At about 11PM on Monday night, I felt an ominous discomfort in my stomach and a suddenly throbbing headache. Within moments, I was on my knees in the bathroom vomiting, the first of about ten times over the next six hours.
My mind immediately flashed to a decision made while cooking dinner earlier that night: to use a package of dried prunes even though they were a month past the expiration date. I don’t make a habit of eating dated food, but I thought there would be a bit of a buffer zone. Plus, the packet was still sealed and I’d be cooking the prunes, in a sauce with Dijon mustard over chicken. But I learned my lesson the hard way.
Wretched as the food poisoning bout felt, alternating chills and sweat as I’d sleep for fifteen minutes, scoot to the bathroom, sleep for a half hour and return, it occurred to me at some point that perhaps I this was my body’s way of purging eight years of the George W. Bush administration. My six hours of nausea, after all, had stretched into the first few hours of Election Day.
Later that morning after a few hours’ solid sleep, I felt much better and my stomach was settled enough to have a piece of toast and watch election coverage on TV. I quickly became engrossed by a phone interview on CNN with an elderly Illinois woman named Velma Pate. As a young child, her father and other family members had marched with Martin Luther King. Today, Velma wept while casting a vote for Barack Obama.
After a few minutes, the anchor was clearly trying to wrap up the segment, and began thanking the interviewee for her time. But Velma persisted, saying she wanted to tell the American people that today they were moving from darkness into the light, just as god had prophesized.
As I describe the episode and the moment, I’m of course aware of how maudlin or melodramatic it might sound. Yet it’s a testimony to what an extraordinary moment Barack Obama’s election as president really is that my usual cynicism, and that of so many others, has for a time cleared away like a rainstorm giving way to sunshine.
I’ve been thinking today, this glorious day after the victory, of exactly when it was I lost my faith in the country. Was it 2004, still to me the most baffling choice by the American electorate? Was it 2000, when the election very well may have been unfairly taken from Al Gore? No, I think for me it went back to Bill Clinton’s impeachment. I don’t know, and frankly today don’t want to know, what disappointments and tragedies lay ahead. But it’s not time for those worries and threats just yet. First I want to listen to Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” without apology.
It would be cause enough to celebrate merely having the Bush-Cheney era come to an end. Or to see a Democrat elected president. But this is something more. Granted, I thought that was the case with Bill Clinton, too. His election was transformative for me in a personal way, going from my conservative upbringing to left-siding political views. It was also a generational change, and the joy of watching such an effortlessly brilliant politician at work. Even for me, though, with the hindsight of history, Obama's moment feels like the greater opportunity to make a new history for the United States that is bright and promising as the last eight years were horrific and shameful. Regardless of Clinton's fans like me, he was a divisive figure. But with Obama, ironically, given his heritage and the racism that stil exists, it's clear that a greater power to unite exists.
Today I visited the Portland Art Museum to see two exhibits: a collection of historic 19th and early 20th century Columbia River Gorge photos, and M.K. Guth's "Ties of Protection and Safe Keeping", an installation that premiered earlier this year at the prestigious Whitney Biennial. It featured a single very long braid that contained hundreds of felt strips onto which people had written their ideas about what, either literal or conceptual, was most worth preserving. In both exhibits, I was moved by the notion of a river as a metaphor for the day, a narrative continually flowing with ideas. It feels better thinking of the country, and the democracy here, as a livng organism we can still renew and restore when it is needed.
During my bout of nausea, it was the middle of the night and I kept only a small nightlight on in the shadowy bathroom as I purged the prune sauce. By the time Obama’s election was secure as the clock struck 8PM Pacific Time it was dark too. But as I stood under a streetlamp outside our apartment in the rain, my slippers soaking up water like sponges and yelling “Woo-HOO!” like a gleeful child at a winning football game, or as I watched Jessie Jackson cry and cry on television, or Obama himself looking so exquisitely presidential at Grant Park making his acceptance speech, I thought for this night at least that Velma was right: that we had indeed made it from the darkness into the light.
And less than 24 hours after being KO’d by bad prunes, I was already back on cheeseburgers.