All week, we’d planned to vote today as both Chris and I had a vacation day scheduled for this Thursday of the school Fall Break. Up with migraine overnight, I woke up this morning with the excitement that the day had arrived. Today, we would vote. Despite my commitment since 2016 to hard work in the midst of despair, it was difficult to tamp down that familiar feeling that accompanies every election: hope.
I’ve written about what it’s like to be an optimistic depressive before. I have this personal bend toward the bright side despite a brain that’s wired toward darkness. Heading out to cast a vote in 2020 feels on-brand for my brain chemistry.
I remind myself that America has always been a broken experiment. We keep relighting the burner and gluing together the shattered test tubes in hopes that we will get it right — or righter — this time.
It is a spectacularly gorgeous day on this day that we’ve chosen for early voting. It’s that kind of day that you would put in a comic strip to depict perfect weather, just the right amount of blue sky, the right amount of clouds, and the right amount of sun in your face. It’s warmer, but the day reminds me of September 11th, 2001. The horror of that day was juxtaposed by the perfection of the weather.
I love early voting. The first time I early voted was in 2008 in Huntington, West Virginia. About a hundred of my neighbors and I snaked around the classical halls of the Huntington City Hall. It’s the kind of gorgeous building we don’t even think about building any more. Austerity has made us reject domes and gilding. The long line ended in a room filled with ledgers. It smelled like the Carnegie Library I grew up in. I cast my vote for Barack Obama, and it felt historic. Today, that kind of squash in a building, double lines in narrow hallways, all of us voters not quite pressed up against one another, is unthinkable. In Kentucky, we wouldn’t even be allowed to early vote if it weren’t for the coronavirus.
As we walk to the city building today, we pass a display for Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Display seems like the wrong word. Commemoration? Memorial? On the city hall lawn, someone has arranged t-shirts on stakes, with the names of Kentuckians who were murdered by their partners. When I was twenty, my summer job for Middle Way House —the domestic violence shelter in Bloomington, Indiana — was to research spousal murders in Monroe County over the preceding years. It’s hard to imagine now that this task required a research assistant. In a digital era, it’s quick work, but in those days, it was a job of sitting over ledger after ledger in the county clerk’s office. I filled notepads with handwritten notes. A few years later, it would be surreal to go back to the same office to get a marriage license. The counter was next to the table where I had sweated all summer when I was twenty. Today, as we walk past the names, I think of Normandy and the poem “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae. About the First World War dead, he wrote, “…. the crosses, row on row,/ That mark our place; and in the sky/ The larks, still bravely singing, fly / Scarce heard among the guns below.” As we pass the rows of the dead on our way to vote, I feel myself overwhelmed by anger that those folks couldn’t vote today. A minor loss, compared to all the ways their loved ones miss them, but it makes me furious. I would vote in their memory, even if no one knew it. I am again angry, too, that the Violence Against Women Act is now more controversial than ever. The act lapsed a year and a half ago, thanks to Mitch McConnell’s indifference.
I’m excited to cast my vote against Mitch McConnell. If there’s ever been a more hopeless vote than that, I don’t know what it would be. Maybe when I voted against Jesse Helms when we lived in North Carolina? If somehow Amy McGrath wins, I will have a bonfire in my backyard and dance around it like a witch whose spells have finally been cast. You’re invited.
In the polling place, an man in his eighties wears his mask like a moustache, above the mouth and below the nose. He crowds my husband, almost pressing up against him. You would look at that man and think that he’s most at risk for coronavirus complications, and you’d be right. You’d look at my hale and healthy husband and think that he’s not. You’d be wrong. He has Type One Diabetes, and this excursion for early voting is one of the few trips he’s made to a public place since March. I assumed that the county clerk would be as on top of precautions as the local college where my spouse and I work. I was wrong. It’s not a good time to be a forty-something woman. I don’t know why the surging or ebbing hormones of peri-menopause lend themselves only to rage and weeping. I want to grab that man by his little mask and utter curses and incantations that would make you blush. I remember my raising; I remember Midwestern Nice; I remember my mother. Also, I get called forward to cast my ballot before I could start yelling. I had pictured last night, the joy I would feel in voting against Donald Trump. Now, I’m not so blind with fury that I can’t see the ballot.
In the hallway next to the voting room is a set of pictures from early Berea schools: Fruit Jar High, Middletown, and the Spaceship school. While I wait for Chris and Mr. Mask Moustache to finish casting their votes, I look at the photos. As always, children are forgotten in this election. We scarcely hear anything about them. Recent data indicates that since the beginning of the pandemic, American child hunger has soared. Something like 9 percent of parents reported that their children don’t get enough to eat on a weekly basis. That’s different from the usual statistic about parents going without food so their children can eat. 1 out of every 10 children now doesn’t have enough to eat. Both parents and children are going without in this pandemic. I was gladder than ever to cast that vote against Mitch McConnell, who demonstrates every week that he doesn’t care.
In 2008, when I voted in a crowded courthouse, I voted FOR. I didn’t vote AGAINST. I was excited to vote for a change in the historical tide. I voted for a belief that we could shore up American Democracy to be better. This year, there was a lot of voting AGAINST. Unlike a lot of women my age, I adore Joe Biden. Here in middle age, I think the thing I want most is a president who understands grief. I want a president who understands sorrow. After four years of despair, of being reminded that America never lives up to its promise, I want a president who can weep while we try once again.