Killing the flame

Killing the flame

“Jesus Christ, what happened?”


November 8 in Michigan: it was already dark outside when we flipped on the television to watch the results of the presidential election come in, and over the next few hours, it got even darker. I went to bed before the official announcement because, whatever happened, I had to go to work the next morning, the bottle of champagne I’d gotten to share with my colleagues like a stone in my bag, pinning me to the bottom of an ice-cold river of disbelief.

Which I know is another piece of evidence for the white privilege I enjoy: the privilege of feeling uniquely devastated when the country elected Donald Trump, as if the exclusionary culture he espouses has not been happening already, everywhere, to people other than me and my white friends and family. I heard variations of this point from many people of color in the wake of the election, and I take it. I believe it. But I’ll be damned if I’m going to act as though it’s inevitable.

If you are the dealer, let me out of the game.
If you are the healer, then I’m broken and lame.
If thine is the glory, then mine is the shame.
You want it darker: we kill the flame.

Leonard Cohen, “You Want it Darker

It’s almost as though Leonard Cohen knew that by breathing his last on November 7, the soundtrack we needed would already be playing on repeat in the days following the election. If well-meaning people were lobbing grenades of knockout gas—“can we just agree to disagree?”—then the title track of Cohen’s new and last album has been the antidote, prolonging the wakeful watch further into the depths of this dark night. A white friend tells me that he knows his own capacity to adapt quickly to new situations, normalizing injustice like titanium taking on the temperature of its environment. But he doesn’t want to warm to this new reality. Not this time.

And we were so tired of being mild…
Oh, so tired of being mild…
We were so tired.

Andrew Bird, “Tables & Chairs

In the days following the election, I have some good conversations with people I love who voted for Trump, even as I feel the strength of resistance growing in me. With love and respect, I say: I can’t agree to disagree. I believe, especially in this moment, in the need for the prophetic voice to push our conversations from politeness toward meaningful sharing about the things that matter most. From the pulpit I hear that I need to keep listening both to the voices of the oppressed and to the voices of those who align themselves with power. Yes, and: I’m going to be asking a lot more of those I love because I’ve come to understand my silence on matters of injustice not as keeping the peace, but as disrespect. The fabric of our relationship will consist, in part, of sharing the actions I have decided to be part of and asking others, especially allies of those in power, to extend their love for me to those who are suffering.

Because the resistance I feel is not just about a different kind of talking. It’s about serving the complexity of cross-cultural relationships in my city by listening for the places I can contribute to the upcoming service honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s about researching, reading, and buying from my local bookstore books that feature main characters of color as Christmas gifts for my nieces and nephews. It’s about showing up for the Standing Rock benefit when, at the end of a busy week, inertia is pulling me to stay home and watch another episode of West Wing. It’s about no more excuses. I’ve come to believe in a new way that our chief failure at this point in history, especially in the white community, is the failure to have sufficient information for the concrete practices of compassion. We can recount the last season of Dancing with the Stars in detail, but we can’t explain why our black and brown neighbors are tearing up when all we asked was, “How are you?”

And the light shines in darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.

John 1:5 (NKJV)

When I was a kid, I had a dream about a witch. It was dark in my bedroom, and I was hiding under the bed. In the rectangle of light coming from the hallway, I could see the silhouette of the witch’s feet and hear her steps as she approached the place where I lay trembling with fear. She paused in the hallway, turned, entered my room, and walked around the side of the bed, close enough for me to reach out and grab her foot. Her toes pressed into the carpet as she bent over and lifted up the bed skirt. In that moment, I made a decision not to run, but to face my fear. As her witchy green face and crooked nose entered my field of vision, I cheerfully chirped, “Hi! My name is Kirstin. What’s your name?”

I woke up then, so I’ll never know if we became fast friends or if she cooked me up in a stew. Even so, the dream has been instructive many times over. Most recently, I’ve been reflecting on the work I need to do to greet hard conversations with an attitude of curiosity and friendship, in an attempt to reflect the kind of light the darkness simply cannot comprehend.

But I’m not there yet. Every day, I find myself talking with people who are trying to figure out what happened, and what this election will mean for the most vulnerable in our society, including the land that sustains us and has no voice. Right now, it just feels like a complete clusterfuck—not because I believe any political party would have saved us from police shootings and the school-to-prison pipeline and the pillaging of the natural world, but because even as we approach the Christmas celebration, the manger feels further away than ever, and the cross so near.

Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison… Even the cold and broken hallelujahs are locked away in a world that feels like always Lent and never Easter. We’ve killed the flame. Now what?