I am for a complex and contradictory life of the spirit.
In 1992, the year the American people elected Bill Clinton for president, the year Eileen Myles ran as a write-in candidate, artist Zoe Leonard created her text piece, "I want a president," which starts with the lines:
I want a dyke for president. I want a person with aids for president and I want a fag for president and I want someone with no health insurance and I want someone who grew up in a place where the earth is so saturated with toxic waste that they didn't have a choice about getting leukemia.
That was one year before Tony Kushner wrote these lines in Angels in America: Perestroika:
Souls were rising, from the earth far below, souls of the dead, of people who had perished, from famine, from war, from the plague, and they floated up, like skydivers in reverse, limbs all akimbo, wheeling and spinning. And the souls of these departed joined hands, clasped ankles, and formed a web, a great net of souls...
I remember crying when I read those lines in high school. The words "a great net of souls" seared themselves onto my gray matter.
Every time Trump says, "He's a good guy," "We're going to get it right," "He's A plus plus," the writer in me CRINGES. Word choice! I want to scribble across the top of his paper. Vocabulary! 'Good' is a throw-away word! For the love of God, what do you mean??
My biggest fear is that he means just that: he sees the world as simply good and bad.
New Jersey, 1992. I am eight years old. My younger sister Daniela is four years old. She's brown. I'm white. She was adopted from South America when she was a baby, and I was four. Our mother dresses us in matching outfits. We share a bedroom, a bunkbed, as we grow. In elementary school, we have the same teachers. I go through everything first, and our parents are calmer with her and our little brother Tim, who has blonde hair and blue eyes like me, like our parents. Tim was an accident, Daniela and I tell him. "A happy accident," our mother corrects us.
My mom is pushing my brother and sister in a shopping cart through the aisles of the grocery store when a woman passes and chirps, "How adorable, chocolate and vanilla!" This is a weird thing for a stranger to say. Still, it is her observation. It seems more supportive than it is negative. After all, she didn't say anything racist. Did she? It's jarring. This is how other people see us from the outside. People stare at our family in restaurants, and I learn to ignore them.
Still. I am not a food. Neither are my sister nor brother. We are kids. My sister snores and talks in her sleep, and I read by flashlight under the covers. This is who we are. We are Williams. We swim in our pool, ride bikes, chase the ice cream man, and torture our cats by carrying them upside down (this is a remarkably successful way to raise a docile pet: remind them you can pick them up and turn them upside down at any moment). Our mother brings out toy instruments, and we have family band time. When our dad is home from work, he plays the pots and pans, or the triangle. We suck. Our greatest success is creating a cacophony of noise. Our mother tells us to sing along. There is a county park behind our house – we lift our voices to the trees, and the sky. It's not about the outcome, it's about the art. Or it's about being together, my brother in a diaper, my dad in a suit, my sister wearing the Mr. Potato Head plastic toy glasses, those 1950s thick black dad glasses, faux-sucking on the Potato Head plastic toy pipe. Our mom is probably wearing a bathing suit and bare feet. She didn't get dressed much when we were kids.
Even now, this is my definition of intimacy: doing stupid things together in stupid outfits, for art's sake. Yelling to make noise, yelling because were alive, not because anyone in particular is going to hear us.
This is not how the world sees being together, living together, being neighbors, citizens. This is not a Trumpian view of the world.
I think that us, the Democrats, the independents, the outsiders, the weirdoes, our biggest mistake was in assuming that there WAS a net of souls, that the people who are gay or lesbian or transgender would want to get together with the people with disabilities, with the people of color, with the immigrants, with the women, to vote against the single story, the white New York businessman with the model wife, the man whose use of simple descriptions and stereotypes make me shudder with fear for people who have complex identities, complicated stories. We need to work on building our alliances to one another. We need to find ways to come together. This is why we lost the election.
Zadie Smith speaks of a place called Dream City, where "the unified singular self is an illusion." In Dream City, perhaps we're all 'fags,' we all have aids, we all have leukemia, and none of us have health insurance. Perhaps none of us is "good," "great," nor "A plus plus." Perhaps nothing is as simple as it seems. Other people's comments about race, about "chocolate and vanilla," grew as my siblings and I aged. Other people's interpretations of us seeped into my relationship with my sister like noxious fumes, undetectable at first, until suddenly, in our teens, our sisterhood outright died for a period of time due to suffocation. On the street, on train platforms, people assumed we were strangers to one another. My sisters' friends called me, "white girl." My friends commented on how different we were. And we were, in our choices (my sister has four children, and had the first at age 17 - I have a Masters degree and a cat.)
In the early 2000s, my family had moved to California, to an insular community where our (all-white) neighbors regularly find reasons to call the cops on my (Latina) sister and another (gay) neighbor. It was too much for all of us to deal with. We fight in ways we've never fight before, or since. We lost some of our ties. For a time, we lost some of our sense of being the Williams, wild, unafraid, free.
When Trump talks in his simplistic terms about the Other, I mourn, not just for our country, but for my own family. For the ways in which we are all losing out on our sense of being part of a "family of man," losing out on the belief that one can find something to share with a fellow human being, on the feeling of being connected to, owing something to fellow human beings, and being able to expect something - a kindness, a dollar, a kiss – in return.
I'm going to end with a story that belongs to my father. My father's father died of typhoid fever when my father was six months old. This man, who would've been my grandfather, had he lived, was only 27 years old, five years younger than I am now, and he made the decision to go home to his own mother in Nebraska to die, leaving his wife and newborn son alone together. Now, my dad is a dork, by which I mean, he's a research scientist. He once told me that when he was a child learning mathematics, he thought of the numbers as his friends. Since I was young, each time I've visited his office, he's had a photo of Einstein pinned to a corkboard above his desk. He's said he thinks of Einstein as a father figure.
The best story that my dad told me was when we watched the Muppet movie that detailed Gonzo's life story. The running joke is that everyone keeps asking what a Gonzo IS, anyway. Finally, it's revealed that his family are aliens, and they're looking for him. My father, a white man who has spent a lifetime searching for his father, a family of origin, leaned over to me and whispered, "I used to pretend I was an alien."
I'm with the aliens. I don't want to be good. I want to be complicated. I want to be weird and funny, to think of numbers as my friends, of aliens as my parents, and of strangers from other countries as my family. I'm with the weirdos and the accidents and the artists and the orphans. What I don't want to be called: a food, a flavor, or a "pussy." Fuck striving to be a cardboard cutout of a woman living in a soulless castle of imported marble. I want to be a part of that web of souls, I want a messy existence, and now is the time for artists and writers to send our plurality of voices up into the sky, in harmony, up at Trump, sitting in his "A plus plus" tower of simplistic adjectives and nonsense phrases. Now is our time to sing. I'll ask my dad to play along on the pots and pans, or the triangle. I'll tell my sister to bring the Mr. Potato Head glasses, and the pipe.