A Peaceful Transfer of Power
On January 19, 2021 the day before President Biden’s inauguration, I sat on the couch watching TV as a red pixelated banner with the white-lettered question “A PEACEFUL TRANSFER OF POWER?” hung in the soft blue sky over the White House.
Despite it’s title, this is not a political post.
I don’t possess enough historical knowledge, enough political intelligence, enough take-your-opinion-and-shove-it American tact to gracefully write about politics. So I won’t. Also politics, for the most part, bore me. Yes, this past year I’ve taken more of an interest in politics than ever before. But I’m 40 now. It’s a requirement. Just like New Balance sneakers, Centrum vitamins, browsing supermarket circular ads, and obsessing over the electric bill (I swear my kids think electric is free).
My cell phone, keeping me company on this quiet Tuesday afternoon, vibrates on the couch next to me. It’s the email I had been waiting for.
The subject line reads:”Resignation Letter”
If you have been with me since October, you may know I’ve taken a leave temporary leave of absence from teaching to attend to my health issues. For 17 years I’ve identified myself, for better or worse, as a teacher. And this week, the same week America swears in a new president and transfers its power, I take a step toward a permanent leave from teaching, and attempt to transfer my power toward a new identity.
I read the email. The past 17 years sits in my chest. I see my younger self standing on a student’s desk reciting Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy. I see the bouquet of fake flowers that have been rooted on my desk for years. My silver coffee mug is there. So are the grey canvas Adidas sneakers I wore everyday. I smell Expo markers and chocolate chip cookies from the baking class down the hall. I see the Lightning McQueen lunch kit I took to school when one of my kids became too cool for character lunch kits. I’m seeing the scenery that defined my life for 17 years in the nouns and verbs of this email. The scenery I took for granted. The scenery I now miss. I see yellow Post-its with blue-inked handwritten notes, a running list of poems I taught, a tattered copy of The Catcher in the Rye, and the Muhammad Ali poster I hung in my classroom every year for 17 years. A stuffed Simba a student bought me sits by my computer. I see the first classroom I ever taught in. Room 201. Glossy black and grey tile floor. An old-school chalkboard. Rows of wooden desks. And the late afternoon sunlight slanting through the window and warming my desk strewn with student essays and I sit there, young and clean-shaven, and loosen my tie, exhale, and convince myself I will never survive my first year teaching.
I look up from my phone.
The TV flashes scenes from January 6, 2021. A hunting party in the U.S. Capitol. You’ve seen the images. The shaky camera. The smoke. A noose. Fists. Blood. White granite steps. The shattered windows. The rush of bodies, tissue and bone, resisting institutional change. I look down, read the email again, the past and the present collide and Buffalo Springfield* sings in my head,
“There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear…”
*Alluding to “classic rock” songs is another 40+ move.*
One of my favorite things to explain to my students was how, in literature, a character’s internal landscape often mirrors their external landscape. For example, in A Streetcar Named Desire, the misogynistic slums of New Orleans reflects the hardness of Stanley Kowalski. Or how Scotland’s unraveling rivals King Macbeth’s mental unraveling. Or how the decay of Pride Rock mirrors the moral decay of Scar. This last one was the animated film, The Lion King. Every year I would teach The Lion King around spring break when cartoons were the only thing that would keep students’ attention. My advice to teachers, call cartoons films, this will sooth administration, and teach these films before and/or after all extended breaks. This will add 6 months to your teaching career.
Maybe I’m being trite or maybe I’m still trying to be a teacher or maybe I’m just trying too damn hard to write this post but we are living in a uniquely American (teachable) moment. On my couch, in my sweatpants, history collides with my inbox, with my heart. What is happening out there among the stone pillars of Washington, D.C, is happening here on the foam and microfibre of my couch.
America the brave is reluctant to transfer power and so am I. Like much of the literature I taught over the years, the turmoil of the outward landscape reflects a character’s internal landscape. And as I watch the rebellious acts of January 6th, I feel closer to America than I’ve ever felt. Because we, the land and I, are wounded, wrought with tension, and trying to make sense of what just happened.
Everyone I know (and I do not know any politicians, dictators, or Real Housewives of Ocean County) is attempting a transfer power. How many people do you know who are going through a change? Getting married. Having a baby. Starting a new job. Going back to school. Moving to a new city. Retiring.
America, right now, is teaching us that the quality of our life comes down to how we transfer our power.
We saw what happens when the transfer is met with resistance. A rebellion. An insurrection. Every time I watch the news and I see the U.S. Capitol attacked I feel more scared, more anxious, more uncertain about the future.
I read the email again and realize I’m attempting to peacefully transfer power from one phase of my life to the next. And how my stress is stoked by my unwillingness to accept reality. The more I resist change the more fears I have.
Maybe we can learn something from these chaotic January days. Maybe the reason why life is so complex is because we can’t decide how to transfer our power. Do we resist? Or do we accept?
It’s not an easy choice. Take your time. Look around. Stay awhile.
But when your mind’s made don’t forget to turn off the lights.
Electricity isn’t free.
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