Wednesday, November 05, 2008

An Arrow Into the Future

I mentioned on Monday that the news of Madelyn Dunham's death had made me weep. The reasons why are personal and complex, and I don't even fully understand them, but I'm clearly not the only one who found the whole sweep of the drama emotionally surprising.

Robin at Snarkmarket wrote about his brief panic of urgency: a hallucination of being turned awayat the polls, compounded with anxiety less for the outcome than for his personal responsibility to vote. And it seems as though moments of Obama-induced fright were not uncommon. Either this anxiety gets displaced, forming conspiracy theories -- "the polls are too good, the Republicans will find a way to steal it"; it rebounds on the person, as in Robin's case -- "Oh my god, what if I haven't done everything right?"; or it fixates on concern for Obama himself, especially his safety and well-being.

Obama's hair has started to turn gray this election season. (At the Al Smith dinner, Obama jokingly attributed his salt-and-pepper look to Hillary Clinton.) And each day and week have made him seem older.

There are certain characteristics of Obama's that I find deeply compelling -- his sensitivity, his psychological acuity -- which testify to his own slightly disassociated and lonely sense of himself. It is an unusually potent combination -- a man who can identify with the loneliness of others. Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings wrote about Obama's own sense of this in his autobiography:
He also seems to have an unusual personality for a politician: early on in Dreams From My Father, he writes: "I had grown too comfortable in my solitude, the safest place I knew." Immediately afterwards, he tells the story of an elderly man who lives in his building, who he sees sometimes, helps with the groceries, but who has never said a word to him. He thinks of the man as a kindred spirit. Later, the man is found dead; his apartment is "neat, almost empty", with money squirreled away throughout. It's clear, from the way he tells the story, that this seems to him to be one of his possible fates, and though his description of the man is kind throughout, it's also clear that Obama thinks: his fate is to be avoided.
Even more so than Bill Clinton, Obama's biography is characterized by loss, absence: the father he barely knew; the mother who lived for years on another continent and then died too young; the half-siblings and extended family whom (besides his sister Maya) he's barely known. A fierce attachment to Michelle and their daughters, but rarely seeing them, and hardly ever alone. His mother, her teenaged love for his father, her death of cancer, loomed as large over this election as anyone, not least when he chided reporters looking for a salacious story in Bristol Palin's pregnancy with an abrupt reminder that his mother, too, was a teen mom.

His grandmother was his last parent, his last tie to that childhood world of solitude. John McCain, in his seventies, still travels with his mother. To watch Barack Obama, a still-young man turning gray, and to feel that sense of loneliness, that slipping away of the past into the inescapable, is to sense something awesome in its melancholy, historic in its domesticity. To watch him square his shoulders against the future, to turn loss not into need but into action, is wondrous. Especially for those of us who too often nurture our solitude, who watch our selves dissipate rather than harden, and for that reason see in him someone we know.


angela said...

that just made me weepy.

please send this stuff to the atlantic, NYT, et al, et al.

rachel said...

best post on obama I've read yet.