My daughter turns sixteen this month. Not such a sweet sixteen, a birthday plagued by the presidential election. I ask her what she thinks of the conflagration: red state vs. blue state, culture wars and fear. She fixes me with the Teenage Fisheye: “You’re the one who hates this. I like talking politics.”
She follows the news. Her friends know, she tells me, not to get her started. She’s indignant she can’t vote, though she understands the age limit. Most people her age aren’t informed enough, she says. I wonder what she thinks of me — fighting with her dad, not over politics but over how often we talk politics in the house. “Not now,” I say, trying to cool his fires. “Can’t we talk about something else?”
You might think I’m apolitical. I think I’m just burnt out. I snap off the radio. I read the newspapers, The Nation, and the Internet, but they make me want to run away, find an alternate reality to live in. In the hullabaloo of election, I want to tell my daughter, “Don’t get hooked into politics. Politics is a Trickster. It will seduce you, pull you into a panicked frenzy, ruin your health, and sear your heart.”
But really, I’m warning myself: “Don’t get too close to that fire again, Ericka.”
When I was a child with ear infections, my dad used to lie me down under a heat lamp — searing red hot — to draw the infection out. “It will seriously burn you if you touch it. So lie still,” he’d tell me. (See the show Mad Men for similar 1960s child rearing techniques.) But I was curious, so one time I grazed the bulb with the back of my hand, as if I’d turned over while stretching. Despite the ointment my dad put on it, my hand scabbed and took months to heal. A year later, still curious, I did it again. This time, he got mad, no doubt wondering if he was raising an idiot. It took me a long time to learn to fear heat.
For a short while, years later, I was a politico. I was searching for meaning, justice, and love, and thought I’d found these things in the flames of politics. I was just 18, staggering from a year-long depression, newly date-raped, and suffering from culture shock as a West Coast Marin County girl trying to fit into New York City. While my roommates rushed sororities, I got to know the members of the Young Socialist Alliance. There was a man. Eric. He was twenty-four and lived with his girlfriend, but he wooed me with coffee, attention, and Lenin — the oldest recruitment ploy in the book.
These were months I couldn’t think. I became a revolutionary, burning high from engagement to the cause, running the streets with buckets of glue and brushes, slapping up flyers on telephone poles and Soho walls, and peddling The Militant on street corners. Cigarettes. Black coffee. Passionate voices. Ideas. Late night smoky meetings in back rooms. I was by nature a pacifist, so when Eric said “armed resistance” and “Permanent Revolution,” I let the words filter through my brain.
I thought I was in love with Eric, a rich kid rebelling against his banker father and dousing his bleeding ulcers with booze and cigarettes. But really I was living in a story, and the story was an escape from my life — the university I was flunking out of and the rape flashbacks. Eric led me on. In December, drunk and pathetic, he arrived guiltily at my door. By then I’d realized he, like the Young Socialist Alliance, was a dead end, only flames to burn away my pain.
A few years later, back in San Francisco, Helen Caldicott’s descriptions of nuclear winter left me shaking. I didn’t sleep, night after night picturing the searing white of mushroom clouds. I began again. Consensus meetings. Non-violent resistance training. Blockading Livermore Labs, standing in the street while the bumper of a giant pick-up truck pressed relentlessly against my back, led to a night in Santa Rita jail. Terrified and sick, I finally had the duh-revelation: I want to go home, I can’t go home, I’m a prisoner. Jail was serious. And that was it for direct action — my politics shifted to money-giving and peaceful marching and behind the scenes support. Burnt out.
“Being a writer,” I want to tell my daughter, “telling the truth — this is revolutionary enough. I don’t need to do more; I can’t do more.”
But my daughter is sixteen. I see the fire of politics in her eyes and know that it runs through both her genetic lines. Her father was a Vietnam anti-war activist. My great-grandparents were revolutionaries in White Russia. I love my daughter’s ideas and her political ideals. I want her to be curious, feel the passion, make change. To climb a tree and stay there for months living with the elements and preserving the old growth forest, to get arrested for demonstrating, to volunteer with the needy and to get out the vote. To save our world.
“But go slow,” I want to tell her. “Choose your fires wisely, don’t get sucked into the hullabaloo. Don’t fly too near the sun, don’t touch the heat lamp from curiosity. Be careful of the Trickster, the sexy man who pays for your coffee and gives you Lenin to read. And know that sometimes you might get burned, from curiosity or intent. And know that sometimes you have to get burned.”
As for me — I’m down at Obama headquarters putting in a little volunteer time. Because when the house is burning down and your children are inside, you have to brave the fire.