I was twenty-three and bartending in Providence when who should walk into the restaurant but my good friends Gorham and Liz. We’d been sharing an apartment together when they married three years before. I thought it was a very grownup thing to do at the time–almost too grownup–but I liked them both very much and them getting married seemed inevitable, so why not? They’d moved to Boston after Liz had graduated, but now here they were.
“What are you guys doing back?”
“Voting!” said Gorham.
“You drove all the way down here just to vote?”
“Of course. It’s a presidential election.”
“Yes! Didn’t you vote?”
“Bah. Who cares?”
Gorham shook his head as I poured them both a beer. It was 1988, and I hadn’t voted in the last election either. From my vantage, politics seemed to be filled with angry, ambitious, disingenuous people not worthy of my attention. Plus, I was a philosophical young man, meaning I had become preoccupied with the inexorable passage of time, my own mortality, and the awareness that in the grand scheme of things, a human life was like a grain of sand on the beach. Voting, particularly in a presidential election when my ballot would be one of tens of millions, only served to remind me of the puny, weightlessness of a single voice.
I think of that day every now and then. I thought of it the first time I voted in 1992, and in 2008, and quite often in the last few months. I thought of it just a few days ago when a car drove by my house with the word “Vote” written in large blue letters across its door. I can’t remember a time in my life when there has been such an urgent, ceaseless drumbeat from so many corners of the media reminding Americans to cast their ballots. In 1988, I would have found all this annoying. Today, somewhat to my own surprise, I find it moving.
I understand the unique circumstances from which the decaled cars and public service announcements and hashtags have grown. I know the willingness to stand in long lines, to research how to request an absentee ballot, and the unprecedented early voting are largely a response to this very election. Yet I feel like this year is about more than the two people running for president, more even than the many issues hinging on its outcome.
There’s no great peace to be found in believing your voice and your decisions don’t matter. It does take the pressure off for a bit. The world will keep spinning whether you write that book or not, whether you get married or divorced, and whether you vote or stay home. We’re all going to die in the end regardless. All of this is true, but what is also true is that the time I dwell on earth is spent making choices. I rarely understand why those choices really matter, what they’ll change, who they’ll affect, or where they’ll take me, all I know is that they are the most constant expression of who I am. If they don’t matter, neither do I.
I want a result to this election as I have never wanted one before, but I have to believe that only good can possibly come from so many people believing their choices matter enough to stand in the rain or risk catching Covid to cast their single vote. What form that good will take I cannot say.
A choice is like a seed I plant, and often I do not see its flower until well after I forgot it was ever sown. And yet there it is, miraculous in its own way, a lovely thing that seems to have grown just for me.