Epiphany: Wise Men, a Train, and What to Do Now, America

Confession: I’m really slow about putting my Christmas decorations away. I mean, what’s-wrong-with-you slow. Like everyone, I find it to be a tedious, time-consuming chore, and under my proudly waving attention-deficit (“attention-fabulous”) flag, I will always avoid the tedious and time-consuming. In my defense, let me point out that for many years we would cut our trees in the actual forest, O-Tannenbaum style. As Clark Griswold can testify, a tree in the forest looks a lot smaller than it does in the house. Plus we had high ceilings. Things got consistently and gloriously out of hand.

Christmas, taking over

Putting the tree up was time-consuming but rewarding. Taking it down was awful. On our worst year, it was…shhhhh…February, and more of the tree went into a vacuum than into the trash.

Also, I’m an Epiphany observer. Or at least saying so gives me cover for my procrastination. In America, commercialized, secularized Christianity leaves many surprised to learn that the “twelve days of Christmas” do not end on December 25 but start there. The twelfth day is January 6, the Feast of Epiphany, on which the arrival of the wise men is celebrated. On which they had—drumroll—an epiphany. A sudden revealing that made the whole exhausting, questionable, Don-Quixote-esque trip worthwhile. The SIXTH of January! Not the twenty-sixth of December, or even the first of January. Back off the judgment! I’m celebrating!

Epiphany, of course, is the word for any sudden, intuitive perception or insight. The moment where we grasp something striking, where the pieces come together and the whole suddenly makes sense. So it’s not lost on me that the day the tear in the American social fabric was completely, undeniably revealed was on January 6, 2021. Epiphany.

The suddenness of epiphanies gives them an air of coming out of nowhere. But that’s not quite right, is it? I’ve had zero epiphanies about molecular biology. Household plumbing? Also zero. I’m not having epiphanies on things I’m not thinking about in the first place.

Which fits. According to the story, the wise-people party didn’t just stumble on a glowing infant but traveled far, and for a long time, actively searching for their divine manifestation. A “small child” was what they found, not a baby. That’s a LOT of no-screentime to think about what they were doing. When an epiphany happens, it’s been a long time coming.

As TV commenters struggled to express their shock at the insurrection we were all seeing, I heard one say that what we were experiencing was the same thing that had left us vulnerable to the attacks of 9/11: a “failure of imagination.” I disagree. There was no failure of imagination here because no imagination was required.

An uprising didn’t surprise me, which I’m only saying to highlight how obvious it was that it was building and would happen at some point. I mean, I’m just an ordinary Covid shut-in in the suburbs. I was surprised at how far it went, to be sure—I thought the beating heart of the white nationalist movement was too chicken-hawkish to do more than pump fists and wave flags, but mob dynamics are squirrelly. And that is also known and therefore unsurprising.

(An aside, at this point, in which I speak directly to the audience: Yes, I know that a masterful piece of short writing might introduce a single motif, brush against it once or twice, then tie back to it in a subtle but satisfying way at the end. That’s not what I’m doing. Here comes a *gasp* second motif, and—just to be transparent—I’m going to beat both these suckers into the ground. Deal with it. Desperate times, y’all. Carry on.)

A little over a year ago the Beloved got very excited about a very large train that was going to pass through town. Big Boy No. 4014, the largest operating steam locomotive in the world, built during WWII, completely restored, and at that point on a slow-mo tour of the American Southwest. I had a hard time getting excited about going out of my way to watch a train go by, but…love means opening yourself to the things your people love. And I must say, after a half hour of waiting by the tracks, hearing that first distant whistle made my heart beat a little faster. Next was movement against the setting sun, then a headlight, and when the deafening, gargantuan thing finally went by I was overwhelmed.

Big Boy 4014 passing through Richmond, Texas, November 2019 (do turn up the sound)

I was not, however, surprised. The train was amazing, but the fact that it arrived was not. I mean, it was headed straight toward us the whole time.

The Frankenstein’s-monster train that pulled into Washington D.C. on the Epiphany afternoon of 2021 was astonishing when it announced itself on the political tracks in the distance many years ago, its spray-tanned engine blaring away at the front: a multiply-bankrupted anchor of a cringy reality TV show, famously vain in his personal life and shady in his business dealings, with his third wife and his nepotism-fueled sycophantic entourage. Everything we see now was visible then, and there was never any confusion about what cars would hitch themselves to an authoritarian, isolationist, self-aggrandizing white nationalist.

But if you don’t believe that the train headed toward you actually is Big Boy, that it only looks big but is surely just loud and has been overhyped for too long, that the news is fake and there really is no such thing, and it’s a train that’s doing a job I want done anyway and letsnotasktoomanyquestions…well, the arrival is pretty shocking. A revelation. An epiphany, in fact.

And the epiphany happens because denial crumbles when the enormous thing is right in front of you. All the data points that have been pent up behind that wall of denial are released, and at last they connect. An addict acknowledges that he has a problem. A battered wife checks herself into a shelter. A cult member walks away. A traumatized veteran reaches out for therapy.

Confederate flag in the U.S. Capitol

I can only hope that this turns out to be a true national moment of epiphany, that a confederate flag in the U.S. Capitol Building makes the situation crystal clear. America, we have a trauma problem, and we have been denying it and playing the trauma out on each other’s bodies for centuries. Brutalized peasants escaped Europe, then found people they could brutalize on the next continent, then imported more from yet another continent when the first weren’t enough, then brutalized each other in an attempt to claw to the top of the caste pile, seeking safety from brutality there. These are our parents. This is our family. The “greatest country in the world” is founded on insurrection and brutality, and we need to get off that high horse named Denial and get real humble, real fast.

Are we there yet? Can we accept it? All the clawing for the top only perpetuates the trauma, generation on generation. It’s time—past time—for group therapy. It’s time to shut up and listen to one another’s stories. Believe what others tell us about themselves and their lived experiences. Acknowledge our own hurts at the same time that we allow others to say we’re hurting them. Believe them. Apologize. Ask what they would like us to do, then do it. That’s atonement. At-one-ment. The ultimate epiphany.

“If we have no peace,” Mother Teresa says, “it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”

Our greatest failures are not of imagination, it turns out, but of failing to see what’s rumbling along the tracks right in front of us. The train is here. It is my desperate prayer that we not waste this epiphany.

2 thoughts on “Epiphany: Wise Men, a Train, and What to Do Now, America

  1. Carolyn Nuttall says:

    Just wow. I can’t even describe how I feel about reading your insights.

    Margo, you have such an amazing gift! Thanks for sharing it!



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