The shock and aftershocks of the US election result have knocked Jemima Williams down. But don’t think for one moment think this Brit in Trump’s America won’t be getting up again.
“Great. But, just in case – what happens if Trump wins? Does that affect my green-card application next year?”
The immigration lawyer waved his hand in a noncommittal kind of way. “Don’t even worry about it. In any case you will be fine.” There was a pointed stress on that word: You. “But don’t even worry about. He won’t win.”
Earlier that day I’d shuffled a tarot deck, and absent-mindedly pulled a card for the day. Turning it over, I stared unblinking at it for a moment before shaking my head and putting it back in the middle of the pack and hiding the whole thing at the bottom of my bag.
I’d got into the habit of using tarot cards as a means of navigating the transition from Britain to America, and the often baffling and illogical emotional responses that resulted from what had amounted to the most challenging year of my life.
I’ve never believed the cards can tell my future, only help me see what I am thinking, feeling, or needing underneath all the flapping and flailing. But it didn’t stop my heart from jolting just a little when I looked down at the card in my hand and saw it was The Tower; the card I dread most of all.
Even Death and The Devil aren’t negative cards in the tarot deck, but there’s no denying the symbolism of The Tower: disaster, upheaval, calamity. Sudden change and unpleasant revelations. But no. The cards don’t tell the future, I reminded myself.
I breathed deeply and recited the things that calm me whenever I’ve been in the grips of my OCD: what will happen will happen. It’s not my responsibility. I cannot control the future’s outcome with the tiny, mundane details of my life, and that’s OK. Besides, election day was bright and beautiful, the impossible red of the trees set patriotically against the blue of the sky and the white of the tiny, fluffy clouds.
The rise of tension over the past few months had blossomed into hope and energy. The Democratic bastion of New York City were proudly wearing their ‘I Voted!’ stickers, their Hillary caps and ‘I’m With Her’ shirts, and the Donald Trump Halloween pumpkins were still on doorsteps, pulpy and decaying into themselves. There was nothing to worry about.
The entire day seems dreamlike from the distance: that perfect autumn brightness, the excitement in the air, my fiancé Ben and I making plans for our wedding next year. The city was at its best.
I went with Ben to the polling station and even though I could only watch this time, I remembered the rush that voting had always given me in the past. “Next election, I’ll be able to vote,” I told the ladies manning the booth.
They didn’t have any stickers to give us so one of them sang us a song as a thank you: “Democracy! Woohoo, you voted! Dem-o-cracy!”
I can’t explain how it happened, can’t pinpoint the exact moment the world reeled and began its descent. At some point the New York Times’ online barometer began to read at a 95 per cent chance of Trump winning, despite the highs of 16 per cent it had been publishing for months, and people around us were crying, and holding each other.
At some point, the paper-thin cracks began to form and reality pushed through, all claws and teeth and hatred. Hope and belief exited, leaving a vacuum to pull all the dark things in. I wanted to run away. I wanted to book the first flight home to Mum and Dad in the middle of nowhere, on their sheep farm in rural Wales where nothing ever happens.
Nowhere else felt safe, or far enough away from this country that I suddenly hated deep down in the marrow and the cell and the push of blood inside me. What kind of country wants to be ‘great’, I thought? What kind of a country is willing to pay for it with blood?
Britain tried once, with its navies and armies and far-flung colonies. Britain could tell America a little about what happens when a country strives for greatness without first trying to be good.
“I’ve spent the hardest year of my life desperately trying to put down roots, only to find that the ground I stand on is quicksand. And on fire. And hates me, and my pussy too.”
In the early hours of 9 November I sat shivering in a scalding hot bath, unable to stop crying, unable to believe how stupid and naive I had been. “I don’t want to stay here,” I said to Ben. “I want to go home.”
I’ve spent the hardest year of my life desperately trying to put down roots, only to find that the ground I stand on is quicksand. And on fire. And hates me, and my pussy too.
“All your heroes are strong women, resistance fighters, Nancy Wake and Violette Szabo and Noor Inayat Khan,” Ben told me. But they fought for their countries, I thought. America isn’t my country. I have no loyalty to it. I’m only here because this is where the man I love lives; what responsibility do I have to this place?
In that moment my hatred of America was sharpened with such clarity I couldn’t see past the dagger point of it.
Three days later, I sit in the window of my third floor apartment. Beneath me the street narrows up to the corner of Washington Square Park, but the entire length of it has been swallowed up by a flood of people, coming and coming.
They are all races, a spectrum of gender and self-expression, but all young, all angry. Across the road, behind the line of silent police officers the pavement is clear, and a couple walk along with their daughter hanging tightly to their hands, skipping between them.
They chat, unaware, as she chants along with the snaked line of protestors: “My body, my choice!” Her little girl voice is high and sing-song and entirely unaware of what she is saying.
There is something hard and hot and burning in my throat. But New York City, flayed raw and stunned by the result of the election, has finally burst into movement. The first sound to break through the stunned silence was the noise of chanting, one voice after another, outrage feeding and building into a chaos of protest.
Why do they march? Not to bring about the immediate demise of President-Elect Trump. They march to be with people who are equally outraged, because they want their voices to be heard, because the alternative would be to do what I have been doing: hiding inside, crying spontaneously, balled up in an endless feedback loop of rage and disbelief. In my hibernation I am coming to realise that what I am feeling is new to me, but as old as time.
There are a million people out there who live in this every day, veterans of this particular war who battle past the fear to get out of bed, to dress, to go to work and express themselves and live the life that they need to.
My white, cis, heterosexual middle-class privilege has kept me raised above so many people in that awful rising tide. And now, it is up to my ankles, and I can feel a fraction of the chill that has been the everyday experience for people of colour, for different faiths, for those who do not fit neatly into an expected gender binary.
As a woman I feel beaten and bruised and appalled that so many men and women in this country normalised the sexual violence of a presidential candidate; but even then, I wonder how much my life will now change.
I am the Right Colour and from the Right Kind Of Country. I can afford an immigration lawyer. He tells me, “You will be OK.” There are people out there who walk a far less certain path through life than I do, on ground that may well feel tremulous and treacherous right now. There may not be a wall along a border, but there will certainly be a thousand injustices, big and small.
I have no loyalty to America, but the least I can do for its people – the ones who have reached out to me when I was lonely and homesick and all the ones I’ll never meet, all the ones who march past my apartment – is to care.
This country feels strange and unwelcoming to me now, but it’s hard to sustain hatred for so long. The depth and breadth of the passion held by all those young people marching beneath my window is staggering, and is enough to keep the fire burning within me in a different kind of way.
It hurts my heart that the little girl who skipped along to the beat of a battle she is too young to understand will one day understand only too well the significance of those words. But I hope that she will remember, and I hope she will care as much as I do.
I cannot vote. I am afraid to march, or protest, because I don’t trust the police, and an arrest would mean my immediate deportation and smash my hopes of getting a green card any time soon. I feel ashamed and helpless, but I care. I am looking for ways in which I can help, and staying in America – as an ally, as a defender, as another voice saying “this is not right” – is one of them.
“What kind of country wants to be ‘great’, I thought? What kind of a country is willing to pay for it with blood?”
Madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. I’m not sure I believe that love or hope can triumph anymore, but that doesn’t mean that I will stop loving, or hoping.
Faith is not the preserve of the religious, and every single person with faith holds it in the face of uncertainty. So today, I lean out of my window and scream and whoop, clap and cry along with the protestors. Even from here I can feel that upswing of energy, that peculiar swirl of love and fury and comradeship.
I am significantly older than most of the protestors, and I squeeze tight my eyes and send one single thought out into New York, hoping that somehow that little girl skipping along to a battle chant she is too young to understand might catch it and make it hers: be strong, don’t let this fire go out.
In the tarot deck, The Tower card is about destruction, but it is also about opportunity. With the upheaval of the ground we stand on can come new land, pushed up from the sea bed where we didn’t even know it existed. Be strong, be wise, be fierce.
If hope has left you, take your anger and let it work through you, to build, to pull a new world up with sweat and toil and tears. Don’t let it turn inwards, don’t let it make you apathetic, and don’t let anyone tell you that you have no right to this moment. To love right now might be madness, to hope might be hopeless, but what other choice do we have?
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Jemima is an illustrator, besotted with yesteryear, and works as a designer in animation (mainly drawing small cartoon pigs)