Digging for grace

Even though Schwarzenegger -- with his groping and weenie issues -- is the new governor of California, I haven't felt this hopeful in a long time.

Published October 10, 2003 4:00PM (EDT)

I used to tell my writing students to write the story that they wish they could come upon, that they wished existed in the world: because if they wrote the story and gave it away, it would exist. When they read something that made something stir inside them way down deep, they must take note, because this was a life-giving story. Life, inside them, was tugging on their sleeves, trying to get their attention.

If you are paying attention, and carrying a pen in your back pocket, life will give you great stories, or at least lovely moments, and this is a lot. As John Prine once sang, "Photographs show the laughs recorded in between the hard times; happy sailors, dancing on a sinking ship." So as Election Day approached, I waited patiently for the story to materialize that would help me deal with the specter of having George Bush for president and Arnold Schwarzenegger for governor of California. I prayed my default prayer -- Help, help! -- as if God was a wilderness guide, and I'd gotten caught in the brambles of my best thinking. And I got an answer: If you can't cooperate with grace, at least patronize it. Let it come in and mill around you. So I did, and it presented itself. I am not sure what grace is but when it arrives, it is the opposite of feeling like the smallest package on earth, all wrapped up in yourself. Grace is when something makes the now more spacious; walking the children out to their classrooms in children's church on Sunday, I asked a child named Kahari if he was still 7. He said, "No, I'm 8 now. I just live like a 7-year-old."

I laughed off and on all day, and told this story to everyone who called. It was enough to get me through the afternoon.

But the day before the election, I was feeling really defeated. Bush is president, and Schwarzenegger would likely be my governor -- what next, SpongeBob SquarePants as my mayor? Help, I prayed again, caught this time in the slough of furious disbelief, and that morning, a hummingbird flew into the house, and nearly got eaten by the kitty. But I caught it gently in a dishcloth, and set it free. That lifted my spirits, the green-throated hummingbird back in the branches again. Then late that afternoon, a fax came chugging through, and I have been in a crazily good mood every since.

It was a few pages from a book called "The Soul of Money," by Lynne Twist, a fundraiser and activist for global hunger causes. She writes of a trip she took with 18 other Hunger Project volunteers and leaders to a village in the desert in Senegal, on the western tip of Africa. Someone with the Hunger Project had arranged a meeting with the tribal leaders of the community, whose water supplies were gone, whose shallow well was dry. The village was several hours into the desert, in the harshest imaginable environment, where almost nothing grew but baobob trees, with their long leafy branches for shade. Twist and her colleagues set out by jeep, across hundreds of miles of silty orange sand that stung their eyes and parched their throat, expecting to find hopeless, hungry people in the village. Yet when she and the other workers, driving toward the sounds of drums, pulled up in their jeeps, they were welcomed by ecstatic children, women in beautiful tribal dresses, men drumming. Everyone was too thin but not starving, and they danced around the fire: The partners had arrived.

The tribal leaders sat in a circle with the Hunger Project people, in the baking orange sand. They were all men, all Muslim. The women sat in a circle behind them. The men thanked the Hunger Project for the offer of partnership in helping them to find new water sources, or to help them relocate to somewhere less harsh. There was no government help for them: They were not counted in the census, and had no vote. Their wells were nearly dry, as were the wells of 16 other villages to the east.

After a while, Twist asked to speak with the women who sat obediently behind them, who seemed very anxious to communicate something. The mullahs allowed the women from the Hunger Project to meet with the tribal women, and allowed one of their men to translate. That's all it took.

The tribal women told Twist and the others that there was an underground lake below them, beneath the sand: They had seen it in their visions. They were sure that it was there; there was no doubt. But the men wouldn't let them dig for it. Digging and making tribal decisions were not women's work -- women could only weave, farm and care for the children -- and the men did not want to waste their energy on visions. But Twist and her colleagues, after speaking through the translator in many meetings with the mullahs, finally convinced the men to let the women give it a try. The men were not happy, but they let the women begin.

Over the next year, the women dug with utter conviction, banking on their dreams. And as they scooped out buckets of sand, they sang and drummed and took care of each other's children. The men rationed the village's water, and watched dubiously from a distance as they did their own work, and most of the women's too. I imagine them muttering, and rolling their eyes. The women dug deeper and deeper, and after a year, they came to the water they had seen in their visions -- the underground lake in the sand.

I felt so happy upon reading this that I could have danced around the fire, if I'd had one, to the rhythm of the drums, if only my friends would come drum for me, in my colorful tribal frocks, if they still fit. But the good news was that since it is autumn, I actually could make a fire that night, and lie down next to it with my son and the pets, and rest. The story made my heart a little softer: I understood why so many people in California were voting for Arnold Schwarzenegger -- they were trying to save their village. Their state was in terrible shape, and they were angry and afraid. They were looking for new sources of water, and then Arnold comes along, seeming to fulfill the collective thirst, the need for power and might. Someone with huge teeth -- canines -- under klieg lights, someone strong and shiny and intimidating, to do battle with the mess that is California. Half of the men in this state vote for the candidate they'd rather be, and they'd rather be Arnold than Gray. It's magical thinking. Since there is no visionary mind or political brilliance to elect, they'd settle for muscle, special effects, palaces and gold.

But what Schwarzenegger has created in people's hearts is a mirage. It's the eagle on the credit card. He doesn't have a vision of water, only of Arnold, just as the oilmen in charge of America had only a vision of more oil money. We've been thirsty, scared and endlessly ripped off these last few years, by al-Qaida, Enron, Saudi Arabia and the White House. Where do we find real water, and with what do we dig?

The water can only be right where you are, beneath you, or nearby, in the sand and rubble and earth on which you stand. That's where we start digging. And it's in the air, when you stop and breathe, in the tang of autumn, of old leaves and apples. It's where our butts are, and it's inside us.

Democrats are starting to feel like their old selves again, and that is just so wonderful, like when you've had the flu for a while and you suddenly notice you're better. The prophet Jeremiah wrote, "The summer is over, the harvest is in, and we are not saved," and maybe we aren't saved, but we are better. Maybe his beaten-down sorry-ass Old Testament locust-eating audience was without hope, but we aren't. We're getting our chops back, and our sense of humor: This makes us a major problem for Karl Rove. We're pushing back our sleeves and getting back to work, scooping sand in the old tribal ways -- bucket by bucket. We're taking care of the poor, protesting, registering voters, sending money for the ACLU.

I got up early on Election Day and turned on the news, secretly hoping there were exit polls to study, even though it was only 7. After breakfast, I walked to the senior center to vote. I love the intensity of darkness and light together: You wake up in the morning and it's dark, the sunrises so intensely surreal, like Hawaii, and then it gets dark when it should, at a reasonable time, for tired, middle-aged people like me. It reminds you to number the days, and the hours, to notice the light when we get it, slants of light, instead of blasts, and the comforts of the dark.

It was still going to be a long day, even though the sun would set so early. But we get to wear light sweaters again; this gives me a sense of quirky hope. If Davis won, he would be forced into becoming a good governor. If Schwarzenegger won, with his tiny groping and weinie issues, at the helm of an economy that has turned to shit, well -- it was hard to see Karl Rove making political hay of it. Believe me, more will be revealed. During the 2000 election, some of us said, "If Bush gets in, I'm moving; it's all over." And guess what? He won, we didn't move, and it's not all over. Rocks came tumbling down on us, and they continue to fall, but even when it seemed we were doomed, it turned out we were slowly being knit back together. Somehow, just in the last few months, against all odds, it's all but over for the Bush dynasty: The whole outfit has been coming apart like a $2 watch. And we've found an underground, wiggly strength again: You can feel it in the air, at rallies, at readings.

So, as we all know, Arnold is the new governor. But that in and of itself is so ludicrous, so absurd, so blatant -- that surely great change will emerge from his victory. Things always get more extreme when a government is about to come crashing down. Rot is exposed, and the men, with their terminal Delusional Dominance Disorder, all turn on each other. You can see it happening in the Rove White House. It's like an alcoholic family, everyone screaming at each other, trying to dominate, fix and control: "We were just trying to help ... and now everyone's dead." Everyone begins blaming, and lying -- like the great Bart Simpson said, "It was this way when we got here." But we know the truth, that, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., "The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

Anyway, where was I? OK: Over the years, after the people in Senegal found their lake, they developed a water system, with storage facility, pumps and irrigation. Now 16 other villages in the region have water. There are crops, batik industries, chicken farming. People are learning to read, and write, to get their stories down.

I haven't felt this hopeful in a long time. Spring was so painful because of the march to war. And it sure doesn't look like rebirth and renewal out in my garden. In fact, it looks just the opposite: The flowers are mostly done with until next year, the leaves are dry and falling. Sam is going to rake them into piles, and I'll bag them. We are tidying things up: We're not going to push any more new growth through this year. But the vegetables of autumn are appearing at the market, the persimmons are ripening on the trees, and there is a quickening edge of coolness in the air.

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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