No matter what happens, I’ll still be me.
That’s the mantra I calmed myself with in the days leading up to November 8, 2016. Overall, for me, it was a time filled with joy and excitement and pride. But occasionally, dark thoughts crept in. And when they did, it centered me to focus inward in those rare moments when I started to worry that maybe, the polls were wrong. Maybe things weren’t going to go our way. Maybe this world was going to turn upside down. I can’t control anything outside of this body, this mind. But no matter what happens, I’ll still be me. That’s what I told myself.
Except the polls were wrong, and things didn’t go our way, and when I woke up on November 9th? I didn’t feel like me.
I know, the presidential elections were a long time ago. I sat down to write this post the day after. The week after. On inauguration day. On the one year anniversary. The words just never came, or they were too painful to start to work through. Now, as I get ready to head back to my home country again for the year, these thoughts have been bubbling up again and I hope you won’t mind me using this space to explore them.
I know some feel that politics have no place in a travel blog but for me, politics and travel and work and love and all that jazz? It’s all rolled up together in this crazy life – I can’t just pluck out one or two. My parents have been having debates at the dinner table and going to war protests in nearby cities and hosting political fundraisers at our house and taking me with them to vote in local elections since I was a child – it didn’t really occur to me that politics were some taboo subject not to be discussed until I was much, much older. And it never sat right with me.
volunteering at a campaign rally in Boston
If anything, I feel we could all use some practice on having civil, diplomatic, open-minded conversations about things that really matter. You don’t have to agree with every word I say or write to belong here. Life would be boring in an echo chamber. This is my story and this is how I feel, and there’s space in my life and my heart and in this travel community for people who feel all sorts of other ways, too. I believe deep down in my bones that the majority of Americans are good, loving people and we have different ideas of what is best for our country. But if we all keep listening to each other closely and with empathy, we will find a way to meet in a less divisive middle.
So, I guess for me this story starts years ago, on my little sister Olivia’s twenty-first birthday, a moment I think back to often. We were walking through the streets of New York after she’d consumed her very first alcoholic beverage (okay… maybe not the absolute first) and we asked her what her birthday wishes were. She rattled off a very Olivia-like ambitious list that included becoming student council president at NYU (check!), graduating with honors from her self-designed major the Politics of Prejudice (check!), several other items including but not limited to world peace (still working on it), and concluding with the dream we all knew had been a twinkle in her eye for years – working on the campaign to elect Hillary Clinton the first female President of the United States of America.
The real tragedy of the 2016 election — why I chose to wear this fugly old dress while meeting the most famous woman in the world
Well, three years later, after a hard-won internship with the Obama campaign, two years of service with Teach for America in New Orleans and the most dogged, determined, laser-like pursuit of a specific job that has quite possibly ever been undertaken in the history of the world, she nailed that too. We all cried when it was official – Olivia was an official employee of the finance team for the Hillary Rodham Clinton Presidential campaign. It wasn’t long before she was on a first name basis with Huma and eventually, Hillary. I’ve never been prouder.
I immediately planned my 2016 based on spending as much of the crucial final runup to the election in the USA as possible. It was a special time for my family. With my parents amicably divorced but living on opposite sides of the country, it is a rare, precious gift to have the four of us in one group hug, and thanks to the election, it was happening on a regular basis as we all circled the wagons to support Olivia and to contribute in any way we could to the campaign. While I knew I’d cast an absentee ballot in the primaries, there was no way I was going to miss the opportunity to stand in that booth in Brooklyn and cast that historic general election ballot in person.
at a fundraiser in Martha’s Vineyard
During the primaries I felt so lucky – the Democratic Party had these two incredible candidates to chose from! While I would have excitedly supported Bernie Sanders as well, once the primaries were over, I felt an overwhelming, explosive joy and pride at the idea that we were about to elect the first female president of the United States, a woman I respect and trusted to lead in a way that reflected our shared values.
Clearly, Hillary Rodham Clinton was and is a divisive figure. But to me she was educated, experienced, and sharply intelligent. She was my successful New York senator, a dignified Secretary of State, and a public figure I’d looked up to and admired since I was a girl. She reminded me, in many ways, of my mom, another women who has always marched to the beat of her own drum and not been too fussed with what the world thought of her, as long as she was following her own internal compass.
signs of the divisive times in a gates community in my hometown of Albany
I’ve made campaign contributions in the past and did so again for Hillary. But this election inspired me to get involved in ways I never had before. I traveled to Boston, to Martha’s Vineyard, to Philadelphia and to New York for campaign rallies and events. I volunteered at some of them. I went to New Hampshire to knock on doors. I registered as a “get out the vote” caller on the campaign’s website, and called voters in swing states every time I had a spare hour. I used my blog as a platform to talk about voting. I talked to friends about Hillary’s policies and helped acquaintances figure out absentee voting. I felt uniquely empowered to be a part of the democratic process in a way I never have before. You know that bumper sticker, “democracy is a verb?” — I believed it.
In the blink of an eye, it was the eve of Election Day. My mom, dad, and I traveled to Philadelphia to meet Olivia for a big rally in Independence Square, where she squired us into the staff section to watch speeches from the full lineup of Clintons and Obamas. I was humbled. As the former, and we thought, future presidents left the stage, Fight Song, the official anthem of the campaign erupted, and I watched with a perma-smile as the square broke into a street party, with people of all ages, sizes and colors dancing joyfully with strangers. This was it, we thought. We made it.
I never listened to Fight Song again.
getting out the vote in New Hampshire
It’s all so heartbreakingly vivid. The next day, we all took early trains back to New York, and I can practically feel my dad and I excitedly hugging on the street in Manhattan before I hopped on the subway to vote in Brooklyn. I remember sitting in my dad’s hotel room, making last minute calls to voters while obsessively refreshing the polls. I remember my sister’s then-boyfriend knocking on the door, and us rushing to get ready to head to the Javits Center, the official campaign HQ, where we felt obscenely lucky to have scored access passes to.
And then, hours later, I can feel the grief in my gut as I watched my little sister watch her life fall apart. As my brain short-circuited and my heart just about ripped in two trying to figure out what this country I love had done. I think this is the part of the story that has held me back from sharing this story for so long – even now, as I type these words, every cell in my body is telling me no, no, no, don’t go back to that terrible night. Tears are falling as I write this. I look back and I can’t help but choke up. I feel such a confusing swirl of emotions… including embarrassment, in a way, at how giddy and hopeful we had been.
at a campaign rally in Philadephia
The next day felt like a terrible dream. The sky was dark and the rain was relentless, and the streets of New York were flooded with grim people wearing black, like they were headed to a funeral. I hadn’t planned to, but I got in the car with my dad and my sister and we all crawled back to Albany, shell-shocked, after sobbing in each other’s arms in the lobby of the hotel where Hillary gave her eloquent concession speech. It’s funny, even in my late twenties, when something terrible happens, all I want is to be in my childhood bed, with the covers over my head, hearing my mom’s comforting footsteps downstairs.
In the months that followed, I felt haunted by a heaviness that followed me all the way back to my life across the world in Thailand. I was traumatized by those hours in the Javits Center, this awful, out-of-control experience I’m at a loss to try to explain. I admit a lot of it was privileged-based shock. I’ve had a blessed life. There’s been little that I’ve wanted, this much, and haven’t been able to bare-knuckle my way to. Yet here was what felt like one of the most important things I’d ever had a tiny, infinitesimal, minute part in, and we’d lost, and I was helpless over the results.
It’s hard to really dig in and parse out what was shock and disappointment over the election results, and what was a crushing hopelessness over watching my little sister suffer and not having a clue in the world how to help her. It was one of the sharpest pains I have ever felt, watching her try to pick up the pieces of the adult life she’d dedicated to this campaign, and recalibrate a new path in a world that felt so cruel and unfamiliar. Few of us, I think, can empathize with how much a campaign drains out of the people who dedicate years of their lives to them. Infinity hats off to those of both sides of the aisle who are patriotic and passionate enough to give so much of themselves in service of what they believe is best for our country.
getting chills on the eve of the election
And then there were these overwhelming why’s that wouldn’t go away. Why didn’t I make more phone calls. Why didn’t I knock on more doors. Why didn’t I reach out to more friends. Why didn’t I donate more money. Why didn’t I spend more time volunteering. Why didn’t I see this coming. Why didn’t I hope less, so this would hurt less.
I had so many hopes and dreams for this election. Expanded protection of our natural resources. Criminal justice reform and the end of privatized prisons. A continuation of our social progress in the rights of marginalized populations. A female president who treated the office with the dignity and respect it deserves.
family time on the campaign trail
Instead, I had a new president who had done and said things that rocked me straight to me core. Who I didn’t trust to take care of this country I love. To remember the land has no one to speak for it but us, and protect its gorgeous natural resources. To be gentle and compassionate to the most vulnerable members of our society. To protect our diversity, celebrate our differences and show the world what has always made America great. To create positive goodwill towards Americans, in order to keep my own selfish desire to travel safe and comfortable.
On inauguration day, I tried going to yoga and ended up with a puddle of tears on my mat. I went home, closed the door, turned off the lights, and went to bed. Since then, I have worked hard to drown out the noise of what he is doing, and focus on the more productive question of what I can do instead.
clinging to hope on that horrible night
It’s been 537 days since Election Day. I look around and my heart swells with pride again at what my family and friends and peers have accomplished, against all odds.
My mom formed a five-hundred-woman Political Action Committee in Upstate New York that raises money for progressive candidates, organizes peaceful protests and rallies, hosts postcard-writing parties, and encourages voting and involvement in the democratic process. My sister landed a job on an important 2018 gubernatorial election campaign. My dad continues his life’s work of fighting to make quality healthcare accessible to the country’s most vulnerable populations. I’ve had friends at the front line of Standing Rock, friends crossing the country to protest injustices, and friends making incredible sacrifices to protect what’s important to them. And while it pales in comparison to what others are doing, and I admit I’ve been guilty of months of apathy post-election, I’ve found comfort in redoubling my commitment to living sustainably, protecting the environment, and inspiring others to do so as well.
my mom’s first postcard party, where the idea for her PAC was born
Five hundred and thirty-seven days later, I am still me, but I’m a different me. A little softer to the things and people that matter most. A little harder to the rest. A little less naïve. A little more heavy-hearted. A little more resolved to live my life in a way that reflects what’s in that heart. And a lot inspired by the determination of one strong woman who never stopped fighting for what she believed in, no matter how many times the world knocked her down.
A new fire is lit.
And to the young people in particular, I hope you will hear this. I have spent my entire adult life fighting for what I believe in. I have had successes and I have had setbacks. Sometimes really painful ones. Many of you are at the beginning of your professional public and political careers. You will have successes and setbacks, too. This loss hurts but please never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it.
You know, scripture tells us, let us not grow weary in doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart. So, my friends, let us have faith in each other. Let us not grow weary. Let us not lose heart, for there are more seasons to come, and there is more work to do. – Hillary Clinton