I voted. In Oregon, we vote by mail. I’m not in Oregon, but my old housemates sent me my ballot. Carrot- vote!
Ok, ok. Not that I wasn’t going to vote. I had actually been planning on it, for the first time in my life. This year, I was going to vote in the presidential election.
Today I was walking with Gigi in the rain. I had a new rainjacket, and a bright red scarf. “It screams scarf!” another friend had said. Today, as Gigi and I walked, we talked, a bit sheepishly, about how excited we were, after all, about the election. I mean, is that ok?
“I got an Obama lawn sign,” said Gigi. “And then I was pulling into the driveway, and I saw it, and I felt sort of embarrassed.” So she’d made another sign, a piece of white plastic on two sticks-
Don’t just vote- organize!
“But the thing is,” I said, as we walked, “I don’t think people are just voting. There’s something else going on- but what?” Are politics finally merging into mass media, becoming some sort of celebrity spectacle ala American Idol? Or is there something else going on, something I am completely ignorant of, because, at the end of the day, I know absolutely nothing about politics, because I don’t believe in capitalism, and because I prefer to keep my distance as much as possible, and invest my energy, instead, in what feels real? And so on days like this, walking in the rain, looking at the changing leaves, drinking tea with a friend, I just feel- confused. For me, reality has always been this- the people on one side, politics on the other. Politicians do not serve the people, politicians are not people, politics cannot be trusted, voting is just a distraction and cannot be trusted, the whole mess is best avoided altogether, it’s not real, the end. But then, these last few months, something has started to shift- and I can’t help but feel real, live emotions- that seem to be connected directly to who wins the presidential race. I feel, a little, as if my heart has betrayed me. And my second thought, is that when Obama wins, he may have a little trouble climbing up onto that pedestal we’ve built for him. The pedestal that stands on the cracked concrete that is this shaky system, held together only with the baling wire of denial. And when he falls off that pedestal entirely- what will that look like?
Update- we’re looking at the TV, Obama has won. It makes me want to cry. Dear god, I’m feeling strong emotion right now, and it’s the same emotion all the people in time’s square on TV are feeling, and I can’t really believe it. Just a moment ago Kimber and I, sitting in the living room here, heard a noise like someone knocking on the window- What is that noise? We asked. A few moments later a friend down the street called- gunshots! People, all over the neighborhood, firing off celebratory gunshots! Distant gunshots! That’s what the tapping noises were!
I’m happy? Confused? Choked up? Everything…
Once upon of time, in the Rift Valley of Kenya, some gutsy primates pulled themselves over the lip of the valley, and stood looking across the yellow grass plain, at the fig trees in the distance. Could they reach the fig trees before the lions found them? And at some point, those chimp-like primates decided that they could, in fact, reach the fig trees- and so they took off running on two awkward legs, opposing big-toes pounding the warm earth, muscular arms swinging uselessly. And so began the evolution of the species- early hominids, walking on two feet, shaping crude projectiles, taking down lumbering mega-fauna- spreading out across Africa and then, eventually, across the globe- reaching the American continent last, via the Siberian land bridge, finally ice-free after endless millennia covered in mile-thick glaciers.
The origin of the species- I’ve been learning about it from the book I’ve been reading, which is poetic and fantastical, yet entirely true- The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman. I’ve been learning about Africa, and about Kenya, and about our species’ sometimes symbiotic, sometimes not, relationship with the earth throughout time, and our incredible, destructive, unforgettable migration around the globe.
I was in the library yesterday, the library here in the piedmont of North Carolina, and I was sitting in the half-circle of comfortable chairs where there are outlets for computer plugging-in, trying to write- but instead, because this is North Carolina, not Portland, and strangers are friendly here, and curious, not hostile and aloof like on the west coast- what happened is that the two other people sitting in the half-circle of chairs immediately struck up a conversation with me. What was my name? How did I feel about the weather? One man, Thomas, charging his cell phone, Another man, on a laptop.
“The weather is fine,” I said, “it’s not even raining like in Portland where I’m from.”
“I don’t mind the rain,” said the man with the laptop, “I’m from the tropics.”
“Where in the tropics are your from?” I asked him.
“I’m from Kenya,” he said- “from the Rift Valley.”
I could not believe it.
“The Rift Valley!” I cried, in the library- “That’s where humans are from!”
“I know!” he said, excited. I told him I was reading all about Kenya, its epic human history and even its ecology, and I pulled The World Without Us from my backpack to show him. He flipped through the chapter I was reading, pronouncing town names and describing parks. We even pulled up google, so he could show me the birthplace of hominids.
He’d moved from Kenya to the US in 1998, he said, on a track and field scholarship at a texas university. After he graduated he’d moved to North Carolina, where he had a cousin. Now he was taking classes at the local community college down the street.
“I bet you miss Kenya,” I said. “I bet it’s beautiful there.”
“I do miss it,” he said, nodding his head. “oh, I do.”
The thing is, I know that Kenya is beautiful. I know this because there is a passage in the book I’m reading, a passage where the author is describing the Aberdares moors in central Kenya, and it is, just maybe, the most beautiful bit of nature writing I have recently read- made all the more fantastical because it describes a place I have never been, a place I can hardly imagine. I will reproduce it for you here-
“The high, cold Aberdares moors in central Kenya have discouraged human settlers, though people must have always made pilgrimages to this source. Four rivers are born here, heading in four directions to water Africa below, plunging along the way from basalt overhangs into deep ravines. One of these waterfalls, the Gura, arcs through nearly 1,000 feet of mountain air before being swallowed by mist and tree-sized ferns.
In a land of megafauna, this is an alpine moor of megaflora. Except for a few pockets of rosewood, it is above the treeline, occupying a long saddle between two 13,000 foot peaks that form part of the Rift Valley’s eastern wall, just below the equator. Treeless-yet giant heather rises 60 feet here, dripping curtains of lichen. Groundcover lobelia turns into columns eight feet high, and even groundsel, usually just a weed, mutates into 30-foot trunks with cabbage tops, growing amid massive grass tussocks.
Small wonder that the descendants of early Homo who climbed out of the Rift and eventually became Kenya’s highland Kikuyu tribe figured that this was where Ngai-God-lived. Beyond the wind in the sedges and the tweep of wagtails, it’s sacredly quiet. Rills lined with yellow asters flow soundlessly across spongy, hummocked meadows, so rain-logged that streams appear to float.”
As I thought of this man’s beautiful, distant country, the conversation moved away from the weather and turned, of course, to the presidential election.
“In Kenya,” said the man, “everyone is excited for Obama to win.”
And then I realized- Obama’s dad is Kenyan. Which set off an hour-long google expedition, in which I watched not one, but two slideshows of Obama’s family history, learning that not only is Obama’s dad from the Rift Valley of Kenya, but that he had six wives, and that Obama was actually raised in Hawaii by his grandmother, who of course, but a few hours before I was watching these slideshows, died, at 86.
Wow. And so, it’s late, and as I sit, watching the muted TV, where damp-eyed news broadcasters silently mouth the words historical moment, over and over, I cannot help but ponder the significance of a tall, lanky man, whose family hails from the seat of our very species, the Rift Valley of Kenya, becoming head-honcho of a good chunk of the last continent that humans, after untold millennia, finally managed to colonize- both as hunter-gatherers and later, as Europeans waving the future flag of western civilization- and that this very man will still be president in the year 2012, the year that the Mayan calendar, as a matter of fact, ends. A sort of full circle. They way I imagine Lewis and Clark must have felt, when they reached the Pacific Ocean. What, I can only ask, does it all mean.
And yet, watching the silent TV, where Oprah weeps in a throng of late-night Illinois supporters, I know how I feel- I feel as though I’ve moved to another country. I feel as though the orbit of the earth has tilted, and the US has somehow become a kinder, gentler sort of nation- like Canada, maybe. And maybe it’s all an illusion, and capitalism plods on to its death, and empires, in the end, fall- but now, along with everyone else, I’ll be watching.