Every rally has its own energy, a particular mood or spirit that propels it along. That was the case in Northampton, Massachusetts, when over a thousand women, men and children took to the streets on January 20, the first anniversary of President Trump’s inauguration. The Pioneer Valley Women’s March: Hear Our Voices, Hear Our Vote was a colorful and festive affair that gathered together, in one great flow of collective energy, a multitude of voices and concerns, among them women’s rights, gay and transgender rights, rights of immigrants and rights of the poor, climate justice, racial justice, and economic justice.
I am someone who loves words and who delights in other people’s creativity, so I did what I often do at rallies: I pulled a notebook out of my pocket and jotted down some of the signs that caught my eye. Some of them made me laugh. Perhaps they deserve to be set to music or read aloud like a poem.
Fact-checkers of the world unite
I’m with her (beside a drawing of the Statue of Liberty)
We (heart) democracy
Black lives matter
Enough is enough
Kindness is cool (held aloft by a little girl in pink boots and mittens)
I will not go quietly back to the 1950’s (carried by an older woman)
Our rights are not up for grabs
Fake Pres., not fake press
Science is not a liberal agenda
Standing on the side of love
Nature bats last
The ocean is rising, and so are we
There is no Planet B
Grab ‘em by the patriarchy
Protect our national parks
Even Ikea has a better cabinet
(beside a drawing of an alien) Take me to see your lead– never mind
So bad, even introverts are here
I smiled when I spotted a familiar feminist image: a clenched fist inside a woman’s symbol, and the words, Sisterhood is Powerful. Pinned to my coat was my antique Sisterhood is Powerful button, which I wore back in the late 1960’s and early 70’s. I smiled even more broadly when an updated message rose into view: If your feminism isn’t intersectional, it’s not feminism.
I savored the resilience expressed by one message (They tried to bury us… they didn’t know we were seeds) and the commitment to solidarity expressed by another (All of us or none of us).
One sign conveyed the impossibility of listing why a person might want to join the march: So many reasons.
Another sign – which made me laugh out loud – expressed dazed incredulity: Not usually a sign guy, but geez.
As for me, I didn’t bring a sign. I brought a flag – the Earth flag that has traveled with me over the years to countless marches and rallies. Here we are, clinging to life on one singular and precious planet, all of us together with so many forces trying to tear us apart. The stakes are high. In the same week that President Trump announced that he was opening nearly all offshore waters to drilling for oil and gas, including more than a billion acres in the Arctic and along the Eastern Seaboard, a new study was published that examined all the major research on oxygen loss in the ocean. The findings? Because of climate change, the ocean is rapidly warming. As a result, over the past fifty years the amount of water in the open ocean that is without oxygen has more than quadrupled. As one headline puts it, the ocean is losing its breath. To put it another way, the ocean is suffocating. Lest we imagine that land creatures will not be affected, one scientist points out that about half of the oxygen on Earth comes from the ocean. A professor of marine science who reviewed the study commented that the need for action was best summarized by the motto of the American Lung Association: “If you can’t breathe, nothing else matters.”
I guess you could say that is one reason I joined the march: I like to breathe. It is literally breathtaking to realize that, day by day, the ocean is losing oxygen. It is enraging, it is baffling when a government decides to open up additional areas of the ocean to drilling for oil and gas, when we know full well that burning oil and gas is starting to throttle the ocean and could eventually suffocate us land creatures, too. Hello? Does anyone see a disconnect here? So I marched, flag in hand, grateful for each breath and glad for a chance to help build momentum and political will for a better future.
For me, the most memorable incident of the day took place before the march began. Hundreds of us had converged at a local field and were beginning to line up in the street. We were trying out chants, greeting friends and strangers, admiring each other’s getup and signs, and feeling the excitement of anticipating a good long march to City Hall. Suddenly the young woman in front of me began to sag. She sank down slowly, like a leaf dropping gently to the forest floor. People cried out in surprise; hands reached out to cushion her fall; and in a moment she was splayed uncomfortably on the asphalt, unconscious, as we straightened her legs and looked around for help.
She quickly returned to consciousness, but she remained seated on the pavement, upset and confused. “I’m seventeen!” she cried. “I want my mother!” She began to sob uncontrollably. I was kneeling beside her with my arm around her shoulders, and I murmured in her ear: “You’re OK. My name is Margaret. What’s your name? You fainted – that’s what happened. We’ll get you some help. You’re OK.”
The girl kept sobbing, “I want my mother!” like a mantra, like a prayer, fumbling for her phone, dialing a number and never getting through, as her teenage girl friends stood close by, stricken and wide-eyed. At last her mother answered the phone, and the girl sobbed, “Mom, I lost consciousness! I’m frightened!” She listened for a while to her mother’s voice, and then, slightly calmer, she passed the phone over to me. Her daughter was excitable, her mother said, and easily overwhelmed; this was the first time she’d ever gone to a big event without her parents. Probably she needed simply to be comforted and calmed.
So I kept my arm around the girl’s shoulders, kept offering words of reassurance, and eventually she accepted a sip of water, and wiped her nose, and took an Oreo cookie from one of her friends. By now the crowds surrounding us were beginning to move, so when she was calm enough to stand, I walked her to the side of the street.
Someone had called for medical help. As we waited for the ambulance, I told the girl how brave she was to have come. “I’m so glad you were here,” I told her. “You will look back on today as a day when you were courageous and strong, a day when you stepped out to make a difference in the world, even though you were afraid. We need you in this movement. I hope you’ll come back when you’re 18, and 19, and 20.”
She smiled at me as the medic arrived. “Thank you,” she said.
“I’ll pray for you,” I told her, before I stepped back into the flow of the crowd.
I hope and trust that she will indeed come back, stronger than ever. I see myself in her. I know what it’s like to feel vulnerable and overwhelmed. I know how much it matters when someone – even if it’s only a stranger in a crowd – offers us help when we need it.
I expect that, when the time comes, she will offer her strength to the next person who needs it, for that is how community works: we share what we have and we lift each other up when someone falls. I suppose that’s the whole point of a Women’s March, and of every march that expresses commitment to mutual relationship and solidarity: we intend to show up for each other, to fight for each other, and to keep making the circle larger, until no one is left out.
I hope we’ll keep doing that – whether we’re young first-timers or old grandmas like me – for as long as we have breath. That’s the vision I see in that magnificent passage by the prophet Isaiah, who hears God calling for a world in which the oppressed are set free, the hungry are fed, the homeless are housed, and we no longer turn our backs on our own kin (Isaiah 58). Women and men, black and white, land creatures and sea creatures, we are all in this together.
Like the sign says: it’s all of us or none of us.