I’m feeling nostalgic.
Maybe it’s the sudden onset of fall weather in Minnesota that carries my mind to autumn moments involving new beginnings: my fall wedding; the beginning of new school years for myself and my children; the opportunity every four years of my adult life to help vote new leaders into office . . .
I’m wearing my “Rock Us Dukakis” shirt today and am feeling nostalgic about the first presidential campaign I was old enough to vote in. It’s difficult for me to say if my T-shirt is making me long for days gone by or if I chose to wear the shirt because I’m longing for the past. My sentiments often hit me in a way that causes me to be unsure if I am encouraging the presence of sentimentality in my mind or if those feelings exist to encourage me.
I do know that nostalgia drives me to be a writer. My desire to capture moments with words before they’re lost to the ash heap of time and a cluttered life is my motivation to commit them to pages of permanence. Fictional stories that I create always have, at least, what I call a “nostalgic neutron” that provides the genesis for my narratives.
My When Life Was Still trilogy has a whole lot of those neutrons. It even has a passage about my protagonist Amy wearing her “Rock Us Dukakis” T-shirt on her conservative, religious campus just to upset her zealous classmates. While my own life experiences inspired a significant amount of content in all three books of the trilogy with those nostalgic neutrons, my characters are not me. And I’m not my protagonists Ellen, Greta, and Amy—although I often wish I could be like them.
Fictional stories often emerge through my fingers as a result of how I wished the past could have been. Writing historical fiction is probably appealing to me because I get to re-write the past. As I type this while wearing my Rock Us Dukakis T-shirt—which I recently bought with a gift card my college roommate from 1988 gave to me—I am aware that I wish I had the shirt in college along with the courage of my protagonist Amy. Like her, I attended a painfully religious school that made it clear that to be accepted by many people on campus, I must vote for George H.W. Bush. I guess I didn’t want to be accepted by those kind of people because I was eager to vote for Michael Dukakis and what he represented. My attraction to him might have been caused by hearing Neil Diamond’s “Coming to America” song and my desire to embrace the concept of giving people of the 1980s the opportunity to experience the American Dream. But I wish I would have had the courage to buy a Dukakis shirt back then to make a statement against the messaging I received on my campus. I didn’t feel that I owned the American Dream in the way that many of my religious college peers seemed to. They also seemed to believe they owned access to God and Christianity; entrance to those realms apparently required that I curry favor with my peers. Those college days provided lasting moments that eventually became themes that are repeated through my trilogy.
Sadly, those themes of superiority and privileged access to a special world didn’t only remain on the pages of scrapbooks about undesirable chapters in my life and on the pages of my trilogy. They reverberate 32 years later in the America I am experiencing today. Every time I see a Trump rally on TV, I search the crowd for my college classmates who said I would go to hell if I didn’t vote for Bush. I’m curious to know if they also drank the Trump Kool-Aid and helped elect him.
Maybe that’s why I’m wearing my Dukakis T-shirt today. I hate the America that Donald Trump and his zealous followers have created. I hate that I wasted any amount of energy the past four years tip-toeing around the feelings of people who could support a monster like Trump. Today, I wish I could safely go out in public with my compromised immune system in the America that Donald Trump intentionally allowed COVID-19 to infect by covering up the actual threat it posed so that he would look good. If I could go out, I would be wearing my “Mr. President, please don’t grab my . . . dignity” T-shirt to remind people where this disaster of a presidency began. Those are days that I’m not nostalgic for. Donald Trump told America who he was four years ago and Americans got him elected in spite of it—and because of it. America knows who Donald Trump is today, and there is still a real chance he could get re-elected by those people who believe they will go to hell if they don’t vote for him.
As a writer of historical fiction who has done a significant amount of research for my books, I can confidently tell you that history does repeat itself. And it often does so because Americans with power are too comfortable and privileged to learn from their mistakes. Suffering is a great motivating force to change the trajectory of life’s events. I find it odd that I hope enough Americans have suffered enough the past four years to desire a change that does not result in Donald Trump’s re-election.
If Trump is re-elected, I hope my immune system can survive another four years of his leadership. I want to live long enough to someday look back on this era of history and find something to be nostalgic about. If I can’t do that, at least I’ll have plenty of material readily available if I someday want to create a villain in a story who: runs for president merely for free advertising of his real-estate business; accidentally gets elected by people who think they’ll go to hell if they don’t vote for him; then becomes an autocrat with spineless Congresspeople that endorse every self-serving plan he hatches; is empowered to manipulate the handling of a pandemic that kills many of his followers and economically wipes out those who don’t succumb to a killer virus . . . It sounds like a great work of fiction.
I don’t care as much about you reading my trilogy as I do about not wanting you to contribute to any future horror story I might write. If you’re reading this and you voted for Trump the first time around, I’ll find it in my conservative Christian roots to forgive you. But please don’t do the unforgivable and vote for a monster like Trump again. I don’t want to see you in hell.
Maybe I am more like my protagonist Amy than I realized.
© 2020 by Julie Ryan. All rights reserved
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