The last month has been rough, and not just because I think the United States has made a terrible – possibly fatal – error in who it elected president. A cat has gone missing, a family dispute has gotten ugly, and an already traumatized child has lost five friends in one terrible night.
If you’ve read many of my recent posts here, I don’t need to tell you why I’m in despair over the recent election. If you agree with me, you probably have difficult emotions of your own you are dealing with. And if you disagree with me (and have even read this far), you probably think I should just shut up and get over it. It is that “you lost, shut up” that has rendered me incapable of sitting down to write. When the First Amendment only applies to some people, when reading and careful thought is dismissed as “elitist”, when writers I respect and admire are discounted and scolded, when “truth” now consists of whatever a demagogue chooses to tweet at a particular moment, then it is hard to think that my small voice has any meaning.
Before the election, I had meant to write about The first book of calamity leek, by Paula Lichtarowicz (Flatiron Books, 2013) within the context of trying to understand the stories that inform different perspectives about and experiences of the world. After the election, the novel has taken on a new poignancy with the advent of “fake news” and a “post-truth” world. This is certainly an odd little book, the type of thing my husband gave me for an anniversary gift because, according to him, I’ll read anything, and it looked interesting. As usual, he was right. The novel, set in a mysterious walled garden and narrating how sixteen “sisters” begin to question the truths they have been taught by their “Aunty” and her “Appendix” is an enthralling read. I don’t want to divulge too much about the premise, since to do so would deprive the reader of one of the delicious joys of the volume, which lies in piecing together exactly what is going on. I will just recommend it to anyone who enjoys good writing that also challenges the reader to really think deeply about what they believe they know about the world. The question I was left with at the end was this: just because a particular authority dubs something “true” or “right”, does that necessarily make it so?
Seeking a diversion from the steady stream of New York Times and Washington Post articles and opinion pieces I found myself consuming voraciously after the election, my next book was an attempt to move into a past where the “truth” more realistically can’t ever be entirely seen in its totality or understood. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, by Mary Beard (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2015) had caught my eye in a museum gift shop in Rome, so when I saw it in my local book store I picked it up. And was in for a wonderful treat! Mary Beard is a professor of classics at Cambridge University, which would seem to indicate a somewhat dull, academic discourse. Instead, this volume reads easily and passionately, though with an undeniable authority. Beard has a particular genius for making monuments and texts and statues and tombstones come alive, and I relished reading about sights I had just seen this past summer. I was delighted to discover that she has also done a series of BBC programs, which are available on YouTube and gave me many happy hours of escape from my current reality, as well as an appreciation for the many things I too easily take for granted in my modern life.
Beard ends her book by stating “I no longer think, as I once naively did, that we have much to learn directly from the Romans…But I am more and more convinced that we have an enormous amount to learn – as much about ourselves as about the past – by engaging with the history of the Romans, their poetry and prose, their controversies and arguments.” A friend who I happen to know is also a Trump voter once proclaimed to me that “you know, Rome fell because it abandoned Christianity.” This was such a flagrantly untrue claim that I was taken aback, managing only to stammer “that’s not how any historians I’ve read view it.” (Indeed, Mary Beard questions whether Rome ever “fell” at all in the sense most people think.) I don’t know where this friend got her “facts”, but it seems unlikely they came from deep reading and engagement with the primary sources. As we move into a “post-truth” era where major advisors to one of the most powerful people in the world can claim that there are actually no facts anymore, I find myself wondering how it will ever be possible to reconcile or move forward. In the end, for me, it keeps coming back to the core values I have held my entire life: reading, study, informed discourse, and deep thought can illuminate our path. It is the branch I am clinging to right now, the one that I hope will enable me to continue to express my truth through my writing.