Adrienne Rich, “Natural Resources”
My heart is moved by all I cannot save
so much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.
The past two years have been a daily barrage of news flashes portending the downfall of our democracy. Children torn from their parents, environmental disasters, global alliances threatened, people of color and immigrants attacked, neo-Nazis marching in our streets; the horrors just keep coming. Sometimes I want to turn it off, stop reading, stop watching. But I have a hard time letting go; this is a horrific accident in progress and my mind and heart fall victim to onlooker slowdown.I care about this pileup and I am involved.
How does one live through this without standing in the middle of the street every day shouting, “Attention! This is not normal!” or, alternately, burying your head in despair, feeling that nothing you do can possibly matter? How does one find a balance, have an ongoing, parallel life of work and family without feeling a sense of acquiescence? I have friends who say, “I just stopped watching, stopped paying attention. I can’t deal with it any more.”
That is not an option for me. One of my family heirlooms is a letter written during WWII dated “Somewhere in France, Dec. 3, 1944,” from my Uncle Herb, written to my father on the occasion of his turning 13. It is a carefully crafted missive from the battlefield. One section reads,
A Fascist is your enemy. He may go by a different name. But he’s still a Fascist. You must fight him, you must hate him, you must know him. He preaches inequality of Man, racial intolerance, religious intolerance… He believes in lynching, in organizations like the Ku Klux Klan…He’s clever, insidious and underhanded. Watch him… He is the one great obstacle we have in our quest for a decent world…Your generation must eliminate him.
My inheritance, was not, as for others, to be china or silver. It was this letter, a dictum to be an activist, to be always aware and to take responsibility to eliminate evil. It was a mandate to become, in the words of my Uncle Herb, a “rabble rouser.” His wartime experience, my parents’ civil rights and anti-Vietnam war activities, shaped my worldview; this dovetails with the Jewish principle of Tikkun Olam, that we are compelled to “mend, heal or repair the world.” Yet there is no way to take on all the evil, to fix all the broken places, especially now. Pirkei Avot, the first written text of oral Jewish law, states, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” (2.21). When I am overwhelmed by the enormity of the destruction, I think of my sewing: a stitch here and there; I mend and repair when and where I can. Often, it doesn’t feel like enough, but it is what I can do.
I have attended marches. I write letters, both to Congress and the editors. I call my senators who don’t give a damn about my calls. I canvass and register voters. But mostly, I write postcards, more than a thousand over the past year. Like my Uncle Herb, I have chosen to send dispatches through the mail as a means to heal the world. When I am angry, when I despair and when I need to just do something, anything, I write postcards. Postcards to Voters is an organization that coordinates friendly, handwritten postcards mailed to Democrats in nationwide races for progressive candidates up and down the ballot. The constancy of writing, the everyday availability of this action is invaluable for me. It has become part of my mindfulness practice, to be in the moment yet working for change.
These postcards feel like a saving grace, literally, grace, for me. I find solace and constructive action in writing and creating. They are a small attempt, a plea, to another soul, “Please vote! Save our democracy!” They are my paper ammunition in this war inside our own borders. I want to write, “I beg of you to vote. Lives depend on it. The future of the planet depends on it.” I want to invoke the words of my Uncle Herb, a call for moral action. Instead, I settle for stickers and colored markers and the hope that humor and beauty and creativity will touch someone’s heart, allowing them to feel the importance of their voice and their vote. I know that many feel their votes don’t matter, through suppression, disenfranchisement, fraud or hopelessness. These cards are an attempt to shine a ray of light, of hope, into that darkness. They are my one stitch at a time.
I picture my postcards sitting in mailboxes across the country, hoping the bright colors and hand-placed stickers will tell someone “I see you, and I care.” I do believe they are effective, or I would not continue. Although there are no calculations regarding the efficacy of Postcards to Voters, other organizations doing similar work have impressive statistics. Locally, Stamp NC Blue targeted 5 districts in NC. For the primary, in May 2018, Stamp NC Blue volunteers (myself included) sent two rounds of “get out the vote” postcards to 6,256 voters prior to the May 2018 primary election. That resulted in twice the voter turnout compared to the May 2014 primary election. And two small studies in Virginia showed that handwritten notes increased turnout by 0.4%, compared to the typical get out the vote canvass number of 0.3%. When elections are won and lost by single digits, this can make a difference.
These cards have been a critical way for me to survive these past two years. They help me find balance. In writing them, I am part of a nationwide community striving to make change. Even though I mostly write in solitude, I am aware that others are also out there writing as fast as they can. Social media for this group provides inspiration and solace, a community of like-minded souls who are having fun and taking action. Groups, mostly women, have formed nationwide to send postcards. There is a sense of accomplishment after spending a couple of hours on a weekend afternoon with ten folks around a table, then mailing out a hundred postcards. I’ve made small business cards about Postcards to Voters and handed them out at marches, talking to anyone I meet about this opportunity. In her essay, “Winter Hours,” the poet Mary Oliver writes of a time of darkness of nature, event and spirit. She suggests that, rather than fighting this with the “light of reason,” perhaps it is hope, which is our best weapon. “Hope,” she writes, “…is more active and far messier than faith must be…Hope, I know, is a fighter and a screamer.” And I am hopeful; postcards are a way I keep hope, and action, alive.
I also try to remember that in our country, people of color, Indigenous peoples, have suffered through colonialism, slavery, and their aftermaths for hundreds of years. If they haven’t given up, neither will I. Fascism by any name is the enemy not of the individual, but of a generation. Pushing the boulder uphill, unlike lonely Sisyphus, moving the mountain slowly, takes all of our shoulders against it. When I have done just one small thing, written my four or five postcards that day, my sincere, handwritten appeals on behalf of democracy, I believe that I am doing what I can in this moment. We each have to find our own way to repair the shattered places, stitch together the ragged edges where we have been torn apart. There are many ways to be of service in healing the world: to turn anger into a clarion call, to fight to hold on to hope, to shout, “This is not normal!” using rainbow pens, colored stickers, cards and stamps.