I am on an aisle seat in an airplane on my way to Philadelphia. My children are sitting next to me, doing word searches and homework. There are families and business people and elderly couples and people of all colors and ages around me. I wonder if any of them are headed to the Women’s March, like me.
On Saturday my mother and my 9-year-old daughter and I will get up at a god-awful early hour, board a bus at the Wayne train station, and head down to D.C. I have not been to Washington D.C. in many, many years. I am searching my memory but I’m 44, I’m tired, and it’s fuzzy. My last time there may have been when I worked at the Folger Shakespeare Library, the summer between my sophomore and junior years at Princeton. I shared a house in Georgetown with other students, most of whom interned on Capitol Hill. “The Hill,” they said with casual pride, but I did not envy them. I preferred my searches through musty Renaissance bestiaries. Still, my boyfriend at the time was working for a Texas representative, and I would visit him sometimes, so I got to smell those marble hallways too, with their click-clacky floors and mostly men in cologne and suits.
This time in D.C. we will barely be inside. We’ll be standing in the cold (hopefully not the rain), marching in the infamous wind off the Potomac River, with several hundred thousand others, mostly women.
Why do I march?
I march because on the night of November 8, 2016, I felt a fear—a sickening, physical sense of devastation and uncertainty—that I’ve never felt before. I spent the night in terror. The writer and leader Tara Mohr calls this kind of fear pachad— “projected or imagined fear,” the “fear whose objects are imagined.” It is in some ways a very understandable evolutionary fear of being eaten by large animals, of being hurt or abandoned by the tribe, but it is also an evolutionary hangover, a fear that often no longer serves its original purpose. It strikes in unnecessary circumstances, when we are afraid of rejection or new terrain. On November 8, the fear I felt was a potent mix of both appropriate and inappropriate pachad. And it was not fear for myself. It was for my daughter, whose future—the future of her ability to make intensely private decisions about her body, and of her freedom from sexual assault—was suddenly at risk. I was taken by surprise not only by the election results themselves, but also by the intensity of my emotional response, by my primal, protective love for my daughter and who she is becoming, by the uncertainty and violence of the environment in which she will experience that becoming.
Mohr offers many tools for moving through pachad (label it, analyze probability, invite love and curiosity into the room…), but that night I could access almost none of them. I could breathe, if I remembered what the wonderful Lorelle Saxena said to me on Facebook right before I logged off that night, after I admitted I felt like I might pass out: “One breath at time, Amy, one breath at a time.” And I also, somehow, thankfully, recalled the Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice of tonglen. Tonglen is a reversal of our habitual impulses around negative experiences: bring in the pleasant, push away the bad. In tonglen, you invite your negative emotions in with the in-breath, and breathe out what you want to see or cultivate in the world. All night long, my body tense with unexpected, uninvited emotion, I breathed in fear, anger, and the physical feelings themselves, rooted as they were in my own body’s memories of assault, and breathed out light, kindness, spaciousness, compassion. This is not at all my normal meditation practice, but that night I was grateful that my Zen koan tradition feels flexible enough to incorporate tools like this. Sometimes you just need to get through the night.
I of course got through the night. And something emerged out of that experience, something tender and strong. Not something absent of fear, but something blossoming with conviction.
I march because I do not want to be ruled by my fears. I march to walk into my fears, to walk through my fears, to stand up—in both courage and fear—for all the daughters and sisters and mothers and nieces and women and girls who may be feeling fear. I also march for those people—of any gender—who may feel that kind of devastation and uncertainty, that pachad, everyday: people of color, people of religious faiths (particularly Islam and Judaism) who are facing discrimination and hatred, people in war zones created in part by reckless and cynical U.S. foreign policy, LGBTQ people, disabled people and their loving, committed families, people in abusive relationships, people who need to decide whether to feed their children or pay the electricity bill. And the other beings facing devastation, pollution, extinction— animals, rivers, marshlands, wildflowers, trees—too many to name let alone know. I march for all of them.
I march because walking with dignity and courage, in both civic and private spaces, in all circumstances, is a form of speech,
and for too long women have been punished for speaking. In an interview on “The History of Erasing Women’s History,” the historian and columnist Amanda Foreman talks about the long, very concrete history of silencing women:
We have a law, one of the first laws in history that came down to us from 2400-2300 BC, and its says that when a woman speaks out of turn she will be smacked by a brick, and that’s it. That’s where it began. It’s true there has been a conspiracy to silence us. I think that was the most shocking thing because you feel like most women are terrified of public speaking, we feel inauthentic—it still exists. Where does it come from? It came from there. It’s not magic. You can get a handle on these things. These things evolve, and they evolved for a reason.
I have long felt that the most compelling reason to study and understand history is simply to realize that human hands make it. These hands can be violent, tender, or indifferent, they can hold babies, point remote controls, plant seedlings, or hurl bricks, but they are always, in some way, making choices, making forms, making stories, making history. One way of saying this is that “things evolve, and they evolve for a reason,” but we could also say that since social and cultural forms are made, they can also be unmade, transformed.
It is also true that some of these forms are fashioned in a more solid, longstanding way than others. They’ve been around so long they’ve taken up residence in our bodies and dreams and bones. So there’s a lot of learning and thinking and working to do together, to find our way out and through.
On a panel about civil liberties recorded by City Arts and Lectures in early December, Favianna Rodriguez, an Oakland artist and activist of color, called on listeners to be big and bold in their visions of a possible future, to offer a story in which everyone has a role to play, to imagine what we do want and not just what we are against. Let’s imagine a world without police brutality, or even police, she said. Let’s imagine a world without rape!
I march for a world where we all walk and speak freely, a world without (inappropriate) pachad.
Imagine a world awash instead with yirah, an old testament word for the experience of awe and astonishment, creative awakening, the marvelous, the sublime, which in our bodies can feel a lot like fear. Yirah is, Mohr says, the feeling we get when we step into a space that is bigger than what we usually inhabit. While pachad inevitably asks us to get small, cringe, hide, pull away, yirah offers us a vast, bright, astonishing sensation, an opening, blossoming way of being in the world.
Most nights at bedtime I lead my daughter through what she calls “cloud meditation.” I tell her that all her thoughts, ideas, feelings, images are like the clouds we fly through on an airplane. Even the darkest, most frightening ones, the ones that feel the most solid, are empty. You can pass right through them, and they also always pass on. And inside the clouds and behind the clouds and between the clouds there is a bright, peaceful space. This vast spaciousness, I tell her, is always there, inside the fear, inside the clouds, inside the forms. It’s never not there.
I march because I know that on Saturday, in the bright space of the National Mall, surrounded by beautiful women and men standing up for equality, dignity, true security, and one another, I will feel that vastness, that astonishing blossoming. I will feel yirah. I march to remember (to get the memory in my bones! so that it’s with me every day over the next four years, or longer) that all these people, and the dreams they carry, are never not there. The clouds are empty, and the spaciousness, the opening towards transformation, is never not there.
This post evolved out of some remarks in an interview with my local newspaper, the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, about my journey to the Women’s March. I am deeply thankful to Tara Mohr and her Playing Big leadership course for both the insights on fear (from Rabbi Alan Lew) and the reference to Amanda Foreman.