As I lay awake in the earliest moments of the morning I thought how believable everything actually was.
Today is trash day, so the first thing I did when I could see well enough in the dawn light was to clean the cat litter. We went through the motions, gathering bathroom trash cans, dumping it all into the bag that goes out to the curb, and recycling, too. Silent, listening only to the coffee maker and the cat complaining. I know, cat, me too.
We’d already decided to throw out the last of our wedding flowers today. They’re old, dried out, and the bases starting to rot. I picked up the glass vases and carried them to the garbage, thinking it was a bad moment to throw away my wedding flowers. I paused, defiant, thinking I should keep the rotting, ruined flowers just because.
I threw them away.
As I lay awake in the middle of the night I thought about how in the morning I’d see my mostly white neighbors and know plenty of them voted against my life and safety, and the lives and safety of my friends and millions of strangers. Then I thought about how many of my neighbors, especially the Black ones and Hispanic ones and Muslim ones will look at me thinking, she did that. And rightly so.
Because even though I didn’t do it with my actions, even though I fight and talk against bigotry every damn day, I still benefit from the system that made this happen.
As I lay awake in the middle of the night, I saw texts come in from terrified friends, horrified family, and those who just had to reach out with nothing but a desperate word or hand.
I looked at the internet around 2am, and I saw several people tweeting about how now we know America is more sexist than it is racist. NO. That isn’t how what happened happened, or how power and privilege work. It’s a false dichotomy. This election was not defined by men or women, it was defined by white men and especially, it seems, white women. America did not vote against a woman, they voted for a violent, abusive, racist, xenophobic narrative.
You know what the name of that narrative is? Whiteness. White Supremacy. White Imperialism.
I lay awake and thought about the time I couldn’t sleep all night in 2008 because I’d just caucused for Barack Obama, he was going to be the nominee for president, and I was terrified somebody was going to kill him. That night I gave myself a mantra of hope. That we were better than what I feared we were, that the world was moving forward, and everything would be ok.
Last night I tried to sing a song to myself over and over again in order to fall asleep. The chorus is Let your heart be bright, and it’s a pretty, mushy, kind of empowering song I found when I needed to get into my current main character’s heart.
It did not work for me last night.
I wondered if maybe I won’t see a woman POTUS in my lifetime after all.
The worst moment of my sleepless night was that moment I thought about a building in Topeka where my name is written down next to my wife’s, officially certifying that we are not the kind of people They want.
I lay awake thinking about passing behavior, and how in the last couple of years mine has relaxed even in the middle of Kansas. I was getting used to holding my partner’s hand when I felt like it, and to being obvious when a server asks us if we want one check or two. I wondered how unsafe I’d made myself and especially her by behaving openly like a queer.
I thought about holding her hand when we descended in the elevator last year into the basement of city hall to apply for our marriage license and how we didn’t know what we’d face when we walked up to the counter. We were lucky: we got a smile followed by the benign neglect common to local bureaucracy.
I lay awake thinking about my friends who are not protected by whiteness. Knowing how many of them, of you, were not sleeping either. Were crying, afraid, furious, resigned, bitter, but all of us sleepless. A community of sudden insomniacs, and I wondered what we could possibly do.
I lay awake and thought: maybe it won’t be so bad. We know he’s a liar.
I thought about how much time I spend talking about dismantling the structural white privilege in publishing, in writing, how much time I think about decolonizing my own imagination and trying to find ways to help others learn to do the same. Unpacking and dismantling the supremacy that has tainted every aspect of our culture and minds and hearts.
I thought about how much worse it’s going to get, but how much harder I’m willing to fight and how much better equipped I am now than I was. I had despaired that there is nothing we can possibly do, but then I decided to marvel at everything we will get done next.
I thought about the day after the 2004 presidential election. For months I’ve been telling a joke at my author events about how I know it’s hard to imagine, but 2004 was the worst election cycle I lived through. I was furious, living on scraps of paychecks, my dad was at war and nobody else seemed to care how many people were dying in Iraq. My graduate program and I didn’t get along, I was spiraling with anxiety that I couldn’t help people, couldn’t make a difference, that America was too divided, too ruined to ever be better. The morning after the election, I felt betrayed, I felt devastated, I felt like all my choices had been pointless.
I felt that way last night, too, as I lay awake.
I thought about Syria for a really long time.
I wondered, around 3am, why I am able to see my whiteness, unlike so many. Why do I choose every day to fight back against the knots of privilege, to try and pull apart the layers of history and terrorism that made White America what it is today? I wonder this a lot, so I have answers, as best one can: My upbringing, my contrariness, my books. I was raised to use my mind and I was raised to care for other people, whether I know them or not. Especially if I do not. I lived in Japan for three years while my frontal lobe was still developing. And if you tell me I am something, every atom of my soul cries out that I am not, regardless of truth or reality.
This is how the world works, Gratton.
Fuck no it doesn’t have to be.
In 2004, I made a new choice. I chose to write, because more than any single thing, it was books that made me understand that the tiny world I see, the little perspective I have, is skewed, and is only that: mine. Books helped me understand people, see people, know people, and they gave me a longing to be the person who stands up. To be part of a quest to save the world. To fall in love. To make lifelong comrades. I chose to write stories about my world, about bravery and love and sacrifice and everything hard and everything good. I chose to write hard books that ask questions and don’t shy away from the answers.
I honestly don’t know who I would be today if it wasn’t for that devastated desperation I felt the morning after George W. Bush was re-elected, knowing only some of us would survive.
In the darkest parts of the morning, I lay there thinking there’s no point to any of this. To trying so hard, to writing books that nobody reads, to arguing and embracing and listening and fighting. But there is a point: human beings. I don’t have children of my own, but I will fight to the death for yours.
Today will define who we become tomorrow. More than most days. I’m not saying be glad. I’m not saying nothing bad will happen. I’m not saying don’t be afraid or angry. I’m saying: it happened. I’m saying: we choose who we are today.
I’m saying: I don’t feel safe but inasmuch as I am safer than you, you can always run to me. I will not put down my weapons.
Listen: We know. We know what the sickness is, the structural disease is that poisoned the bones of our country. We aren’t guessing, we aren’t just pointing fingers. We know. It is whiteness. It is this is owed to me, I was born deserving this, I am better, my needs matter more, my personhood is inherently more important than theirs.
If you don’t see it, I ask that you use your mind and try to care about strangers. If you don’t see how this is what whiteness is, what it has wrought, try again. Don’t stop trying if you want this to get better.
White Americans, we must stop saying I can’t help breathing the air. This air is killing us. It’s killing everyone.
Take care of yourselves. Do what you need to do in order to stay safe. Ask me for help if I can help you. Mourn, rage, hide.
Then get ready.
After I took out the trash, after I walked my dog, staring at every neighbor I passed with suspicion and hurt, wondering which thought the same of me, I came home, poured coffee, put on my Hamilton shirt and my wedding ring, and got to work.