Tuesday morning, I woke up early with an ache in my jaw, sweaty from a restless attempt at sleep. I’d been grinding my teeth for weeks in clearly election-related anxiety. I texted a beloved mentor, my “college mother,” and ended the message: “I hope we’ll all sleep more soundly tonight.” I showered and lay for a minute amongst my books, read a bit of Gwendolyn Brooks, Hélène Cixous, Gertrude Stein (“Let me recite what history teaches. History teaches”). I wanted to feel emboldened, armed with the words of women I’ve come to think of as intellectual, spiritual mothers. I dressed for the polls, wrapping myself in sweaters and necklaces of mothers and grandmothers who I wanted with me as I cast my vote. I was ashamed of such foolish pseudo-ritual, but I indulged in these gestures; they kept me calm.
On top of my jeans, I wore my biological mother’s cowboy boots—tall, tan, with white embroidery. They protected her soles for thirty years, as she marched through two marriages and two divorces, raised two children as a single mother in graduate school, and survived abuse at the hands of the very men who were supposed to love her and keep her safe. They are sturdy, heavy, announce your presence with a clack; they make you feel taller, stronger. After a foot injury last year, my mother couldn’t fit into them anymore and asked if I wanted them. I wear her boots whenever I need a reminder that my small stature is, if anything, a laughable misrepresentation of my capabilities. That my femininity is part of my strength.
After voting, I took a picture of my roommate just outside our polling place. Her head is thrown back; she is laughing in full sun. I thought we’d want to remember this day. I imagined I’d show the photograph to my future daughter, if she exists, and tell her: this is that historic moment, when we shattered the highest symbolic boundary for women in our country.
I walked home and called my mom; she cheered and laughed. She spent the day and several before canvassing for Hillary in Florida. Hillary Clinton was always her candidate, and she was overjoyed I’d finally voted for her. We argued throughout the primaries, and the bitter back and forth always came down to a single point beyond logic: Hillary was a woman. We had to vote for her. I disagreed, and remained frustrated and dissident even after it was clear that Hillary was our candidate, and that the alternative was so horrific it felt unimaginable.
In the months leading up to the election I knew that my vote wouldn’t be about policy. Instead, I would be voting against the overt versions of things I feared still existed covertly in a Clinton presidency: bigotry and hatred, lies and deception, corruption and vitriol. I’d be voting not for a candidate I truly believed in, but against a man who represented the worst in the men who have hurt me and those I love. But on Tuesday, I decided to let go of the fear and dissatisfaction and tried to celebrate the momentousness. I watched my Facebook feed fill with friends dedicating their votes to their mothers and grandmothers and daughters. Despite my disillusionment, I began to feel sentimental.
Tuesday morning, I believed that our country had, at its core, the love, acceptance, and resilience my mother taught me. My optimism didn’t stem from a naive, rose-colored, history-book version of America. Far more than our so-called unalienable rights, the United States was built on the subjugation and slaughter of those deemed less than human by privileged white men. I’m not foolish enough to believe that such bigotry and oppression have disappeared, or even lessened significantly. But I could not let go of my belief in the pervasiveness of the deep love and acceptance of the people around me. My days are disproportionately filled with thoughtful, kind, conscientious humans. I was blinded by their goodness. I believed the instances of violence in my life were just repeated aberrations.
I thought I would watch the results and drink champagne with women I love, and then we’d wake up the next day and begin our dutiful critique. Get to work. But for that moment, I’d allow myself to celebrate my mothers—my biological mother, my stepmother, babysitter-mothers, teacher-mothers, friends’ mothers. I was raised by a crowd of women of every race and age and creed who nurtured me, showed me how to care and be cared for. Who taught me that only I could decide who touched my body. Who protected me to the best of their abilities. And when even that wasn’t enough, who held me, soothed me. Who explained that even in gut-churning hollows of despair, you can make it through. They had. I could. I did. I voted for all of them.
But we elected Donald Trump. We, the people of this lost, scared, terrifying country.
I’m not a political scientist or a pundit. I can’t tell you what happened or why. All I can tell you is what I feel: a violent ache. I’ve been trying not to vomit for fourteen hours. My shoulders shake. My cheeks hurt with a deep pressure that begins an inch from my temples and spreads inwards, increasing in strength. My eyes burn with sleeplessness. I feel fragile, vulnerable, exposed.
I took that picture of my roommate with film. I can’t delete those images. She’s furious, but I’m glad. I want to have them, to show them to my future daughter, if she exists. I want to be able to tell her: this is that historic moment, when hope seemed to crumble, but we held out. In the gut-churning hollows of despair, we made it through. I want to tell her, I hope that I can protect you, but if I can’t, here’s what my mothers told me: first, you sleep, maybe a lot. You have nightmares. You feel empty, and then you feel angry. The anger hurts. So, you sit with people who make you feel safe. You ask for help when you need it. You find necessary distractions. You use the anger as energy. You protect others. You start to feel strong again. You remember how to laugh. You say I love you more often, so you can hear I love you more often. You make noise. You make music. You tell your story. You wear big boots. You stomp. You march. You dance. You’ll be okay.