Warren G. Harding is my solace

Even the Teapot Dome bozo was popular when he died -- and other thoughts to console yourself during the Bush reign.

Published May 23, 2003 3:58PM (EDT)

My bad back and I have just returned from six days in Kauai. Hawaii is full of sweet, easygoing people and I am glad to be home where I can be more edgy and not stand out. I was an outsider in the small Hawaiian town where my boyfriend and I stayed, and I much preferred this to feeling like an outsider at home, as I have during these last seemingly hopeless months. At the same time, it had been good to get away from daily life enough so I could see it more clearly, even with my failing vision.

When I got back, a lot of people were going around saying that the war in Iraq was over. Karl Rove said we didn't win the war in Iraq, we won the Battle of Iraq. In any case, now we're in the less festive, "everything has turned to shit" stage, the "granny getting wheeled off to the hospital in a wheelbarrow" stage. People are starting to badger us into "admitting" that the war was a good thing; also, that Bush is not as dumb as a lot of us think. I'd like to point out nicely that they also tried to get us to "admit" this about Ronald Reagan. What can you do in the face of this but just smile prettily? The important thing to remember is that we survived Ronald Reagan, and we will survive Bush. It gives me hope to remember this, because that was really scary -- under Reagan's happy-go-lucky demeanor was true malevolence. On the other hand, I don't think Bush can pull it off. He just doesn't have it. He's Alfred E. Newman in "Top Gun." He's still just a bad boy trying to redeem himself and his father.

Another thing that gives me hope is knowing that historically, what is done in secret will be brought to light. You can ask Jesus, or J.Edgar Hoover, or Clyde. This should scare our little Republican friends to death. History promises that the pendulum will swing back to the left. The truth of this smoke-and-mirrors, smirky, smug, pimping White House will be exposed. Everything always is. Even Warren Harding was popular when he died. We've been wearing glasses scratched with fear for nearly two years, but with no WMD, no Saddam, no Osama, people are beginning to see better.

I feel more despair in some areas, though. The White House actually seems to believe that it is fighting a holy war. By the same token, so did Pope Urban II. He thought the first crusade would be a breeze, that his forces were noble and heroic and of God, and that they would rescue everyone. He did not think about the aftermath, what effect the ripples from his rock would have on the pond. For 90 years people thought he'd won, and then we got a thousand years of rage between Christians and Muslims, endless death and brutality in the name of sanctimony and obsession.

But when this makes me feel hopeless -- I don't think I have 90 years -- I remember that the current pope, John Paul II, for all of his disastrous policies, apologized a few years ago to the Muslim community. He said, in the presence of Muslims, "Every single one of the crusades was a mistake, and I am sorry." Then he went into a mosque, and kissed the Koran. This sharp spiritual vision takes my breath away.

One nice thing I've noticed since my return is that I no longer have to go around saying I supported our troops every few minutes; people don't try so hard to badger you into supporting an occupying force. Also, it's OK again to express tiny, tiny worries about John Ashcroft, within reason: A certain special friend of mine said in an e-mail that we never see Ashcroft anymore because he's supervising the torture on Guantanamo, and I'm sure that certain special friend of mine is going to get audited this year.

But what gives me the most hope of all is that the more suffering and bullshit there is, the more good you see called forth -- caring, generosity, courage. For awhile, everyone seemed so afraid that they went along while our liberties were being stolen. But recently it's been possible to bank again on the knowledge that the American people really, truly love freedom. I think things will be harder for the right again. They've been crystal clear for a long time now on what they are up to, from Ashcroft trying to make the PATRIOT Act permanent, to Bush flogging his obscene tax cut and then landing on the aircraft carrier with his pleased-as-punch little turtley smirk. What's not clear is how many of us there are, and how hard we're willing to fight for this unbelievably touching, vulnerable experiment called democracy.

And one last wonderful change: We get to whine again. We get to mention our bad backs, and broken refrigerators, and failing vision. During the shocking, awesome part of the war, before the dying grannies in the wheelbarrow parts, if you complained that your freezer wasn't working, someone would say, "Yeah, that's really awful, compared to a mother holding her starving child in a bombed-out basement in Nasiriya." Or if you mentioned that your allergies were terrible this year, someone would say, "I guess it's not such a catastrophe compared to people in bombed-out hovels in Baghdad who've lost limbs."

Now you can talk about insomnia, bad backs, how crazy and depressed you still feel about the war, and people respond with kindness. I noticed that at church, people are singing again with abandon. We lost our fight to stop this war, and now we are more desperate than usual to let the music take us to the place inside where the mind and the media can't get to, to something bigger than ourselves, something intuitive, ethereal, beyond words and opinion. I danced in church last Sunday, and sang as loudly as I could, and the notes drifted up into the ether, and it pulled a part of me along with it, pulled me higher.

I think some of us lost our vision briefly while the bombs were falling, like people who took acid and stared at the sun. It was hard to think straight, and you were supposed to feel ashamed to be a progressive, or even a yellow dog Democrat, whose vision is of freedom, equality, peace and social justice. And that was about as frightening as it gets -- when you lose your vision, you're really doomed. Your spirit is in danger. If you weren't careful during the good part of the war, throbbing Testosterone Mind took over your attention: It was like cobra hypnsosis. The only places I felt safe were peace marches and church; singing, in community. The rest of the time I felt mentally wounded. I think I was, too; that the cell membrane that contains me was torn. Spirit was and is the only thing that heals spirit, like cool compresses for your soul, or soft warm hands, and without it, you are so fucked. Only church and peace marches could knit the torn cell membrane of me back together, just enough so that I was still permeable for good to get in and out, yet protected from danger.

Now, it's funny; I have a clear vision again that a movement against all things Bush is going to be a great fight, even as month by month, my eyesight gets a little worse. I've always had excellent eyesight. It was one of my claims to fame: "Oh, Annie's got eyes like a hawk," everyone in my family used to say. As a child, I was sent for when anything was lost in the grass, or the rug, or the car. I arrived at the scene of the lost thing -- beaches, lawns, back seats -- was given a description of the lost object, and let loose, like a bloodhound. I almost always found everything, including lots of things I hadn't even been looking for -- money in the blackberry brambles, sea glass on mountain trails, jewelry at the beach.

As the years passed, I continued to think of myself as having eyes like a hawk, even as the printed word became smaller and blurrier. I could still often find things for people, and still read without glasses, if I squinted, and held the book at a distance. Then one night a few years ago, Sam watched me as I read in bed, and then asked, "Does it help to see when you go like this?" and then squinched his eyes shut like a mole in the sun.

So I started wearing glasses to read, and didn't worry, because my friends needed blended bifocals. (My friends are mostly older than I, although I am too polite to say this out loud.) But all of a sudden, I found that street signs started getting blurry too. I couldn't read them clearly until I was several feet away. I thought at first it might be a cerebral bleed. Then one day I couldn't read the news scrolling at the bottom of the TV screen, or the scores during baseball games.

This was right around the primary election last spring. I remember because I was in Berkeley with my friend Doug. I was driving him in the rain to the library where he votes. It was such a dark night that I could hardly drive. The streetlights seemed to have been dimmed. I said to Doug that this time the People's Republic of Berkeley had gone too far, implementing their righteous green policies, lowering the wattage of their streetlights. This was endangering the lives of citizens! Doug said, "What are you saying?" I asked, contemptuously, "What are you all burning for electricity now -- used oil from deep-fat fryers at McDonald's?" And Doug said, gently, "I think you need to see an eye doctor, honey." I laughed. Then I stopped at an intersection where there was no stop sign or light, so I could read the sign. As I was peering up at the streetlight, gripping the wheel like my mother used to, squinting up as if at a distant star, I nearly caused an accident.

The following week, I went to see an optometrist.

She was young and very businesslike. I started explaining to her how worried I was that everything seemed blurry rather suddenly, and that my father had died of a brain tumor when he was the age I am now, and that I had always had eyes like a hawk. When she finally got a word in, she was using the tone of voice that mental health professionals use.

"Miss Lamott," she said. "I need you to stop talking a moment. We're going to get to the bottom of this. Go ahead and look up at the chart."

I looked at the big, huge, clear, welcoming "E," and said, "'E'!" enthusiastically, to make her laugh. But she cleared her throat. She didn't think I was funny. She thought I was cuckoo.

"Can you read the first line?" she asked, and I could.

"Good," she said. "Now the second?"

I studied the next line. It was a bit blurry. I squinted and began to read.

"Miss Lamott, please stop squinting," she said.

"It helps me read, though."

"I understand that," she said.

So I tried to squint without it showing, and I read the lines and explained more about my excellent vision and how I could always find lost objects, and she kept saying, "Miss Lamott, please, please stop squinting."

"But my eyes are getting all dried out and itchy," I said.

There was a pained silence. "Miss Lamott," she said. "I didn't say not to blink. I said not to squint. Please."

So I was trying to read the rest of the second line, blinking madly, with a running commentary of how odd it was to have to concentrate so hard.

"Miss Lamott?" she said. "Please stop talking. Just read the third line."

I looked at the ant tracks at the bottom of the chart.

"Can you read that?" I asked.

Silence. "I can, actually. But I'm a little younger than you."

That was uncalled for. But in fact, I couldn't read the third line. So I lied. I said I could only read some of the third line.

She said, "Go ahead, then. Just do the best you can."

So I gave it a stab. "'Z,'" I said.

"Please stop squinting."

"The next one is either an 'I' or an 'L.' Then a -- well, I'm not sure on the third one. The fourth letter is an 'A,' I think. Or an 'H.' And the fifth one is -- can I squint a tiny bit? With one eye? An 'E'; no wait, 'B'; no wait, 'R.'"

"Miss Lamott?" she said gently. "The last line is actually all numbers."

Then she gave me a prescription for glasses, blended bifocals. Now I have two pairs of glasses, one with dark green frames, one with wire rims. Sam tells me I look more glamorous in the green ones, smarter in the wire rims. When I wear them, I can see everything clearly. What a concept! I love my optometrist now: I've gone in twice again -- now I want her to give me stronger glasses. She won't, yet, but says she will when I need them, and at least now she laughs at my jokes.

All my life, when people asked me to help them find lost stuff, I never gave up, because I used to be so anxious for approval. Most people got bored and stopped looking, but not me. And that's how you find things. You stay in the area where things got lost, you pay attention, and you don't give up.

By Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott is the New York Times bestselling author of "Help, Thanks, Wow"; "Small Victories"; "Stitches"; "Some Assembly Required"; "Grace (Eventually)"; "Plan B"; "Traveling Mercies"; "Bird by Bird"; "Operating Instructions" and "Hallelujah Anyway," out April 4. She is also the author of several novels, including "Imperfect Birds" and "Rosie." A past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an inductee to the California Hall of Fame, she lives in Northern California.

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