I am on the subway, the 1 line, somewhere under City College. I’ve come up to the city to vote, because I can’t not, right now. I have almost always voted – I was raised in it, taken to the polls with my parents, allowed once to yank the huge lever for my father back when the machines had levers to yank, that satisfying thunk sound – but I have not understood voting as a compulsion before this year. I have not understood voting as a particular form of civic sacrality. A consecration: dear city of my heart, dear my broken and disastrous nation, these fifteen minutes of my life belong to you. I inscribe myself on the shape of your future.
The ‘I Voted!’ stickers in New York State this year have a picture of a suffragette with a megaphone on them. They say, celebrating 100 years of women’s suffrage. Did you know it has been a hundred years? I had somehow, in the violence and the despair and the narrative-breaking horror of the first year of President Donald Trump, entirely forgotten. On the subway standing next to me is a woman who is wearing the same sticker. She is young and dark-haired and startlingly beautiful, deep red mouth and a shearling jacket in grey and black. We see each other’s stickers. We look at each other’s faces. We smile, flicker-fast, mutual recognition. And I think, as sharp and as fast as that stranger’s smile, what would it be like to be celebrating in that other world where my president was a woman?
I think in that world I might not be writing this blog post. I think if I was writing this blog post in that world I would have talked about the bright arc of women reclaiming what we have been denied. I think I would be writing about joy.
I saw a thread on Twitter yesterday about trauma anniversaries. In the past three weeks I have been knife-edge fragile, balanced carefully between being the only one of my friends and colleagues who is willing to profess climate optimism, and being the one of my friends and colleagues who cannot bring herself to imagine a future where climate optimism had time to flourish. I think of all the joys upcoming in my life – my wedding, in January; my academic research being published in late 2018; my novel being published, in 2019; working as a city planner, moving back to New York to do it, in the nebulous world of 2019-2021 – I think of joy, these past three weeks, and I am plunged, Pavlovian, directly into blank despair. Nothing matters, I think. Nothing matters anyhow. None of it will happen. We are all already dead.
This is a trauma response. Intensification of anxiety and irrational patterning of thought is common around the anniversary of trauma.
On Election Day last year I was in Sweden, alone, at first ecstatic and then horrified and then violently ill as the night progressed. In the three weeks after I went a kind of mad. I think a lot of us did. It didn’t help that everyone else had also been broken on the rocks. Looking at the shattered guts of my fellow travelers – we who were just isolated enough from the cruelty and endemic oppression of the United States to believe we were living in a world bending, with effort, towards the light – oh, god, why did I think solidarity would help? Solidarity in being wounded is not a comfort. And yet I have spent this year thinking to myself: I should not have broken, I should not have been so hurt, I should have known better than to live in that other world of my imagination, where I had been safe, and expected talent and determination and the slow march of justice to bring me all that I could desire. I should have known. And I am not yet in the sort of danger that produces real trauma, I think: I may be queer and Jewish, I may have a series of gold coins that my father gave me when I was eighteen in case I needed to ever buy off a border official –
But god, PTSD? Over an election? Really?
This too is a trauma response.
So is – in a fashion – voting. Voting not just with grim determination, but with purpose and with as much joy as I can muster up. One hundred years of women’s suffrage. I inscribe myself into the future of my broken and poisoned nation. A stranger smiled at me on the train and I thought: oh. We are still here.
We are still here.
I rode the subway to Penn Station and I bought a coffee and I drank it fast enough to burn my tongue, and read on my phone an essay written by a Philippino writer, Dimas Ilaw, in Uncanny Magazine. The essay is called “The Shape of the Darkness as it Overtakes Us”. It is not easy to read. It is an inscription, too: it inscribes names and blood and death, and a violence that lives inside the skin of a people and devours. It is a beautiful essay. Ilaw is a magnificent writer. I drank my coffee and tasted cardamom and cream and thought: my broken and poisoned nation. Your broken and poisoned nation, Ilaw. I see you. I hear the names you speak.
Go read what Ilaw wrote. Go here, now. https://uncannymagazine.com/article/shape-darkness-overtakes-us/
Ilaw talks about reading, in their essay. Talks about reading and writing, and how these things are both comfort and fire. They say, close to the end:
Reader, I am writing this for you.
I do not know if you are a Filipino; I do not know if you care about what is happening in the Philippines. I do not know what is happening in your own country or whether those you care about are safe. I don’t know your politics or whom you support or anything about you; all I know is that I have to tell you this.
Your reading, too, is resistance.
I printed my train ticket. I have to go to the campus at which I am currently getting a degree in urban planning, and I need to be in class tonight, so I will travel down the Eastern Seaboard and I will do good work today, and wear this sticker, which is very small and not that sticky anymore even two hours after I put it on. I printed my train ticket and I leaked tears from the corners of my eyelids and smeared turquoise eyeliner down my cheeks. “We will refuse the silence just as we refuse our annihilation,” Ilaw says.
A stranger on a train; her lipstick, her secret shared joy that was also mine.
Throw yourself into the future like a stone skipped on a lake: let that stone be an ostrakon. Inscribe the world you want onto the face of the world we live in.
Voting in America, election day 2017.