I’ve started this post dozens of times in my head since the election. The problem is, I don’t know how the rest of it goes or how it ends. I’ve put off writing it because I know there is no big “aha” waiting to unfold, no sage wisdom, no aspirational advice about how some small experience suddenly brought order to a seemingly mad world, or how a reflective discovery magically eroded the brutal cruelty with which we are faced.
Right now, the world still makes no sense.
The post starts: It is 4 a.m. on November 9, 2016. I have been up since 3:15 a.m., unable to sleep. I don’t want to look at my phone because, well, the news will be unchangeable and things didn’t look good when I finally gave up scrolling on Twitter at 10:30 pm. I lay there quietly in the dark, hoping that Hillary Clinton pulled ahead in the end, but something tells me that this is an empty dream. If I don’t check my phone, it hasn’t actually happened. At 4:30 a.m., Michael gets up to go to the bathroom. Through the thin wall, I hear him say: “Your greatest nightmare just came true.” Instantly, I begin to weep.
As for so many millions in our nation, and around the world, the past month has been utterly dystopian. That first morning, I sat on my couch for hours crying uncontrollably; I didn’t know how I was going to pull myself together for work. Later in the day, I mailed in my passport for early renewal so that I would have ten years (in theory) of unimpeded travel outside of the United States should I need to leave the country. (This is, if other nations will still allow Americans to pass through their borders.)
Since then, we’ve had unthinkable conversations at home about how bad things would have to get to make us leave the country. Each night, we debate back and forth about whether to stay and fight, or whether we would follow in the footsteps of our great grandparents who now seem smart for leaving Europe before the rest of their friends and neighbors were taken to Nazi concentration camps. The world at the time couldn’t conceive that such evil could happen or actually was happening—just as many of us could not conceive that there was so much fear and loathing breeding throughout our country—on simmer, but dangerously close to boil. This epidemic of downtrodden angst was in plain sight of all us, but we didn’t want to see it, just as we conveniently couldn’t fathom the power behind our nation’s blind, uneducated, inequitable wrath, which has placed us all in dire straights.
Each day since then, I’ve tried to commit one act of citizenship, whether it’s signing petitions, calling my representatives in Washington, voting in polls to keep national healthcare, sending protest postcards, donating to organizations like the ACLU or passing on news and tips to others to encourage them to do the same. I am bracing for four years of resistance to a looming government characterized by totalitarianism, domination, ignorance, propaganda, racism, misogyny, outright lies and machismo that will put America at risk both at home and abroad. What I should have done was exercise my American citizenship long ago. The past month has made me realize how cheaply I’ve held these rights all my life. Yes, I vote, but I never organize, never march, never write to my senators or congresspeople, never stand up for anyone else—I’ve done little to serve others or earn my right to citizenship besides being born in this country.
And how about my privilege? What does it say about me that it took until age 42 to feel that my freedom and safety in this country were in jeopardy? In the early post-11/9 days, Saeed Jones at BuzzFeed tweeted, “If you’ve felt free in America every day in your life until last week, it’s because you’ve been standing on someone else’s neck.” He’s absolutely right. Only now, when I see my rights and those of other women and minorities, be they people of color, immigrants or the LGBTQ community, in a clear and present danger do I feel like an enemy of the state. These people, who are just as much American as I am, have been made to feel unwelcome and endangered in their own country. How fortunate and spoiled am I? The reality is, our rights have been endangered all along, just not in a way that people like me chose to acknowledge—until now.
It could be worse. As a resident of Seattle, a literal Sanctuary City, I’m in one of the best states I can be. But are any of us safe, even here on the liberal West Coast? When our basic rights to free speech and free press, and the right to organize in peaceful protest—these being the bare minimum—are under threat before the PEOTUS has even taken office, can any of us continue to delude ourselves that anywhere in the United States is truly safe? We’re in a shiny soap bubble, another illusion.
I cannot stop thinking about what’s about to come. I still cry when it sinks in how unfit the incoming president is for this office. His appointment is a shit stain on a seat of honor. When he goes to Mar-a-Lago to eat lobster and grab women by the pussy, and President Obama spends his Thanksgiving serving soup to needy families, I feel outraged thinking, THIS is what’s ahead. Every time yet another conspiracy plot, crooked business deal or shady exchange with the Russians is revealed, I wonder, Can’t someone do something about this? It seems he can indeed get away with anything. Somehow, this one reprehensible human being has become the avatar for every person who has hurt, violated or gaslighted me. Seeing his face and hearing his voice every day on the news brings the same sort of traumatic echo as seeing an attacker every day: I cringe, I want to scream, I want to run and hide. I feel powerless. I feel victimized by his words alone; what will happen when he is capable of enacting what he says?
The only other times I have felt so traumatized were after 9/11 and when my mother died.
I am planning to march on January 21 in Seattle, and will continue finding ways to protest and fight the system. I will support those organizations who will advocate on behalf of women, immigrants, people of color and other communities at risk—but what else? How is it possible to live day-to-day when every hour hums with angst, crisis and tension? How can I move past feelings of betrayal and disbelief in the intentions of those who are supposed to be our guardians? How is it possible to make art or write, let alone work or even sleep, at a time like this?
If it wasn’t for my friend, Jen, I wouldn’t have written anything after the election. At the start of the month, we had made a pact that we would write a minimum of 500 words a day; until November 8, things were fine. After that, our daily check-ins became critical to my ability to write anything. Her encouragement was a lifeline. Seeing her texts, knowing that she was up early or late getting her 500 words in, made it possible for me to go on. Just when I was about to give up (it happened every day)—I was tired, work was stressful, I was depressed, I couldn’t think—she’d send a beacon to remind me that she was still there on the opposite coast, trudging forward, too.
A lot of people have been sharing inspirational passages about how important it is at times like these to make art, to share diverse voices, to connect, to lift each other up. A lot of people have been quoting Toni Morrison, “Just remember that your real job is that, if you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.” I know I will be able to move past this shock and paralysis eventually; I’m not sure when, but I have faith that ideas and inspiration will return. My creative compass has been spinning this year in search of a new direction, and I think this election has provided it.
I would love to hear from you if you have ideas about your own arts or civil rights practice, and what you want to do to help champion the freedom and voices of others. If there is one positive thing about the results of this election it is that we, as a people, are at a time of both crisis and opportunity. There is no way to become who we were again. We cannot “Make America Great” by regressing to a bygone era in which white male dominance bore the illusion of control. The masks are coming off, and we must be prepared to take a good look at who we are beneath them. We all have them, and we all need to own up to that.
And then we must do better than we have done before—as Americans and artists and human beings. The time of coasting, of ignoring, of conveniently casting our gaze askance is over. It’s time to look ourselves, and each other, square in the eye.