Somewhere in the array of possible universes there is an older me who lives in a cabin in the woods somewhere, let’s say Montana. The cabin backs up onto a river—not too wide, or too fast, but the kind of lesser-known slow and steady one that the West has plenty of. In the mornings I sit out on the deck smelling the pines and drinking coffee; in the evenings I watch the crows come in from the same chair with whiskey instead. During the day I cut wood and I write and walk through the forest. My wife is with me, or my dog, or both. (The wife exists in the known universe already, the dog does not.) We look for signs of the planet repairing itself, and when we need repairing, we go see the doctor for whatever it is we need and we don’t pay a cent.
This past weekend I was down in Portland for the national Single-Payer Strategy Conference, an annual event in which the movers and schemers of the single-payer healthcare movement (i.e. Medicare for All) get together to talk shop and hear from people doing the work all over the country. I heard from a number of people who impacted me profoundly—Scott Desnoyers, for one, whose son killed himself earlier this year during a period in which he was going without his antipsychotic medication because he missed a $20 premium payment on it; Sara Nelson, for another, who showed the country the power of the organized working class when the flight attendants’ union that she heads brought the Trump administration to heel and ended the government shutdown.
But the quote that I think will stick with me longest came courtesy of Michael Lighty, a healthcare policy expert and labor organizer who helped author the current Medicare for All bill in the Senate. Speaking on a panel about the path forward for single-payer, he stood up in front of 350 people and said:
“I have been doing this work since 1991, close to 30 years. That is not a success.”
Other things I heard during the weekend moved me to tears, impressed me, made me think deeply about this work I’m doing. But nothing else woke me up quite like that.
What kind of person does it take to get up every day and fight for something for decades on end, to take it on the chin over and over again, to feel like you’re chucking starfish back in the ocean but the beach is covered in them and it stretches on past the horizon? And what kind of person does it take to hear that story and think, well, I’d better join in? I am trying to find out but I don’t know if I have thirty years of this in me.
Pictured here we either have a bushel of tiny octopuses flensing the skeleton of a whale or a representation of what the health insurance industry has done to the American working class, depending on how metaphorical you’re feeling.
The bottom of the ocean seems kind of peaceful, like the world’s heaviest weighted blanket, until you reckon with all the things with Too Many Limbs down there.
The me in that other possible universe has an array of stones on the windowsill, pulled from the river over time for their color or shape or personality. Other times I don’t save any, I just pick through the bed for the flattest ones and skip them to the far bank. Maybe the swirls and eddies of the years have cordoned off a sort of natural pool and on summer mornings I ease myself into it to wake up, or cool down after a run up one of the hills that roll on toward the mountains in the middle distance. If I catch a fish I clean it right there, tossing the guts into the low brush for a crow or a raven or a fisher cat to find. (In the known universe I saw a fisher once, for the briefest of instants. It has imprinted on my memory forever.)
I say all this because I have not earned that universe yet. Not in money, but in time spent fighting so that other people can imagine a future, too. I cannot in good conscience attempt to will it into being until I have paid my dues. I don’t have thirty years of it in me, probably, but I can do more than what little I have done so far.
I am at this point pretty much a single-issue voter. I read stories like Scott’s up there and it takes me some time to calm down. How we haven’t burned this rotten system to the ground yet is beyond me; I’m sure it is beyond a lot of you, too. But for the first time in my lifetime it also feels like we have a chance to knock that first domino over, the one that will eventually bring down the fossil fuel companies and the real estate speculators and the greedheads who torpedo regular people’s lives over and over and over again. We don’t have a choice, really. We have to knock that domino over. The alternative is not anything that we are mentally or existentially prepared to consider—how do you reckon with extinction?
I worry sometimes that I’m going to alienate friends and loved ones with how vociferously I support Bernie Sanders for president. Lots of people are taking time to make up their minds, exploring the issues, gathering data. I feel like I already have enough. My intention for this newsletter was never for it to be explicitly political; it is not that I have no other passions or interests or hobbies, I hope that much is clear. But it does seem to me that none of my interests or passions or hobbies outside of politics can be worth all that much in the future in a world like ours, the real one, not the one I’ve invented for myself in the Montana woods.
When some candidates for president speak, I hear that we deserve nothing, that we are meant to have this boot on our necks. When others speak I hear that we don’t even need to participate, we just need to trust in the process and admire the complexity of the proposed fix. But when I hear Bernie speak I hear something different: an admission that it is going to take all of us to undo what so few did to us. A belief that working people need and deserve so much more than what anyone in charge has ever been willing to fight for. I have hope—a fool’s hope, I may someday reflect, but it is there nonetheless.
I want you to hope with me, and fight with me, and fight for those people you will never know or meet.
I’ll talk to you next week.