The suffragette whites hung at the foot of the bed. In the jacket pocket, I’d tucked a gold wedding band belonging to one grandmother and a pair of gold earrings from the other — the last Christmas gift she gave me before she died. Both of these women were born before the ratification of the 19th Amendment.
In their lifetime, my grandmothers earned the right to vote. Even so, they didn’t have a chance to see a woman run for president. One probably wouldn’t have marked Hillary’s name. The other — a little blue dot in bright red Texas — would have. I wanted them both with me on election day 2016.
The dim morning light roused me from bed a few minutes after 6:00. I looked at the pressed white trousers, the dog waiting for her walk, the delicate gold jewelry.
I staggered past it all.
The pooch would have to wait, because I couldn’t.
Snapping on the bike helmet and zipping up a fleece, I buzzed out the door. Exhaust pipes belched out white fumes. A thin frost dusted the soccer field. I rode through the chilled dawn to the local high school where a line snaked out the door and along the front of the building. I grabbed my picture ID and took my place.
In the throng, I recognized two neighbors from my condo complex swathed in scarves and gloves. We all hollered a good morning. The high school band had set up a bake sale, and bundled teens strolled along the shivering line with posterboard signs peddling hot coffee for a dollar. The Republicans passed out green sample ballots; the Democrats blue. We inched along towards the door.
Inside, poll workers had laid out three lines in the cafeteria. Volunteers pointed us to the first where they scanned drivers’ licenses and checked addresses before handing out purple tickets. In the second, we waited to trade ticket for ballot. In the third, we queued up for a spot behind a cardboard trifold to mark our papers.
Fingers still numb, I picked up the pen and looked at the ballot.
There she was. Right at the top.
A woman for president.
I filled in the bubble.
And that’s when I felt it.
For the past few months, I’d been holding it in. Rage and sorrow, fear and despair, a little bit of hope and a sick weight of bitter hopelessness.
This past weekend, old family friends came to town from Austin just to be here for the election. When I showed up for dinner, the first thing I did was crack a joke. “Front row seats to the collapse of the Republic, eh?”
Oh how we laugh.
It isn’t funny.
It hasn’t been funny, none of it has. It’s been horrible to see what my neighbors are capable of, what brutality and hatred has become our new normal. The near daily revulsion has swelled to dizzying proportions. People I care about and respect are willing to put their marks next to the name of a man going on trial for raping a child. As if such a thing is a matter of course, as if it’s to be expected and accepted in this land of ours now.
It’s not as if the Clintons are such angels. Bill claimed my proud vote in 1992, and then I saw him go on to sign NAFTA and gut welfare. In my early 20s, Democratic deal-cutting was a little too corrupt for my hard-line revolutionary ethic. The Green Party won my support for the next few elections.
I’ve had to make some concessions in the past two decades. Just as my personal life has moved from guerrilla theater to mortgage payments, my standards for leaders have shifted from idealism to realism and functional governance. I finally had to admit that deals are necessary to get things done. I sold part of my soul to support my son and me in a stable home, and the Obamas and Clintons have done the same, writ large.
Still, I find ways in my personal and professional life to do the greatest good within these real limits. When I start to stray, I return to my core values. I lean on my friends and loved ones, hoping they’ll keep me in check. Similarly, if the great democratic project is to survive — indeed, if humankind is to survive — we have to do the same for those who govern. We have to keep believing in the best of what we are and can be. We have to hold our leaders to ethical standards.
I don’t have any illusions that this will be easy with another Clinton in office. Nevertheless, it is at least possible.
This is what I felt as I filled that bubble with ink.
Deep and total.
Like so many of my neighbors, I have been at a total loss for how to navigate this campaign season. The surges of anger and despair and hope and fear are disorienting on their own, yet they’re mere ripples on a pond compared to the larger, surreal and almost apocalyptic forces rising up from within us now. A tsunami of hate has washed over our national conversation, again, again, again. Forceful, evil, poisonous. How do any of us swim through it, swim against that tide, taking bold strokes toward the country we believe we can create together? How, when every kick stirs up a toxic monstrosity we never saw coming?
What in the world do we do?
Well, today, on November 8, 2016, we do this.
It’s one small act. This tiny rebellion serves as a strategic move comprised of hope and commitment to our democratic ideals.
This nation is, like each of us, imperfect. This nation is, like each of us, a work in progress.
Today, I was able to take a single, unambiguous stroke towards the country I want for my son and his children.
And everything shuddered out of me. In that one breath, I felt the smile return. Deep, warm, true.
I slipped my ballot into the machine, took my sticker, and cycled home. There, I wrestled myself into my suffragette whites. Slipped on my paternal grandmother’s wedding band and my maternal grandmother’s earrings. Walked out into the brightening day.
The sun had burned off the frost.
Every morning is the first morning.
Like this nation, I begin again.