“What is your question?” asked the oracle, the wizard, the exotic lady wearing many bangle bracelets and peering deeply into a crystal ball.
A friend of mine used to read palms – informally, when she had just met someone. The new acquaintance would reach out to shake hands and my friend would gently turn the outstretched hand palm up, move her reading glasses from her head onto her nose, and study the lines and spaces, first one hand and then the other.
The first time she did it to me was when I was applying for a job at the arts organization she founded: YA/YA, short for Young Aspirations / Young Artists, a program that trained talented teens to become professional artists. I was sitting across from her at a narrow cypress table, with my little resume between us, when she took both of my hands in hers and told me that I am not the person I was meant to be. One hand showed that I was born to be loose and free and creative, but someone had injected a lot of disorder into my life when I was little, so I became this much more rigid, controlling perfectionist – traits that show up in my other hand.
Beware when the hands don’t match, my friend-to-be said, allowing, despite the dire warning, that all was not lost. You can work toward evolving back into the person you were meant to be, she added. I was stunned because she had nailed it. My mother was an alcoholic, forcing me to be the grown-up in our relationship. And I had indeed struggled with the kind of perfectionism that ties you up in knots, at least until I learned that you can’t control anything beyond the tip of your nose. That was liberation.
People had a variety of reactions to having a stranger comment on their lives and fates. Some were awestruck. How do you do that, they’d ask. And she’d say, it’s all right here, pointing to their palms. Others recoiled. I saw one older gentleman, an executive at a local department store whom we were courting for a contribution, pull his hand away and take a step back from her. The intimacy, and the presumption on her part that it was okay to delve deeply into a stranger’s soul, did not sit well with him. Needless to say, we didn’t get the donation.
When I think about the big questions — especially now after our country has elected as president a bombastic reality-TV star who has no familiarity with the Constitution and even less with decency and compassion — the question I’ve been wrestling with since Nov. 8 is, how do we behave in this new reality? How do we continue with our lives, our jobs, our relationships when the ground has seemingly slid out from under us? What was terra firma has shifted radically and it has become hard to know where to put your feet, where and how to stand, to trust that the earth will be solid and hold us up.
After the initial shock of the late-night returns, I was actually surprised when the sun came up on Nov. 9. I began to talk to people with whom I’d never had more than a passing conversation.
I saw a friend’s husband at a social event a week or so after the election. I don’t know this man well at all, but when I brought up the new reality, he shared his confusion, his shock and his questions about what to tell his children — as if we had been comrades in arms. It was refreshing and authentic. “Please tell me if you figure it out,” he said, and I got the impression he meant it.
Besides the shifting sands of our political reality, my personal reality is shifting, too. A few months ago, I invited my 23-year-old daughter Camille and her partner, Destry, to move in with me and my husband. More than a decade ago we had converted our house, once a duplex with an apartment upstairs, into a single-family residence.
Camille and Destry have been living together for over four years, but they’re embarking on graduate programs, have little money, and won’t be able to work full-time. Turning part of the upstairs back into a separate living space was our way of helping them out.
What I didn’t realize was that it would entail a cascading series of renovations. Moving the washer and dryer into the back shed was going to mean running water and electric lines out there, as well as gas and sewer service. We also decided to extend the deck so we can more easily get to the laundry. And while we were at it, we were going to need a new kitchen, which Destry’s dad offered to provide.
This seemed like a win-win: My house gets improved and, when the kids finish school and leave once again, I’ll have an updated apartment for rent in a city with a housing shortage. Ah, but our work was not done. The kitchen renovation forced us to deal with a subsidence issue we had ignored for years. Why put new cabinets and countertops into a house that is a bit, as we say in New Orleans, catawampus?
So a few days ago, a shoring company began prepping the house to be leveled. Twenty hydraulic jacks lined the exterior walls, a Port-O-Let arrived on the property, and my 90-year old house and I braced for change.
Sitting in the quiet house with all the doors open to keep them from getting stuck shut – an interesting metaphor in itself – I listened to the sounds of my house changing its relationship with the earth. Things popped. Floors changed their slope. Baseboards came apart. And all over the house sheetrock and plaster let it be known that, no, they were not meant to be flexible; they cracked. A lot. Beautiful archways that are the dominant architectural element of our open floor plan shifted in space, shrugged their rounded shoulders, and frayed at the seams. Hairline cracks appeared throughout the structure and several large fissures appeared where walls simply gave up and broke open.
A man came in with a machine that measures the floor’s height at about 20 different points in the house. At the beginning of the job, the high point of my house was about one inch above grade and the low point was about 4 1/2 inches below, quite a difference even for New Orleans, which has a shortage of right angles. By the end of the second day, all levels were within a half-inch of one another. The house had found its new position on the earth, in response to the earth having shifted under it.
It occurred to me that the rebalancing of my house mirrored the changing relationship I would have with Camille. And both of these shifts mirror the shifts we must now make to find our footing in this new political reality – the one in which nearly 3 million fewer voters pulled the lever for Trump than for his rival, but he got elected anyway.
The absurdity of that, the idea that this cartoonish boor could lead anything but a vainglorious campaign, let alone the most powerful nation on earth, demands that we stand firm, step up and speak out for what’s right. It means bridging the wide chasm that has opened up among Americans – like the seams in my walls when put under pressure. It is only when we engage in real dialogue, like the significant conversation I had with a mere acquaintance, that change happens, relationships evolve, we begin to see a new way forward.
My contractor tells me that we must repair the cracked walls with a special mesh tape and spackle. The tape is elastic and protects the more rigid spackle from cracking when a heavy truck rolls down my bumpy street. That way, no matter how much the earth shifts, the repair has a fighting chance of holding steady. It’s this elasticity, this ability to flex and change, that will get us through the next four years. That, and talking to strangers, and when invited — and only when invited — delving more intimately into the kind of community that binds us together like sticks in a bundle, as the old African proverb puts it, and makes us strong.
Claudia Barker is the chief development officer for a network of public charter schools.
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