The Blog

The Pantsuit in the Back of the Closet

An election like 2016’s calls for massive rearrangements. We each cope in our own way with the seismic shifts that are taking place. Some of my friends are moving to Canada; some are quitting their jobs and running for office. My husband and I decided to switch sides of the bed. As part of the Grand Switcheroo, we’d also exchanged sides of the closet. So today I wasn’t surprised to see what I assumed to be one of his suits hidden way in the back, on my new side. Instead, it turned out to be my Hillary pantsuit, which I’d worn less than a month ago. Already dusty, it had the aspect of a relic. Navy blue, from Talbot’s, it was never attractive—I’d begged it off my mom in October when I was thinking it would be fun for Halloween, and for our Passim show scheduled for November 5th, just three days before the election. But in the days leading up to November 8th, I had come to cherish it and relish wearing it, usually with my hot yellow “Nasty Woman Vote” tee shirt and a pair of turquoise wedgie boots. Today, it just made me sad, seeing it on its pathetic wire hanger. In a year, will we remember Pantsuit Nation? Will we remember Hillary’s brave, tenacious performances in the three debates? Will we remember our optimism? Will we remember that she won the popular vote by a wider margin than ten other presidents did over their opponents?

No one knows what the future will bring. My friends on the Left seem to veer between a low-grade depression and full-on panic attacks. No one is sleeping well without chemical aid.

I wrote these poems during a strange time in my own life. In October, six months away from turning 50—midlife by any accounting—I had a melanoma diagnosis, a kitchen mishap resulting in second degree facial burns, and a breast lump biopsy. By the election, I’d had the mole removed and the margins excised, and further biopsies had revealed no cancer. My face was healing. But I’d been badly shaken, and I had learned, from these scares, that nothing is ever guaranteed. I had taken so much for granted. I had been living in fear and concern about the future, addicted (as so many of us were) to my iPhone, checking on the latest polls and outrages. My physical mishaps all occurred during a time when the New York Times was putting Hillary’s odds of winning the presidency at over 90%. Even Trump was admitting that his chances were not huge. Still, I had a hard time believing this country would elect a woman for the highest office in the land. Given the predictions, I really thought all my fears about the election must be symptomatic of a massive anxiety disorder. I sought out optimistic, rational people to “talk me down” at every turn. So did a lot of women I knew.

What I learned from the election, and from the increasing evidence of my own mortality, was to appreciate the power of fear. Many of my friends are also navigating this most primal of human emotions. If, as Pema Chodron says, “death is inevitable and the time of death is uncertain,” it seems reasonable that we always have three choices: to despair, to deny, or to celebrate each and every moment we have now. In these waning days of the Obama administration, I am trying my best to choose the latter. Allowing fear to drive the bus is to live in despair 24/7. Pretending there is nothing to fear does not help the most marginalized in our communities. But finding that middle place, where we allow fear to wake us up to what is going on, to take action, to appreciate what we still have: this is the sweet spot.

What I learned from the election was that even our democracy is not guaranteed. I thought that Trump’s pre-election comments about not accepting the outcome “unless I win” were grounds for disqualifying him among the voters. I was wrong. I thought his inexperience was disqualifying. I was wrong. I thought his erratic behavior was disqualifying. Wrong, again. I thought his business conflicts and the fact that he was a millionaire who shipped his own jobs overseas would turn off working class voters. Apparently not. I took Hillary’s loss personally. It’s hard not to read the election as a referendum on intelligent middle-aged women. And so this collection grapples with what I and many of my colleagues are experiencing now, waking up female in the post-Obama era. Taking in what it means for my daughter and my nieces. Wondering what it means for myself and my sisters.

Where do we stand when the very ground is shifting? We hop a lot. We learn to find a new center of gravity.

I offer these poems as a kind of time capsule. In a year, they will look very different. Young readers ten years from now probably won’t even know what I was referring to when I mention Access Hollywood. Let’s hope that’s because it’s ancient history, and not because this era has been erased from the record. Let’s hope that’s because Trump’s presidency ended early, and that some other pantsuited politician found a way to connect with all Americans, thread the electoral college needle, and make her home the White House. Until then, I will draw courage from another writer, Colson Whitehead, whose powerful and timely book The Underground Railroad came to the world in 2016, the same year so many hard things came into the world, the same year so many dear friends left the world. In accepting the National Book Award, Whitehead said, “Be kind to everybody, make art and fight the power.” This is as good a motto as any to live by in a Trumpian America. Nothing is guaranteed. Not our health, not our best-researched predictions, not our democracy. We have this moment. We can choose to escape it, numb it, protest it; or we can live fully in it, connecting deeply with our beloveds, fighting injustice when we see it, and making sense of it through art. I am very grateful that 30 Poems in November came along exactly when it did. What a perfect communion of those three elements Whitehead emphasizes: connection, poetry, and social justice..

 

Nerissa Nields
December 5, 2016

From the Introduction of Nerissa Nields’s book of poetry, The Pantsuit in the Back of the Closet

The Pantsuit in the Back of the Closet

Black Cat

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One of the cats visited my yard yesterday
The black one
My favorite
Of course I thought of witches.

I want the cat to visit everyday,
But cats can’t be summoned.

I am going to take a vacation from the opinions of men for awhile
Maybe for a few days
Maybe four years
I am tired of their apologies
I am tired of their reassurances that everything will be all right
They were wrong about the election
They have lost their power.
I am tired of hearing that she was a flawed candidate.
I will keep saying this,
Even when it interrupts the poem:
If majority had ruled,
She would have won.

Yesterday, as she spoke,
I saw the grandmother in her face
The softness of aging skin
The apples in her cheeks
Less makeup
More wrinkles
Laugh lines
Wisdom
Almost tears.
Completely herself.
Where was this woman two weeks ago?

Those who say this is not about sexism
Are missing many of their senses.

I found another aging woman.
I raged
I wept
Until the tears were done.

She said,
Our work remains the same;
It just matters more.

I came back to the world
There is a new normal coming
It hasn’t solidified yet
One where a white nationalist
Can air his point of view on NPR.
The interviewer did not hide her disgust
But there it was: his words laid out for all to see.

So I brought my child to her violin class
I closed my eyes and listened to the kids play Bach
I prayed. To the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
To the Mother, Daughter and Holy Sophia
It is the era of the witch
The era of the cat.
We must be stealthy
And true
We must be creative
And brave
We must not lose our heads.

What saved me
At the end of the day
Holding my child’s hand on the way home, under the waning supermoon
Was the smell of the fallen leaves
Rich, warm, earthy, decaying,
Still present.

Nerissa Nields

Nov. 18, 2016

This poem was written as part of 30 Poems in November, a benefit to raise money for Center for New Americans, a Western MA organization that provides welcoming services and literacy for recent immigrants. For more information, or to sponsor me, go here

 

The Week After

 

 

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Somehow, this week seems harder than last week. Last Wednesday, my bright blue friends in the bright blue town in our bright blue state felt unified. Everywhere I went, people were crying and embracing. My Facebook feed was covered with all my like-minded peeps writing like-minded grief-ridden things, or posting hopeful, inspiring thoughts. We held an impromptu free concert and sing along at Lander Grinspoon Academy last Saturday, and it felt like a wonderful funeral. We cried, hugged, and attempted to lift each other from despair. We all sobbed the next morning when Kate McKinnon did Hillary doing Leonard Cohen–a perfect performance of satire, mastery, sympathy and poignency. Last week, we all floated a bit in that first stage of grief: denial. Maybe the Big Orange Tarp wasn’t that bad. Maybe he would stymie the Republicans. Surely he was just an actor, saying a bunch of fake lines to get elected.

What is the next stage? Anger. Then Bargaining. Then Depression. Eventually acceptance, but I have a ways to go on that. Depression seems more the mood of today, complete with a gentle but persistent rain, thick clouds to cover the supermoon.

It’s the not knowing that is so hard. We don’t know what will happen with a Trump presidency. We can guess, and all of us who were alive in the last century have some PTSD over the post Gore/Bush election, and how 9 months into GWB’s administration we got 9/11, and then the wars. This time around, instead of a laughable clown with bad grammar and a scary right wing cranky Cheney at his side, we have a hateful narcissistic bigot and xenophobe with Bannon in as his chief advisor. What could go right????

We don’t know. We don’t know. This is the mantra I keep muttering as I try to cope with my despair. Here is what I do:

-I fix the broken water filter in the fridge

-I change the batteries in my tuner

-I field emails about my Local Chorus and plan our show for next Sunday

-I practice “One Hundred Names” for my piano recital

-I change my strings for our show on Saturday morning at Flywheel, a benefit for Hilltown Families.

-I send emails to Elizabeth Warren, Ed Markey and Jim McGovern, just to tell them I love them and to fight the good fight in the months to come

-I get on my knees and thank God for the Obamas

-I call my friends and family and plan some music for Thanksgiving

-I wear a safety pin, even though I know it’s an imperfect white-privilegy thing to do

-I write my 16th poem for 30 Poems in November to help new immigrants to Western MA.

-I watch Modern Family with my kids and laugh and laugh

-I send money to Foster Campbell from Louisiana so we can put one more Democratic senator in congress

-Stop the fake news! Don’t post anything without fact-checking. Don’t believe anything without fact-checking.

-I plan to go to a meeting at my kids’ elementary school to talk about how to cope in the aftermath of the election

-I make lists like this, of things I can do to stay positive and connected, because it’s connection that will save us. Here are some more resources.

-I read this poem by May Sarton to my writers:

Take Anguish for Companion

If the one absolute is suffering,
And if the only absolute is doubt,
From these alone belief must be wrung
Or else the bitter poverty found out:
Take anguish for companion and set out…

But if we dare to keep anguish companion,
We feel spring in our throats a living song,
See man leap from the rocks toward the sun,
Refuse to be imprisoned for too long,
His anger storming at the walls of wrong…

For to be desperate is to discover strength.
We die of comfort and by conflict live
Who grow in this knowledge till at length
We find it good, find it belief enough
To be anguish alive, creating love.

– May Sarton

Kali 2016

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My cheeks sag down
Making me look even sadder than I feel
There are new folds in my eyelids
Pillows under my eyes
Donald Trump wants to fix this.

He will make my face young again
An aging face is a terrible thing
Terrible.
Have you seen her?

Today in my safe town
LGBTQ capital of the nation
A man sneered at my Asian friend and me
“Chicks and Spics,
I can’t wait till you’re all exterminated.”

There are swastikas at Hampshire College
There is graffiti on Mount Tom
The n word

This is not my town.
Has this always been my town?
Whose town is this?

What is a woman?
The Vedas taught that within each, we all have
The three faces of the Goddess

Saraswati Goddess of Creativity,
Lakshmi Goddess of Wealth and Beauty
And of course, Kali the Destroyer

Kali, birth and death
Kali, black-faced, with the necklace of skulls
Kali, whose lolling tongue
Laps up the demons
And ingests them
Makes them part of herself.

Hillary, Hillary
We projected whatever face we wanted onto you
Sometimes Mother Mary
Sometimes Hermione Granger
Sometimes The Devil Kali

But I
See myself. An aging
Imperfect, wrinkled
Striving, laughable
Brilliant, incompetent
Perfectionist, fighter.
Middle aged woman:
Clumsy with the internet
Trying to please everyone
Reinvention at every turn
Plans and lists
Heart broken
But not my spirit.

She gets knocked down
And she gets up again.

Hillary, I want for you
To rise to the heavens
The way you’ve lifted all of us
Shown us what is possible:
To win the presidency
(In any other democracy, your numbers would have given you the prize).
To defeat a bully and a liar
Three times on the national stage.
In your concession speech
You were gigantic
Mama Superior.

I want for you
To sit under a tree with your grandchildren
Like George Washington at the end of his life
Only for you, that would never be enough.
That is not what you want.

What lake is big enough for all the rage of all the women
Angry and aggrieved on your behalf? What
Repository can hold all our tears?

In the Vedas,
The demons multiplied
When we cut off their heads.
Each drop made a new demon
And so finally
Kali came to save us
Put down her sword
Opened her generous mouth
And swallowed them all
And they became a part of her.

We will have to swallow this.
Eventually we will.
But today we fill the lake
With our tears.

Nerissa Nields
Nov. 11, 2016

 

This poem was written as part of 30 Poems in November, a benefit to raise money for Center for New Americans, a Western MA organization that provides welcoming services and literacy for recent immigrants. For more information, or to sponsor me, go here

 

What I Didn’t Know


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I’m glad I didn’t see
The Trump sign on the public lawn
As a harbinger
Across the street from my house
On the morning of the election

Instead, I just felt sorry for the guy who put it there.
Fat chance.

I’m glad I believed she would win
I’m glad I wore white in honor of the suffragettes
I’m glad I spent the day with my daughter and BFF
Canvassing for Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire
On a perfect fall day
The benevolent blue of the sky
The sun shining in our faces as we held up the signs
The cars honking their approval
Stronger Together

We took our picture with cardboard Hillary
We took our picture with someone dressed as a suffragette
We high-fived a union worker.
“How’s it looking?” we asked.
“We’re going to win!” everyone said.

I’m glad I didn’t know what was coming
In the same way
I was glad I didn’t know
On my tenth anniversary
That my marriage would end within a year
I got to dance with my husband that night
To believe that it was the first of many decades together
To believe in love
To believe in marriage
I remember thinking, “I am perfectly happy right this moment.”

I’m glad I didn’t know what was coming
In the same way
You were glad you didn’t know about the cancer.
You trained for the Boston Marathon
So full of determination and joy
Right up until you couldn’t breathe
And they found the stage four tumor.

I’m glad I didn’t know what was coming
In the same way
I was glad I didn’t know about the miscarriage
The night my sister and I were both
Secretly pregnant
Singing together onstage
Our tiny bellies both just beginning to round
I remember thinking “I am perfectly happy at this moment.”

Yesterday
My daughter and I drove home from New Hampshire
The leaves that perfect gold
Past peak and still shining in the sun
Stopping at the store
For drinks for our election night party
Sure to be one for the history books.

I came home to my sister and her son
Piano lessons for the kids
Take-out for the grown ups
A cake to bake.
I looked up at my sister and said,
“I am perfectly happy at this moment.”

A younger me would say, “Fool. That’s what you get for being happy. That’s what you get for believing.”
A wiser me says

That perfectly happy unstatic moment
Is all you get. So take it.

No one can take away
The fact that the canvassing office was full of familiar faces
Northampton transplanted in Keene

No one can take away
This land is your land

No one can take away
She won the popular vote
The brown
The queer
The future.
No one can take away
That we turned off the TV when it got too scary
And sang If I Had a Hammer instead

No one can take away
That we were peaceful in the end––
One more peaceful transfer of power.

No one can take away
Our own decency

No one can take away
Pantsuit Nation

No one can take away
Bruce Springsteen’s passion
Or Obama’s class
Or Michelle’s sincerity
Or Hillary’s grit

We live our lives
We have our triumphs and tragedies
We get to keep it all, every bit of it.

If I had known,
I would have lost the day
And that might have been worse
Than losing the election.

Nerissa Nields
Nov. 9, 2016

 

This poem was written as part of 30 Poems in November, a benefit to raise money for Center for New Americans, a Western MA organization that provides welcoming services and literacy for recent immigrants. For more information, or to sponsor me, go here