“Now wouldn’t it be splendid for us to be free & equal citizens, with the power of the ballot to back our hearts, heads & hands,” Anthony wrote, envisioning a time when women could also fight for “the poor, the insane, the criminal,” armed not just with moral suasion but “with power too.”
“I can hardly wait,” she continued. “The good fates though are working together to bring us into this freedom.”
The older I get, the shorter a hundred years sounds. Susan B. Anthony was jailed and threatened. Alice Paul went on a hunger strike behind bars, and today white women vote for men who hate women, because then, they think, those men won’t hate them. She made prison guards force-feed her. Emily Davison threw herself beneath the King’s horse. Businessmen beat Clara Lemlich in the streets. Dred Scott sued for his freedom and was told, you are not a person, you have no standing, you do not stand here.
Friday night, driving home, as police warned on the radio about riots and robberies that never happened, I saw a young man teaching a child to ride a bike in the parking lot beside a shabby convenience store. That store gets held up, once a month or so. The young man pushed the child and shouted with joy when, wobbling, he righted himself and rode, rode, rode.
I have great good fortune, just at the moment. Work I love, friends I love, abundance in many things. Two soft cats, a warm snug house, new shoes for the winter. Soup and bread and books and a circle of arms around me: husband, daughter. I completed a fundraising project that may prove significant for decades. This year, after a long hiatus, I started writing for publication again.
I have great good fortune, just at the moment and I am incandescently angry, all the time. It feels like whiplash, the contrast between these moments of victory and warmth, and the reality that faces many, a reality I’ve been taking in since starting work as a journalist 20 years ago, when our guiding principle was the instruction never to close our eyes to suffering and injustice.
Oh, but you get bummed out? TOUGH SHIT. Land hard, roll left, and get back up.
I go into Kick’s room at night, after a late work event or watching The Handmaid’s Tale or reading another news story about a little kid in a cage, a little kid in the morgue. I go into Kick’s room and lay down next to her sleeping small body. I do not touch her. I listen to her move around in her warm, safe bed. I sweep her hair off the back of her neck and I listen to her breathe.
Mothers rocked their children, lay down beside them, watched their chests move in and out. Just like this, in times like these, knowing everything they have can be taken away from them. How do you hold onto anything, knowing everything that happens? How do you remember the war when the war isn’t over? How do you survive the next one, when the war isn’t over?
We’re fast coming on to the dark, when we’ll be draping our homes in strings of stars and inviting strangers to come inside by the fire. How do we do that, when there aren’t enough fires, or enough rooms, or enough stars?
On Friday it felt like the world holding its breath: Here in Chicago, to see if a white cop who murdered a black teenager would be convicted, and he was. In DC, to see if the words of women would be enough to keep a rapist from a throne, and they weren’t. This time of year always feels like something to push through, and every time we lose a few people. I have great good fortune just at the moment and I am watching it from the outside, with unearned dread.
Like maybe it won’t be enough this time. Light the candles anyway. An immigrant family comes over for Halloween and their children laugh with mine, a cousin’s wedding brings together family too infrequently all in the same place, and last night I discovered that my daughter loves it when I talk in a silly voice like a robot, read her stories clipped and stilted to make her laugh. Our finest hours are always at someone else’s expense and it’s not a bummer to say that, it’s not a slur. Accounting isn’t blaming. Recognition isn’t erasure.
Susan, writing to her friends up there, didn’t dream of the ability to lay down her burdens and rest. She didn’t dream of a time without conflict, a far-off day of comity and comfort. She dreamed of a time when she and her sisters could do the work they wanted to do, without the fetters of prejudice. They wanted to fight, and were told they couldn’t, and every single day they screamed in frustration that they deserved to be able to. It was the worst feeling in the world.
I say this all the time, and most of the time I believe it, guys: The work’s never done. Earlier this year I rejoined a cause I’d left out of exhaustion and frustration and put my hands to it in a way I’d never done before, no holding back, no hesitation over looking ridiculous. And I felt so much better than I had in the two years since I’d left it, so much better working my fingers into callouses and driving hours by myself at night to get things done. Even the horrible hard parts felt better than the rest and relaxation.
That’s what we’re longing for right now, not a break from the world, but to find a handhold in it, a wheel to which we can lay our shoulders. These four weeks, these few days, under shrinking daylight, are us all holding our breath. Not waiting, not still, but burning through to something that feels like the humming of a rail miles before the train arrives, a current beneath the sandy floor, coming, coming, coming.
It’s always dark. There’s never enough room. Shove over a little, this time, will you? See if we can’t make some more.