Reimagining America

By

On Tuesday night, friends and family gathered in our living room in California. We’d stocked extra booze and ordered in Szechuan food. We were tired after a long day, and we were tired of a long election year. We were happy to be together; we were happy that this whole damn thing was almost done. We were so ready to get Her elected and get on with things. We were hungry and thirsty and the booze went down fast. I was back and forth, talking to friends, checking on the kids, finishing some last laundry to pack my suitcase for an early flight the next morning.

Most of us had already voted by mail—we’re a bunch of artists and academics who travel a lot and vote early—but my husband stopped at the polls after work. He was frustrated by long lines and inept processing, but stuck it out because we’re good Democrats who would never dream of not voting. He texted me to get his martini ready, and arrived home with his I Voted sticker.

My mom had been watching the earliest exit polls, on this final day of her obsessive round-the-clock monitoring of CNN Election 2016 coverage, and she’d been texting me updates as results were predicted. When I picked her up to bring her over to our house, she was jittery, and I told her to calm down—everything would be fine; everyone said so. At around 6 p.m. California time, when the Florida results came in, my mom called us all in from the kitchen, her voice panicky enough that we sat down with her in front of the TV, and as we alternated between checking our Twitter feeds and watching the escalating freak-out on CNN, we fell silent. Someone said, “Turn to NBC. Maybe it’s better.” It didn’t get better. The room slid into the sound of tears and jagged intakes of breath. The kids watched us, their parents, falling apart. We tried to remember to reassure them, but it was simply impossible. We’re a noisy, talky bunch of smart people, and we had no words at all. Our guests trickled home, silently, leaving with the kind of long, damp goodbye hugs normally reserved for funerals. My friend Mindy offered to drive my mother home. My mom kissed me goodbye, and said “I’m so sorry, sweetheart. I’m so sorry for all of you.” My mom believes that this will be her last presidential election. I hope with every fiber of my being, for every possible reason, that she is wrong.

I got the kids to bed. I pretended that I knew how to parent through the moment. I told them that we would be okay, here in our house in California, but that a new time was coming in America, and we would all be called upon to be our best selves and help where needed, speak up, speak out, fight for justice. I said the right words, I think, but I had no idea what they might mean.

I shuffled upstairs, spent and worn out—got in bed and kept watching what had become a surreal game show on CNN, the flashing of maps, the hyper-focus on some county of some western state that could still, by some miracle of a leftist God, tip the impossible balance. My husband forced me to turn off the TV, and then there was nothing to do but just cry.

My alarm was set for 4 a.m. I had a 6 a.m. flight to Louisville, KY, a city I love, to visit a dear friend who had organized a concert and community residency through 90.5 WUOL, the local classical radio station, celebrating the release of my new album, titled America Again after the poem by Langston Hughes: Let America be America again/Let it be the dream it used to be.

America as we knew it had, it seemed, fallen off the edge of the world, an hour or so ago. The dream had been betrayed beyond belief.

We didn’t sleep all night. I lay awake, alternately weeping, hyperventilating, and checking my phone, needing human contact out in this altered, strange world. I texted my friend Daniel in Louisville: Can you believe this? He answered, I don’t know what to tell my kids. Daniel, I messaged him, how do I do this tomorrow? How do I play this concert now? I lay in bed and thought of my kids downstairs, of their tomorrow and the day after that, how scared they were, how they’d seen the grownups crying tonight. At 3 a.m. I whispered to my husband: “I can’t make this trip.” I texted Daniel, Are you awake? He wasn’t. He didn’t answer. When my alarm went off, I got up, and I stumbled downstairs and kissed my sleeping kids. I brushed my teeth and grabbed my suitcase, and drove to the airport.

Because this is what I do. I’m a performer, and there are rules. The show must go on. There’s no people like show people. Our job is to smile when we are low, to make you smile, forget your troubles, to entertain you. Daniel was waiting for me, and a concert audience, and five hundred kids in the Louisville schools, and I’m a trouper and I don’t let people down. So I got up and I went to work.

At the airport, 5 a.m., the lines were long for early morning flights. My head hurt from gin and crying and no sleep. The florescent lights made everyone ugly. I felt trapped among strangers, and I wanted to be back home, in the dark, surrounded by the softness of what I know and love. On the plane, I kept crying. There were people all around me reading newspapers, chatting, asking the flight attendants for Diet Cokes. They were acting normal and I didn’t know what was wrong with them. Strangers seemed, suddenly, stranger than ever before.

As I flew over the country, I realized that I had no idea how I would do my job that night. I’ve been doing this job for twenty years and I know what I’m doing. I know how to leave my own troubles behind in a dressing room, turn on my smile, sparkle my eyes, square my shoulders, step out into the stage lights, and perform like a pro, like the trouper I am. But flying over America on Wednesday morning, I thought: Tonight, maybe I can’t sparkle. Tonight, maybe I can’t lose this weight on my shoulders or clear this darkness from my eyes.

The audience was smallish, I could see, sitting in the dark concert hall. I walked onstage and I found some kind of smile, took my bows. I played a first piece of music: American Ballads, by Roy Harris, a 1930s setting of American folk songs—dark and dissonant, a spare and unsparing vision of Americana. Then I asked the stage crew to raise the lights in the house a little, so I could see my audience. Enough darkness already. When I could see their faces, something changed. I smiled, but it was a quiet, private smile. And these strangers smiled back. For the next hour, I played my music for them—music by composers who are black, white, male, female, gay, straight, native-born and immigrants… Americans.

This is music, remember, inspired by Langston Hughes. 

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

These are words that don’t allow us to bow to tyrants. These words accept the burden of our history, the difficult and timeless truth about our pursuit of American freedom and American dreams. They’re formidable words, and they gave me strength Wednesday night. I didn’t play perfectly that night, I was so sad and exhausted, but the notes held extra fullness in my sadness, and I think they spoke an extra measure of truth.

When I was finished, a young man in the front row raised his hand. “I want to tell you” he said, “that tonight you validated us. Me and my family, we’re undocumented, and you make us feel that we matter here tonight.” He and I looked at each other, no strangeness between us. Another man, a few rows back, said, “My wife wants me to tell you”—because she was crying and she couldn’t speak—“that your music sounds like hope.” I started crying too. We all sat together quiet then, not strangers, feeling our way into this strange American moment, together.

The last two days, I’ve been working in the schools here in Louisville, performing for enormous groups of teenagers, in beautiful vaulted auditoriums in turn-of-the-century gothic brick schoolhouses that we don’t have in California. The kids are rowdy and goofy, awkward and sweet, but they’re also sad and scared. Some of them haven’t been speaking to their friends since Tuesday night. This is a blue pocket in a red state. These are crowded schools in neighborhoods that divide along color lines. Most of the kids are black. Many of the white kids’ parents belong to the 63% of Kentuckians who voted Trump on Tuesday night. I talk to these kids about Langston Hughes: the dream the dreamers dreamed, and I ask them what their dream for America is. Some of them are quick to answer: “To elect a different president.” I have to be careful responding, not to heighten tensions; I’m a visitor and a stranger here. I play my music for these kids, and I tell them about a piece on my album called Promise, composed for me by my friend David Sanford and inspired by another poem—this one by Rita Dove. “Testimonial,” from On the Bus with Rosa Parks:

I gave my promise to the world,
And the world followed me here

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Think about it—these words pick up where Langston Hughes leaves off. The promise, the potential—the dream the dreamers dreamed. I tell these kids to think about their dream for America, and to try to define their promise to the world. They’re shy at first, and then they speak up. We share our promises, and we write them on signs and hold them up high.

My Promise is to help people.
My Promise is to have confidence in my heart.
My Promise is to pursue my education.
My Promise is to see other people without discrimination.
My Promise is never to be a statistic.

I make my own sign: My Promise is to listen and learn.

The kids clap for each other. They believe each other’s promises, and they forget to be sad. We’re laughing and applauding each other, and we stand together in these rooms with our promises in hand, finding our way into this strange new America together. We give our promise and we trust that the world will follow us here.

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I’m glad I got up and went to work on Wednesday morning. This job of mine—it’s changed now. I’m a performer, and in hard times, this job gets harder. I make music when the nation mourns, and my music can sound like hope. I can find a quiet smile even in my sadness. I can help people find their dreams and their promise. This is my job now.

I’m flying back to California tonight. On this plane, strangers surround me but I find myself smiling at them. I’m trying to see them without discrimination, to have confidence in my heart. This is an altered, strange America, but I live here and I will find my way home. I’m flying back to my own kids, and now I know exactly what I meant when I put them to bed on Tuesday. Now I believe that we will be okay. We will speak up and speak out and fight for what’s right. We will give our promise to the world and the world will follow us here.

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Join the My Promise Project and give your promise to the world at www.mypromiseproject.com.

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Join Lara for the New York launch of America Again at Le Poisson Rouge next Monday, November 21. It will be anan evening of music and conversation about this American moment, harnessing the power of our promise to come together and move forward. Tickets and information here.

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Photographs © Louisville Public Media.


Lara Downes is a concert pianist, writer, and radio producer. Called "a delightful artist with a unique blend of musicianship and showmanship" by NPR and praised by the New York Times for her “loving attention to mood and color”, Lara’s performances bridge musical genres, traditions and audiences. Born in San Francisco and raised in Europe, she made early debuts at the Queen Elizabeth Hall London, the Vienna Konzerthaus and the Salle Gaveau Paris, and has won over audiences at diverse venues ranging from Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center to Le Poisson Rouge and Classical Revolution. Her recordings have topped the Billboard Charts and have been called “luscious, moody, and dreamy” by the New York Times and “ravishing” by Fanfare Magazine. As a pianist, Lara is heard regularly on national radio programs including NPR Music, Performance Today, Sirius XM Symphony Hall, and Impromptu. She is the producer and host of The Green Room, a radio program about the lives of classical musicians, distributed nationally by WFMT Chicago. Visit www.laradownes.com for more. More from this author →