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Where I’ve Been: The Women’s March on Washington and more…

From Vermont to New York City to the Women’s March on Washington, it’s been a busy January for this YA author!  On January 4th, I flew out to Vermont for the Spring Residency of the Goddard College MFAW program where I teach.

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Eleven days in the snowy rolling hills of Plainfield, teaching, learning, talking about books, writing, and the world.  Every term, we choose a theme.  Keynote speeches are given on that theme, and it echoes throughout the conversation.  The theme of this residency was “Intent and Imagination.”  I delivered a keynote on how to state your intention and giving imagination free reign before rediscovering the intent in your work.  It seemed appropriate then, and even more so now, because that was what the Women’s March was all about.

The day after the march was announced, I called my friend T, who had been more of an activist than I ever was.  I said, “Should we be going to this?”  She said, “yes,” and immediately booked a ticket for herself and her 11-year-old daughter.  I called my writer friend Reiko in New York and said, “I’m going to the March.  Can I stay with you?  Will you come?”  She said yes.

So, after a week and a half in Plainfield, VT, I flew to New York City.  Once there, I did the writer thing, the dream trip—lunches with my agent, editors, wandering into bookstores, eating really well.  Talking writing and purpose with other authors.  I visited a close but not-seen-often-enough friend in Connecticut.  (We’ve known each other since freshman year of college.  It’s always amazing to see how far you’ve come from where you’ve been.)

The Thursday before the March, Reiko and I made t-shirts.

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We made signs.

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We searched the city for the requisite clear backpacks to carry supplies and food.  I found tote bags at Rite Aid.  We packed nut bars, water, a small first aid kit, handiwipes, hand sanitizer.  Tissue.  (Porta-pottys.  One must be prepared.)

Friday arrived.  I swung my backpack onto my shoulders, took my tote in hand, and boarded a bus to DC.

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I sat next to well-dressed, soft-spoken woman with kindly face.  She had hiked the Himalayas, been dancing tango for five years, and had turned fifty a few weeks before.  Like me, she was traveling alone, but meeting up with friends in DC.  (Busses had filled up quickly, so Reiko and I were each going down solo.) We shared stories and joined in the random bouts of cheering that swelled throughout the bus.  Pink hats dotted the crowd.  A woman from Seattle took Snapchats of the group cheers.

DC is a hard place to get a hotel room on inauguration weekend, with or without a march.  R stayed with friends in Maryland.  I crashed with T in a hotel room in Virginia, at the end of the metro line (and then some).  The National Guard was posted in front of my subway entrance.  I confess, it was intimidating.  I went down the escalator.  More Guard were inside.  They were on the platforms, young men and women in camouflage, helping visitors read maps and find their way.  I relaxed.

In my subway car were two older white couples carrying inauguration flags.  They looked happy, satisfied.  I wanted to talk to them, to ask how the inauguration went.  I grew up partly in DC, but my last inauguration was for Gerald Ford or Jimmy Carter.  The fading brownie camera snapshots in my photo albums of retro Secret Service men jogging alongside blocky limousines make it hard to nail down the date.

But I did not ask them.  Something in me felt they would not welcome it.  There had been arrests in DC earlier in the day (hence the National Guard presence, I suppose).  I didn’t want to appear threatening.  A silly concern, perhaps, but a real one.

If we can’t talk, there is no hope.  Still, I kept quiet, and disembarked at the end of the line with the two couples, joining a swell of people in red “Make America Great Again” caps.  One man had dozens of them, hanging off his clothes, belt loops, on his head.  He reminded me of the Dr. Seuss character, but with a different political message.

I was feeling pretty alone at that moment.  T and her daughter weren’t due until late that night (direct flights were also hard to find).  And I stood out like a sore thumb in my parka and snow boots with hot pink laces.  I exited the station, taking the overpass to the buses.  And fifty or so pink hats appeared, flooding toward the Metro.  I felt the way a Christian must have felt in Ancient Rome, seeing someone draw the secret fish with a toe in the sand.  I confess I teared up.  And I found my courage again.

On the plaza outside the station were rows of pop up shops.

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One was a bookstore– Scrawl Books.  I stopped.  Bookstores are sanctuaries for the likes of me.  The woman inside recommended a novel, and said her daughter would be at the march with me.

I rode the bus toward my hotel with a family fresh from the inauguration.  Two young teenage boys, a well-turned out dad in his navy blue suit, the well-coiffed wife in her dress.  They looked happy.  We all looked a little worried when the bus lurched and horns were honked.  We laughed nervously together and smiled.

The lobby of my hotel was swarming with police.  If something had happened here, it was on a Die Hard level.  I froze.  Then, I looked closer.

They were staying here.  What looked like every member of law enforcement who had come in for the inauguration was a guest at my hotel.

It was like the line up before a parade, clusters of men and women in slightly different uniforms.  Beat cops, sheriffs, soldiers.  A great wave of uniforms poured around me, and again I thought, Something has happened.  But then I saw the tired faces having done their job for the day.

“Where’s the party?” I asked.

“Not sure,” one of them said, taking of his hat, rubbing his black hair.  “I think 1541.”

I smiled.  Poor guy.  He really must have been tired.  I thought about checking out 1541 that night, just to see if they’d let me in.  But they’d worked a long day.  Let them have their fun.  Most looked too tired to even want that.

I went out for dinner and, on the way back to my room, I decided I’d been timid enough.  I’m a writer.  I’m curious.  I ask questions.

I chose a woman sheriff from Brazos, Texas, walking alongside me with her crisp white cowboy hat covered in what looked like a shower cap to protect it from the rain outside.  “You were at the inauguration?”

She nodded politely, murmured an indistinguishable sound.  So, maybe I hadn’t picked the best person to chat with.  I tried again to make conversation, and failed.  We squeezed onto the elevator, where she had no trouble being gregarious with her fellow sheriffs.  So I turned to them.

“Long day?”

“Yes, ma’am,” they said.  A group of guys in their 30s and 40s, weathered, smiling, reminding me of a football team after a hard-won game.  “We were out the door at 3:15 this morning,” they said.  I laughed.

“I don’t care if I voted for him or not,” I quipped.  “If a President wanted me up that early, I’d say, ‘See you at noon, sir!’”

The sheriffs laughed, so I kept going.  “First inauguration?”

“Yes.”

Last inauguration?”

Even bigger laughs and nods of agreement.  There would be no party in 1541 tonight.  They’d all be asleep a soon as they shut their doors.

The group flooded off the elevator at the first stop.  All except for my quiet sheriff, who seemed disappointed to be stuck with me.  We were on the same floor.  So, because I don’t know when to quit, I tried again.  “Sounds like a long day.”

Nod.

The doors opened.  She darted to the right.  I went left.  She reluctantly turned around when she realized her room was actually a couple of doors down from mine.  “Well,” I said, because I do believe diligence has its reward.  “Have a good night.”

She stopped at her door and very quietly said, “I miss my babies.  Good night.”

And that’s when I remembered that these were not just people in uniforms and suits.  These were mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers who all came to DC not knowing what to expect.  Who put on their uniforms—white hats, pink hats, red hats, salon styled hair—hoping for the best, but fearing things might not be all right.

And they had come home again.  And there was relief.  Exhaustion.  Pride.

That night, I arranged my uniform.  My long underwear, my Dissident writer t-shirt.

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My supplies.  My signs.  I wrote the Women’s March legal hotline number on my arm with a blue sharpie, my husband’s number beneath it.  I emailed him the numbers and those of my friends, just in case things were not all right.  He said he was proud of me.

I downloaded the ACLU DC Justice app to send video directly to their headquarters should things be not all right.  I talked to my friend about how to handle the situation with her daughter should things be not all right.  We had waterproof maps marked with meeting places if we got separated, meeting places if we were evacuated.  We prepared.  And the next day, we boarded the train at the end of the line wearing pink hats handed out by volunteers at the entrance to the metro.

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The hats came in Ziploc bags.  Some had notes from the makers, asking for pictures, saying why they want to support the march.  Only one of ours had a note, from a woman in Anchorage, Alaska.  She wanted to march for equality an reproductive rights.

Hundreds of women and men boarded the train.  More crowded on.  And they sang, and cheered.  They were kind.  When I said I was claustrophobic, they made room for me.  They checked in with me as the cars got more crowded, made sure I was okay.  At last, we made it to our stop.

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The escalators poured upward, forcing people into a log jam as the upper level filled with people who did not know how to swipe their way out the turnstiles.  It was a frightening moment.   But everyone managed.  And we flooded onto the streets, and out in to the city.  And it was peaceful, and joyous, determined, and funny.

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I signed my name to giant preamble to the Constitution.  We met our friends and managed to get the crowd on the Mall singing “We Shall Overcome,” and “Lean on Me.”  I did a solo of the School House Rock Constitution song.  A few children of the 80s joined in.  Eighty-seven people took pictures of T’s 11-year-old holding the “Give me back my future” sign I had made for her on a kitchen table in New York.  I ran into fellow YA author Cylin Busby, one of dozens of people I knew who were there, but as unlikely to find as a unicorn in that crowd.

We barely marched.  The crowds were dense, the headcount overwhelming.  But we knew what we were about.  We wove and bobbed through crowds of people.  “Excuse me, coming through.”  “No problem,” they said.  All genders, races, ages.  “How many in your group, so we don’t separate you?” They would ask.  No kidding.   They did, and they counted, and the six of us stayed together.

There were chants.  Some were funny, some were beautiful, some were in languages we did not speak.  Some were bitter.  We did not chant along with those.  We came with positive messages.  We came with hope and peace in our hearts.  As one of our group said, “We send out peace, and it will surround us.  Everything will be okay.”

And it was.

One chant, an obvious one, moved me the most.  A young woman with a white t-shirt over a black long sleeve shirt held up a sign and shouted, “Show me what Democracy looks like!”

And the crowd shouted back, “This is what Democracy looks like!”

And it is.  It’s all of us.  And I have never felt more American than at that moment.  I have never felt more proud of this country.

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The thing is this:  we are a multitude.  We have different wants, but similar needs.  Food, water, shelter.  Love.  Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  We’ve managed to keep this country together for 240 years.  We can keep going and growing.  But it takes bringing peace, putting down fear, being able to talk about it.

When I flew home on Monday, my husband picked me up at the airport and began to explain to me why the March was stunning but ineffective.  How we were never in danger, not like the civil rights marches of the 60s.  (Had he already forgotten the legal hotline number I’d written on my body?  Did he know that it had rubbed off into a blue stain in the crush of bodies?  Did he realize, I asked, that hindsight is 20/20, hope springs eternal, and we had faced our fears?)  I read an op-ed in the NY Times decrying the march’s usefulness, saying Hamilton was more effective.  (Because 1.2 million people have seen Hamilton.  Um… no.  The March played in more cities.  The tickets were free.)  I’ve seen complaints that it lacked “Intersectionality.”  I’ve been told by other attendees that it was a white women’s march.

But I was there.  I know what it was for me.

It was the start of something.  A groundswell that I will continue.

I am not much of an activist.  But I am a citizen of this world.  I am a writer.  And now I am a dissident.

I believe in a world that reaches out to help its people.  I believe in consideration.  I believe in protecting the Earth.  I believe in conversation.  I believe in understanding.

I will not preach to you beyond this page, but I will offer conversation.  The Book Club for a New Administration is part of that conversation.  Other things might pop up here from time to time as the need arises.  Don’t be afraid to share your thoughts.  I ask that you keep it respectful, and in the spirit of true curiosity, inquiry, and understanding.

We are in this together.

So.  What’s on your mind?