We started the night with bottles of champagne on the counter, ready to celebrate the first woman elected President of the United States. We’d dreamed of this day since second grade, when the boys in our classes pointed to the wall of presidents and said, “Girls can’t be president. Do you see any girls up there?” Each of us, the members of my university’s feminist group, gathered in an apartment wearing our “I Voted” stickers, and we talked about how momentous it had felt to check Hillary Clinton’s name in the voting booth. One of the strongest women we knew, who we’d watched stand and listen to a man with no experience explain how she did her job wrong, a feeling we knew too well, a feeling passed down from our mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers, a feeling we thought now we might finally be able to leave behind.
As the night went on, we refused to believe what the television was telling us until we absolutely had to, until we couldn’t ignore it any longer. State after state going from yellow to red, blue to red, our own state—North Carolina—so close to being blue, but no, it wasn’t, it was red. A friend from Pennsylvania, at first chastising herself for voting by absentee ballot in a state that would surely go blue, we saw, but wait, red is catching up, it’s neck in neck, and red pushes ahead. So we sat in disbelief, champagne getting warm on the counter, watching the country and our hope and our feelings of worthiness as women burn to ash in all that red. We’d elected a man whose name I still refuse to say. A man who uses physical and psychological intimidation to keep women from challenging his power. A man who believes he has the right to violate a woman’s body in whatever ways he pleases.
In my poetry class this semester, a class of only twenty students, we’ve had multiple poems about sexual assault from multiple women. I write suggestions in the margins for how to make the poems better: change line breaks, be specific, use stronger verbs. But it starts to feel like I’m editing their experiences, their interpretations of violation, instead of just their poems. Like somehow I am amounting their grief to a piece of paper, to how effectively they portray the weight of the invasion to the three men in our classroom—and it doesn’t feel right. I want to build a time machine and invite them over for hot chocolate and bad movies, but a time machine won’t help, because if we keep going back in time, it will keep happening. We must forge ahead, it’s all we can do, but how many bodies must be injured, how many women abused before anything changes? So I sit at my desk, marking poems, trying to help my classmates best express this trauma to their bodies, because if after the fact there is no way to express it, to turn it into a piece of art that makes some sad sense, then what do we have?
It was hard to walk into my poetry class the morning after election night. It was hard to look into the faces of the women who wrote poems about men violating their body, crashing through their doors without invitation, when we’d just elected one of these men for president. It was hard to look into their faces knowing the next four years we will have to be stronger than ever, will have to fight harder than ever. But still, I don’t know where else I would rather be, that day, than my poetry class. Because I am tired of being given destruction without beauty. Pain is not beautiful, of course, and I don’t believe you need pain or trauma to make good art. But the fact remains that we can make art out of it. We can make art to express the helplessness, and the harm, and the fear and the anger. With nothing left to do, we can make art. In fact, when nothing more can be done is when art becomes imperative: it staves off hopelessness. It gives us something to hold on to.
So let’s read as much as we can: poetry, stories, letters. Let’s listen as well and as often as possible. Let’s go to museums; take photos of our friends, of trees and birds. Even if you think you’re a terrible painter, a terrible singer: paint something just for the sake of painting, sing while you walk down the street. Give us some beauty among this destruction. Let’s resolve to pay attention to the way the light shines through our windows in the morning, the cats we pass on our way to work. These small, beautiful moments, these desperate efforts to make sense of our lives, will get us through.
Emily DeMaioNewton is primarily a writer, but she enjoys all types of art. Her friends tolerate her mix of playfulness and seriousness surprisingly well, for which she is grateful. She won a national silver medal in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards in 2014, and enjoys watching the sunrise.