dimension (through her experience and scholarship) of the Holocaust and the Jewish Resistance.
Bedecked in a leopard print coat and dressed to the nines, and well under five feet tall, Sonia is a 94-year-old force of nature. She’s also a vital voice in the wilderness calling for never forgetting or forgiving, but always moving ahead with love. She sat in the front row, and within a short time, I was handing her the mic at regular intervals because of what she had to say as an eye witness, survivor, and fierce advocate for Holocaust education.
Sonia was born in Międzyrzec, Poland, actually just down the road from where some of Jarek’s family lived in Biala Podlaska. She was only 17 years old when the Nazis invaded the ghetto where she was hiding with her family, forcing her and her mother to go to Majdanek, one of the death camps. Big Sonia, the award-winning and spectacular film directed by her granddaughter Leah Warshawski and Todd Soliday uses animated illustrations, based on Sonia’s artful doodling, to show the excruciating moment her mother was ripped away from her to go to the gas chamber. Only Sonia and her younger sister, against all odds, survived, along with a small orange scarf from her mother that Sonia keeps in a plastic baggie under her pillow.
Sonia spoke eloquently about the role of the partisans (the Jewish resistance) helping her younger sister, who largely hid in the woods during the war, make it through these terrible years. She also told us of the times she was beaten, just as Bergen-Belsen was being liberated (after she spent startling time at Auschwitz-Birkenau), how she was shot. She hid among fallen bodies, endured terrible beatings, and even had to spread the ashes (some still holding bits of human bones) on fields as fertilizer. When I told the story of Lou’s needle in the bone — how he landed on something sharp one night but had to endure it, only to find out years later that he had a needle embedded in his heel — she nodded knowingly at me. She has carried her own needle in the bone for close to 80 years, and like Lou and many other survivors, she also found the strength and courage to start a new life, coming to Kansas City with her husband and their family-in-process in 1948.
It was one of the greatest honors of my life to be able to write about the stories of Lou and Jarek, then to find this is a gift that keeps moving, bringing me into deep and necessary conversation with others about the big questions at the heart of what it can mean to be human, at our best and at our worst. How do people go on after facing such annihilating forces and losing almost everything, everywhere, and everyone they know and love? Sonia answered this through the warmth, intelligence, and presence shone through all she shared with unflinching honesty.
Sonia also reminds us — and I get the sense she does this whether she’s talking to high school students, lifers in prison, or customers who come to the tailor shop her husband started that she still runs — about the importance of Tikkun Olam, repairing the broken world. She sees what’s happening clearly, particularly the rise of anti-Semitism and Holocaust deniers, and as she told the New York Times a few years ago, “….it’s a terrible hate what’s going on now. I hope that my speaking is a way of starting to repair the world, to change the direction for us.” May it be so, and may we all find the courage to repair the world however we can.