Peering at the rain-smeared night through the windows of the airport bus makes me feel the way I used to feel in the 1970s when I was a girl in my twenties sitting on Greyhound buses, lost and confused, maybe a fledgling feminist but not familiar with the term, a passenger in my own life. Perhaps I should give myself credit for the courage that I had, but I certainly wasted a lot of time in sad pursuits and misguided getaways. This time, I’m on a mission, heading for the Women’s March in Washington, with a rather indirect itinerary: Los Angeles to Charlotte to Albany. From Albany, I’ll drive with my old friend Barbara to Maryland, where friends of hers will host us.
When I first arrive, the weather in Albany is what I recall as vintage upstate New York: a muted palette of gray, brown, and white. Chilly. I go out for a walk after arriving at Barb’s house, careful about the icy driveway, the walkways patched with snow and frozen slush. My hands are cold; I hadn’t thought of wearing gloves. A woman pulls up in a car in front of a house nearby and steps outside to check her mailbox. She smiles. “Enjoying the nice, mild weather?” It’s all relative, I suppose.
Meanwhile, back home, the rain has finally stopped and there are rainbows arched above green hills. Monte texts me: Sacate Creek is flowing! The campground at El Capitan has washed away in mud. The ocean is the color of chocolate milk and waterfalls have surprised old sandstone contours. The world is many worlds, constantly changing, and reality itself seems fluid and unbound.
But there is a structure of truth and principle, and there are foundations we build upon and cherish, and that's why I’m marching on Saturday. I’m marching because I care about human rights, and fairness, and dignity, and possibility, and the fate of our poor beleaguered planet. I’m marching because the person about to assume office, and who in fact lost the popular vote by millions, is dangerously unfit to serve. I want him to see that he does not have our support, and I want to help promote and partake of the solidarity and determination that I know we're going to need to sustain us through the hard times ahead.
“A march? It’s as pointless as a temper tantrum,” I heard someone say mockingly. But I believe, as Rebecca Solnit has written, that symbolic and cultural acts have real power. I am hoping the march will energize us, render visible our national and global community, reinforce the sense of possibility, speak our truths, tell our stories, and mark a beginning rather than defeat and resignation. We march to push back against the affronts being perpetrated upon us and to help launch the resistance. I realize it’s just the start, and long hard work must follow, but a start is required.
The next day, we set out for D.C. in Barbara’s car: Barb (at the wheel), her friend (and soon my friend too) Ronda, and me. There’s a percussion of raindrops and windshield wipers, the murmur of conversation, a soundtrack of songs from Hamilton, Joni Mitchell, and Jackson Browne, including one in particular by Jackson (and Carlos Varela) called "Walls and Doors":
Ever since the world's existed
There's one thing that is certain
There are those who build walls
And those who open doors
Barb and I became friends in the 1970s, not long after my desperado Greyhound bus days. I was belatedly wrapping up a degree at the state university, and she was a newly minted social worker, and we happened to both live in an old brownstone building at the edge of downtown Albany. We would visit each other at the end of the day, de-briefing, listening to records (often Jackson Browne), and coaching one another through what I still refer to as the days of whine and roaches. (You could actually hear those roaches in the night, a sort of tapping-crunching sound, and if you turned on a light, you could see them scurrying across the floor.) We found the humor too, and we became dear to one another, but life took us in different directions, and forty years happened with no contact between us. We reconnected only recently, and we instantly clicked. It was as though she had just walked back in from across the hallway with a new album for us to hear.
Thank God for friendship, especially among women. I don’t know how I would navigate life without such friends. And oh, how women talk! Our car becomes a sanctuary of stories and warmth and camaraderie, a harbor of grace, it seems. Ronda sets out a bag of nuts, a container of celery sticks and carrots, green grapes, Cliff bars. We tend to one another. Even in this transition zone, a demonstration has begun, and it sets the tone for what we are about to witness: mutual support, kindness, and resilience.
The “inauguration” is taking place as we drive, and we don’t know if we can bear to listen. Ronda, an insightful psychologist who is exceptionally devoted to her clients and her own three sons, counsels against denial. “If we don’t listen at all, that’s just intentional ignorance,” she says, and we decide to tune in now and then. What we hear sounds militant, ominous, chilling…a dark vision of carnage and fear, a false and eerie patriotism, a rally to total allegiance.
Ronda’s mother, now in her nineties, is a Holocaust survivor who spent two years hidden in a small underground space…”the grave” is what she calls it. The family lived in what is now Ukraine, and as the horrors mounted, her grandmother sat by the window, planning. One midnight, she bundled up her three children—Ronda’s mother, at ten, was the eldest–-and walked to the house of a man she vaguely knew who did “illegal things” and asked for his help. They were led to a hole in the dirt beneath a pigsty, with a covering too low to stand up beneath it. It was swarming with vermin and lice. Pig urine rained on their heads.
Ronda’s mother has barely spoken of it, except in fragments of poems in old journals, not in English. Decades later, Ronda went back to the Ukraine with her, and they stopped at the house the family had to abandon. A Ukrainian woman came to the door, and with trepidation let them in. Ronda’s mother recognized the furniture, the parquet floor, the very window beside which her grandmother had sat and stared and schemed. The Ukrainian woman cried. She was only a child then. Her parents had taken her to a ditch where they lined up the Jews, shot them, then hastily covered them with dirt. “The ground was heaving,” she said. The townspeople watched.
“How did everyone allow this?” asks Ronda. “What happens matters. And this is why I’m marching tomorrow.”
In Maryland, where the Susquehanna River meets the Chesapeake Bay, we pass a city called Havre de Grace, and the name assumes a serendipitous significance, as do so many aspects of this journey. I admit that I had some anxiety and skepticism when I first contemplated the trip, but my conviction is growing with every mile.
At some point, Barb checks in with her mother, another nonagenarian. “Why are you going to Washington?” her mother says. “I’m looking at the TV, and there’s a big commotion there.“
“Mom, it’s a protest,” Barb explains, to no avail. Commotion is worrisome. Distance is daunting. Daughters are precious. A mother worries.
“A march is when bodies speak by walking,“ writes Rebecca Solnit in Hope in the Dark, “[It’s] when private citizens become that mystery the public, when traversing boulevards of cities becomes a way to travel toward political goals.”
Of what use is the moon if you don't have the night?
Of what use is a windmill with no Quixote left who'll fight?
We will not have stood by in silence.
We arrive in Silver Springs as darkness falls, and find our way to the house of our hosts, Jeff and Bonnie, who are easygoing and welcoming and seem immediately familiar to me, even though I have never met them. Maybe it’s our Brooklyn roots, shared sensibilities, a similar perspective on what’s happening. We reminisce about pizza and knishes, the sawdust on the floors of butcher shops and produce markets, lining up at school to have sugar cubes and a drop of Salk vaccine placed upon our tongues. We discuss the old neighborhoods, the public schools we went to, the work and dreams of our fathers, the things we learned to value.
There can be freedom only when nobody owns it…
Ronda’s 21-year-old son Jared, a college student in the area, comes by to visit and bring us his firsthand observations of D.C. on this Inauguration Day. It was crazy, he tells us, but not in a celebratory way. Sitting at the table with a group of slightly fraying sixty-somethings, Jared asks if our participation in tomorrow’s march feels as significant to us as protests of the past. Absolutely. Unequivocally. Even more so. Yes. We all agree on this. The threat is real and profound. The need to resist is crucial, compelling. It's an historical moment.
I think Jared is proud of his mom. In a nod to Joni Mitchell, he calls the three of us women “Ladies of the Canyon,” and it seems like an appellation of honor. I picture the California canyon of my home, then feel the comforting old embrace of East Coast-ness, and for a moment, everything comes full circle.
As soon as we board the Metro the next morning, we can feel that something is happening, and we are part of it. There are groups of friends carrying posters, parents with little girls in pink hats, men and women, Boomers and Millennials, and certainly those in between. Everyone is pouring into the city, filling up the trains, and the mood is friendly but not festive. We recognize each other. We’re in this together. We have a shared sense of mission and resolve.
We disembark at Union Station, and our numbers keep multiplying…pink hats ascending escalators, patiently lining up for a pre-march restroom stop, streaming out onto the streets. A policeman at the station tells us that the men’s room is open to women today. He’s good-natured and friendly and admits that this is the happy day. Yesterday? Not so much. More like the twilight zone.
Outside, the air is fresh and the sky a broad white slate of cloud and fog. The pre-march rally has begun, but we are far from it, and we will only see it later in replay at Jeff and Bonnie’s house. Right now we just walk in the general direction of the starting point until we abruptly cannot walk, because the street is completely clogged with people. Absolute gridlock. It’s the sort of thing that would usually make me claustrophobic, but this is where the miracle begins, because despite the frustration and discomfort, everyone is patient, polite, respectful, and considerate.
At one point, a young woman begins to hyperventilate and needs to get through, and the crowd immediately makes a path for her, like Moses parting the Red Sea, many looking on with maternal concern as she passes, offering water, asking if she needs anything. Four Vanderbilt coeds have driven through the night from Nashville to be there, one of them wheelchair-bound due to a broken foot; strangers form a barrier around them to give them a little extra space. In the course of the entire day, there will not be a single episode of violence.
But where is the march? We want to march, and we've come a long way to do so, and here we are just inching along or standing still, unable to reach the route! Suddenly we realize: we ARE the march. The original river has formed a hundred tributaries, the floodgates are open, and we are flowing. All of Washington, D.C. becomes a great, epic march.
At one point we march alongside a small band called Brick-by-Brick, a public art performance group that builds human “walls” against misogyny. They are wearing brick-patterned jumpsuits, carrying signs in protest of actions that threaten civil and human rights, and making wonderful music. We march along singing “This Land is Your Land”, “Down By the Riverside”, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”... traditional songs of protest, hope and yearning. There’s something about the music that really does it to me, along with the sights of the Washington Monument, The Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial in the distance, and the messages on the signs that people are carrying, some of them blunt, some witty, collectively a kind of poetry of the people, and there is a feeling of extraordinary unity and unshakeable determination. My eyes fill with tears. My heart fills with hope. Half a million people? A million? Who knows. We are everywhere. We are a harbor. We are the sea.