There is so much to process from this election. For me, the worst aspect is not that a profoundly immature, narcissistic, unprepared man will be taking the office of President in January and have control over so many things that affect the lives of so many people. It’s that the racism, xenophobia and misogyny that were so central to his message were apparently not a deal breaker for many Americans. Because, face it, Trump supporters can only be in one of three camps: 1) either they are as racist as he is; 2) or they so selfishly want lower taxes, fewer trade deals or whatever they think Trump will give them that they are willing to accept that the package comes with massive amounts of hate, as well as policies that will hurt, maybe even kill large numbers of their fellow Americans; or 3) they just didn’t pay attention to anything and relished the chance to vote for their favorite TV celebrity. In the latter case, I’ll have to quote the standard police line: ignorance of the law — or in this case the ramifications of a vote — are no excuse. I know some Trump supporters are already trying to obfusticate, but they will need to own this. Their moral compasses got too close to a reality star magnet and now they don’t point to True North. Trump supporters have been sneering that the rest of us need to “get over it” and “support the new President”. But how can you do that when there is a clear line in the sand and on the other side is behavior and pronouncements that are so far beyond what is morally acceptable, that they violate all moral tenets that you were raised to believe in?
Long after WWII, Simon Wiesenthal once confronted the mother of a Nazi soldier he’d met when he was in a concentration camp. She told him about what a good son the Nazi had been and added, “And the war was a long time ago.” Wiesenthal told her that “One can’t walk away from moral responsibility as easily as you would exit a streetcar.” With morality, you are with evil or you against it. You might not be the jackbooted Nazi thug who dragged Jews into the street, you might not be the German citizen who spit on Jews as they were marched away. But even if you were just the neighbor who looked away, you share a part in that evil. You are on the side of line in the sand with Evil.
My friends and I have been mulling over what course of action to take now and we have good, multi-pronged plans. But a seismic shift in my perception of a large part of my countrymen, requires a retreat, a mental regrouping, a chance to come to terms. At crossroads such as this, I look to the desert.
In one of my favorite lines in one of my favorite movies, an Arab asks Lawrence of Arabia, “You are an Englishman. Why do you like the desert?” He replies, “Because it’s clean.”
A little more than fifty years later, Edward Abbey would elaborate in his seminal Desert Solitaire:
It seems to me that the strangeness and wonder of existence are emphasized here, in the desert, by the comparative sparsity of the flora and fauna: life not crowded upon life…with a generous gift of space for each herb and bush and tree, each stem of grass, so that the living organism stands out bold and brave and vivid against the lifeless sand and barren rock.
I would add that, in an arid landscape, you see the essentials, not just the plants, but the geology, the bones of the Earth and the paths of water, even when no water is present. That sort of visual clarity when you immerse yourself in it, brings mental clarity.
So I took myself to Joshua Tree National Park at the convergence of two deserts: the Mojave and the Sonoran.
If I were looking for signs, I believe I had two of them before I even entered the park. Those who know me, are well aware that my traveling music — and my music for most events — is classic Country and Western of the Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Sons of the Pioneers variety. For some odd reason, while driving towards Barstow, I flipped on a local contemporary Pop Rock station. A song came on called Scare Away the Dark by Passenger. Suddenly, everything I was thinking was pouring out of the speakers.
The next possible sign came as I approached Yucca Valley. I saw a huge Golden Eagle sitting on a Joshua Tree. I’m not sure what that portends. To the ancient Aztecs, the sight of a similar eagle landing on a Prickly Pear signaled that they should build a mighty city in the middle of a lake and start ripping out the hearts of their enemies. I’m not sure that’s what my eagle is telling me. But a sight like that has to mean something.
So I went to the desert. Two deserts in fact. To see plants that have all the odds stacked against them but still thrive. To see a harsh landscape scoured by winds, baked by the sun, starved by lack of water. But a landscape that endures with its own special beauty. We are facing a challenge perhaps as at no other time in American history, where we must work to protect the most vulnerable, where we have to hold on and keep pushing for the future against the forces that would roll us back to a darker time, where the action we take or don’t take is much more than social progress, but can literally be the difference, for many of our fellow citizens, between life or death.
I’m not sure what the desert is teaching me. But unplugging from everything to reconnect with the desert’s stark survivalist beauty is just what I need right now.
Oh, and those lyrics to the Passenger song? Right here:
Well, sing, sing at the top of your voice,
Love without fear in your heart.
Feel, feel like you still have a choice
If we all light up we can scare away the dark.
And here’s the song: