This Woman’s March

Under a full moon, submerged in a hot spring, I turned thirty-six. It was six days after the 2016 presidential election. The plan, a ritual death in New Mexico, was longstanding. I was there to soak in healing mineral waters under a changing sky. I was there to beg for mercy at the feet of La Conquistadora. I was there to ask the mountains to bury me in a landslide and maybe let me live. I didn’t care. The trip had nothing to do with the election. I was trying to save my life.

It wasn’t a lost love. It wasn’t my failing comedy career. It wasn’t the countless days alone. The depression came long before those stories. It was that nothing ever comforted me more than the trap of darkness. I had no energy to find my way out. I could feel my body shutting down. I could feel the ache of endings. Change everything and maybe I’d have a chance. I didn’t know how to do it. Cycles are hard to break.

I trust women, though, and millions of them pray to Mary. She’s a creator and giver of new life. She’s exactly what I needed. Mary was my answer. I went to New Mexico to pray at her oldest statue on the continent. I said thousands of her holy namesake prayer, making my Catholic grandmothers proud. I changed some of the words. No Lord. No Jesus. No God. No death.

Hail Mary, full of grace, we are with you

Blessed are you among women,

and blessed is the fruit of thy womb creation

Holy Mary, mother of all, pray for us,

now, and in the hour of our need

I said it on black plastic rosaries, on moonstone malas, at the sound of church bells, at a song in a passing car. Walking down streets, sitting on trains, kneeling at alters, lying in bed. Hail Mary.

Nothing was different.

Back in New York, the nights were sliding in sooner and darker. Daylight felt stumpy and grey. Seven days in New Mexico did not erase the previous seven hundred that felt like waiting to die. The Our Lady of Sorrows painting hanging on my wall, bought on a bunk pilgrimage, did not change the fact that I hated myself. Afterall, she was bleeding with a sword through her heart.

It’s hard to link me and depression from the outside. I’m animated and performative and funny. I laugh easily and have a good time. I shake with a strong hand, make eye contact, give big hugs. People feel connected to me. People say things like, “You light up the room!” and, “Your energy is awesome!”

Then I go home and lay on the floor for so many hours that it turns into months. I eat a dozen English muffins before a pint of ice cream before a frozen pizza. I collect salt to rub in wounds that don’t sting anymore. I stay up all night for days, or nights, whatever — I don’t know how to count it. I think about traffic patterns. I make plans to walk in them. I lock my door. I stay inside.

So a month after my super-moon birthday, on the day my family was in New York City for a big game, I used all my energy to leave the house and meet them. I’m saying that every cell in my body worked to get off the floor. To move forward, left, right, left, right, one foot in front of the other to Midtown. It was there, in Madison Square Garden, that my sister gave me an email address and said, “Contact her, she’s working with the Women’s March.”

Had it not been for the alcohol and the basketball and my bold-red-lip faked confidence, I would not have gotten in touch. Yes, I was an outspoken feminist and former political organizer. Yes, I had a postcard photo of the 1963 March on Washington in my high school locker, reminding me to keep my eyes on the prize. But to me, the Women’s March was sacred work, and I was anything but sacred. I was barely surviving. I could promise nothing. A yes from me was guaranteed to eventually be self-sabotage, no matter my good intentions.

But right then and there, just after midnight under the bright lights, I wrote an email. It explained that years ago I managed a city council campaign, ran a statewide feminist nonprofit, worked field operations. I could get coffee or pick up dry cleaning or make waxing appointments. Really, I just wanted to be any help at all. When I hit send, some song like “Y’all Ready for This” was blasting through the arena.

***

The next week I was out to lunch with Bob Bland, co-founder and co-chair of the Women’s March, and her sleeping three week old daughter, Chloe. We talked about the two Facebook events surfacing right after the election that called for a women’s march, posted independently by Bob and Teresa Shook, a grandmother in Hawaii. We talked about some of the original mistakes made by the March and how they were rectified. We talked about who was who on the badass team working nonstop to organize the event.

Bob instantly took me in, treated me like an equal, and couldn’t wait to work together. She was a fashion executive who founded a company and served as its CEO. She didn’t have political organizing experience, but it was clear she was unafraid and got things done. I mean, this is a woman who built the Women’s March website between contractions, at a hospital, while birthing a child. Let’s pause on that for a moment.

After lunch, Bob wanted me to see the office and meet the other organizers. We hopped in a taxi heading uptown with the car seat, the baby, and a bunch of bags. Somehow, I ended up in the middle between Bob and her baby. Chloe was not happy. She was hungry. We couldn’t find the pacifier.

“Can you stick your pinky in her mouth?” Bob asked me while muted on a conference call.

It was my second task; the first was getting diapers. As the infant latched onto my finger, I thought, “This is how you plan a women’s march.” I loved it.

We walked into the Women’s March offices during a photoshoot with W Magazine. I was gripping the heavy baby carrier with one hand. The other hand, the one with the pruned pinky, was free. Women milled about while others posed for pictures. Bob introduced me to anyone we passed until she was swept away for her close-up.

Standing against a wall, I took in the office. I’d been there before. Not in this precise place, but amid that buzz, sitting on second-hand furniture under posters and plaques. The hard working spaces of justice led by women have a familiar feel. So do slumber parties.

Years before, I was surrounded by rolls of campaign stickers and overstuffed filing cabinets and tenderly loved jade plants. The work we did back then was also for the love of the people and faith in change. The friends I met in those past spaces were now my family.

I became myself in offices like this one. There were Hillary staffers, just weeks after the monumental loss. There were Bernie stumpers with massive influence. There were fashion designers and community organizers and music insiders and lawyers and chefs and moms. There were Muslims and Jews and Christians and Pagans and immigrants and at least one Mayflower descendant. There were even men.

It was the first place I liked outside of my apartment in a long time. I didn’t want to leave. An old light flickered inside me. It wasn’t blinding. It was warm and soft and dangerous like a flame. Like the kind of woman I wanted to be.

Voices called from offices into the center room, “Where’s Linda? Linda? Is she in there? Is Tamika in there?” A head would pop out of a door, “Tamika’s in here. Can you tell her Tamika’s on the phone?”

It was a beautiful sight to see women leading a movement. People put aside petty differences, even significant differences, for a greater good. Strangers exchanged emails, were in constant contact for months and became best friends. Moments were stolen to talk about families and bad dates and hair products.

Every morning at ten there was a national organizers’ call, and every morning at ten I was on it. I couldn’t believe it. Not in the I-can’t-believe-I-get-to-be-a-part-of-this way, which was omnipresent, but in the I-can’t-believe-I-haven’t-ruined-this way, which was also valid. But I hadn’t ruined it at all. I was taking myself as seriously as I took the work. I abandoned sleeping on the floor for better rest in my bed. My life was changing. There was no point resisting it. There was too much to do.

Eventually, I spent most of my time managing the Frequently Asked Questions, which sounds simple, but, my god, it was the biggest brain teaser I’ve ever conquered. Thousands of people were looking for information that was changing rapidly or simply didn’t exist yet. I tried to keep the massive document as up-to-date as possible and learned to navigate the long list of approvals needed for every public change.

There were people working on renting buses, on filling buses, on parking buses. There were people organizing credentials, coordinating artists, analyzing data, ensuring accessibility, ordering pizza, vetting organizations, finding tents, buying vests, raising money, making honey.

So many of us were volunteers. There was no time. We had overwhelming support and semi-constant critiques. We ignored the things that didn’t matter and shifted for the things that did. We changed. We kept moving. We kept marching. Toward the March.

***

I took a train to Washington six days before the March with unwashed hair and a blow-up mattress. I wore a black leather jacket, platform-soled combat boots, and no bra. There would be absolutely no mistaking what I was there for — it was not the Inauguration.

In that enemy territory, I refused to smile in public. I didn’t walk, I stalked. There was righteousness all over me. See the White House? We own it. See the Capitol? It’s ours. See the streets? They belong to us.

I was not the girl who came to D.C. in her young twenties, hyped up during the post-9/11 Bush Administration. Packing her days full of activist work and failing out of school. Depressed even then. Ready to take on the world depleted.

Nor was I the desperate body trying to save herself in New Mexico, two months before. Pleading with a moon and a statue and wisps of light for blessings or forgiveness, whatever it took to change me. I was not a rejected comedian or a scarred daughter or an unwanted woman. I was not the walking dead.

I was a national organizer of the Women’s March on Washington. I believed in myself and our unity principles and in the power of the resistance. I was steady, and I was ready to fight.

My all-black uniform and militant attitude were not necessary in the hotel lobby, but placed me in my group. It was easy to tell who was who. There were women in jeans and buttons and backpacks. There were women in floor-length furs on a sixty-degree day.

We were working from a narrow underground ballroom under constant security. We weren’t supposed to post about the location or talk about it in public, even upstairs in the hotel’s common areas. We were under attack. It reminded me of how I live my life. Except that in my life, I was the enemy. The resistance, planned behind my back, in my own basement. I always found them. For better or worse, I always conquered.

We called the war room the peace room. The office supplies included boxes of tampons. We cheered at poster deliveries. We cried at the news of the first bus’s departure, from Alaska, embarking on a five-day journey. People jumped into hugs as out-of-state organizers arrived, met for the first time, and got right to work. Toddlers ran around while fathers tried to wrangle them and mothers typed on laptops. There were breast pumps in the middle of conference tables. Sometimes, there was spilled milk.

Of course things were tense. The pace was speed of light fast. The pressure could pop glass. There were moments of thick tension, miscommunication, hurt feelings. All hell broke loose regularly, especially for the head organizers. But even in crisis, the energy was focused. There was very little time to do anything but plan the March. There was no other way. It was do or die.

One of the biggest gifts from that craziness was there was no time for me to read every article on Twitter, or engage with Facebook tirades about the looming presidential change, or get into long phone conversations with dismayed friends. We were protected from the national despair because we were in a bunker. We were in the belly of the beast doing work fueled by the power of the people. There were more of us than them, and we were going to show it. It was all I could think about.

One night, late, when we were finishing up, my path crossed with Mysonne Linen, a rapper and organizer on the logistics team. We stopped to chat. Among his many tasks, Mysonne was involved in overseeing security. As we small-talked our days, I thanked him for keeping us safe.

He put his hand on my shoulder and said, with ease, “Of course, sister. My freedom is linked to your freedom.” He was looking right at me.

I was tired. I think we were two days out. I was crying openly pretty often, from all the beauty and all the stress. I was witnessing the building of a movement, the continuation of a legacy, the bending of a history. The amount of love and kindness and loyalty it took to do that weighed heavily, certainly for someone who can’t carry the weight of her own heart.

It almost knocked me over, that sentence he said: “Of course, sister. My freedom is linked to your freedom.” I had to take a breath and ground myself before I responded, “And mine is linked to yours, friend.”

I was not alone. I was connected. It might give me a concussion, but it was the truth.

***

The day before the March was a calm mania. Nothing could stop it now. Planes were full of women knitting with pink yarn. Buses were en route and packed. There was literal movement toward Washington. There was movement inside us.

We had an All Hands On Deck meeting. Janaye Ingram, head of logistics, maker of space for 1.2 million people, led us through the day, midnight to midnight. She joked that if we didn’t pay attention, and bothered her during the March with silliness we’d already gone over, she would find the worst porta-potty in D.C. and lock us in it. She was the best.

It was hot and cramped in the peace room. There were a lot of us. There were photographers and equipment and side conversations and computers and cords everywhere because work had to get done. But for three hours we settled into what was about to happen. We were shifting from planning to execution. We were about to meet the marchers. The day was upon us.

To finish the meeting, Carmen Perez, a co-chair, asked us to get up and form a circle. She said she knew we had been there awhile but there was just one more thing. The room was long and skinny. We were shoulder to shoulder. She asked us to hold hands.

Carmen reminded us that we were there, working together, because of love for the people, not hate for the new administration. She honored the movements and leaders who came before us. She spoke about her fortieth birthday, the next day — the day of the March — and its personal significance.

There were very full hearts and few dry eyes when she asked us to say Assata’s Chant with her, call and response, three times. Once whispering, once speaking, once shouting. We took a breath together.

It is our duty to fight for our freedom.

It is our duty to fight for our freedom.

It is our duty to win.

It is our duty to win.

We must love and support each other.

We must love and support each other.

We have nothing to lose but our chains.

We have nothing to lose but our chains.

By the third time through, we were yelling, tears rolling, clasped hands above our heads. We were holding on to one another because the walls were shaking. We were prepared for lightning, but it was not the sound of thunder. It was the sound of 10 million feet marching.

It was also the sound of a pulse.

In my teenage feminist days I used to say, “I don’t want bake sale change, I want March-on-Washington-change,” and I here I was, standing in this circle.

It wasn’t just luck. To get there, I had to think I could change. I had to say Hail Marys. I had to use every cell in my body to get off the floor. I had to put on red lipstick and pretend I was alive. I had to send an email. I had to believe I would follow through. I had nothing to lose but my chains.

As a side note, it was Inauguration Day.

***

We woke up on January 21st in the darkness because whatever sleep we got wasn’t sleep at all. My original wake-up time was 2:30am, then 3:30am, then 4am, then 4:15am. Things were changing rapidly. President Obama was no longer the president. People were gathering across the globe for women. I was getting out of bed.

To get to the site, organizers, groggy and wired, shuffled into shuttles. We were all in layers. It would be warmer than expected. In some sort of nervous tic we all watched our driver’s progress on Google Maps, the March route was a thick purple line across the middle of the city. You didn’t have to search for it. It just showed up.

We stepped out of the vans in sight of the glowing, hazy Capitol. The sky was black and smoky like a caldron. The stage was being built. Crowds of people were already gathered and boisterous. There was a tent with heaters and makeup artists where national organizers ate granola bars, got false eyelashes, and took out walkie-talkies.

In the dark, I got a large coffee in a crowded McDonald’s that opened early for the marchers. After that I spent about ten minutes as a security guard trying to hold a crowd while bike rack was put in place. I was no use. I ended up two-stepping to Beyoncé with women holding signs as others rushed the stage.

As the sun came up, I sat on a bench out of the way. It was the lull before the storm. From there I watched dozens of volunteers, unconnected to the March organizers, but on their own mission, drag in huge, clear bags full of pink pussy hats, made by women unable to march. There were thousands of them. It was as though they knew our numbers before we did. Their work became the symbol of the day.

By midday some of us were blissed out and some of us freaked out. I protected my anxiety by not letting anyone vent to me about a crisis I could not help with. I ended up running errands around the site for hectic folks, but spent most of my time clearing tables and taking out trash in the celebrity whirlwind of backstage.

I cleaned up box lunches from Cecile Richards and Michael Moore. I gave Ashley Judd a tissue. I stood within a yard of Cher and Janet Mock. I bumped into a friend I made hiking in California. I saw my old roommate’s family. I fangirl freaked out when I walked into Amy Richards. I told the Reverend Jesse Jackson I was from Chicago, and he kissed me on the cheek.

I watched Angela Davis put her fist up to a cheering crowd. I watched Amy Goodman interview Gloria Steinem. I watched Janelle Monáe and Alicia Keys hug each other tightly before bringing to the stage the Mothers of the Movement: Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin; Lucia McBath, mother of Jordan Davis; Maria Hamilton, mother of Dontre Hamilton; and Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner.

That is the only part of the program that I remember clearly. I was right behind the stage. I stood still and closed my eyes. It was beats and drums and mothers, speaking their slain children’s names. We were hundreds of thousands of people, saying their names back. The Black Lives Matter movement paved the path for the Women’s March. I’m glad I was present. Respect was due.

The day was faster and slower than I could have imagined. I didn’t see Madonna or take pictures of clever signs. I didn’t even end up marching once we eventually marched. What I did was sit for the first time since sunrise and smoke a secret cigarette with a friend. We marveled at what happened. It was over. We did it.

We took a taxi back and arrived at the hotel exactly when everyone else did. The retro-modern lobby was a scene, as always. Delirious organizers mobbed the open space, holding leftover posters and disheveled tote bags. Once-quiet, supportive doormen were high-fiving us and flashing quick thumbs up as they dashed to open car doors.

We hugged and wept and smiled wildly. We couldn’t believe it. We made history. All of us. Five million of us. That’s what everyone was saying in the lobby. They were saying, 5 million worldwide, 1.2 million in D.C. The Guinness Book of World Records called: the Women’s March would be listed as the largest global mobilization in history.

Welcome to Washington, Mr. President.

The next morning I woke up from a sleep, short and deep, like a newborn. My body ached with beginnings. Newspapers were covered in urban oceans of pink. Something big had happened. From the inside it was hard to see, but easily felt. We were giddy and exhausted when we met up for brunch in the hotel restaurant.

The March happened because of the people who marched, but when the first few tables noticed Linda, Tamika, Carmen, and Bob walk in with a big group behind them, everything stopped. They knew who we were. Some of the women, gabbing in pussy hats, dropped silverware, stood at attention, and clapped. Other tables saw what was happening, and joined them. Soon brunchers across the restaurant were on their feet, shouting thank yous and taking photos. Only one table stayed seated. There were more of us.

We posed for pictures next to the buffet we made plates from and sat together in a more private section of the restaurant. We drank mimosas and coffee, we heard each other’s stories from the March, and when the tables were cleared we signed posters like yearbooks.

Before we dispersed the co-chairs took turns reflecting, voicing gratitude, and Carmen once more led us in three rounds of Assata’s Chant. I was next to her, holding her hand, first in line to her starting whisper. I could feel my blood moving and sparks in the air.

It is our duty to fight for our freedom.

Hail Mary, full of grace, we are with you

It is our duty to win.

Blessed are you among women,

and blessed is the fruit of thy womb creation

We must love and support each other.

Holy Mary, mother of all, pray for us,

We have nothing to lose but our chains.

now, and in the hour of our need

Weeks before, this is not where I thought I’d be. Weeks before, I had not known how to keep living. I was a captive in my own life. I had been for years. There, in the restaurant, I was a maker-of-history, a brave riser-from-floors. There, I was not alone. I was connected to the freedom of my sisters and brothers, in the room and around the world. I was connected to my mind and my heart and my gut. It was the exact self I wanted to be — fierce in love, confident in self, rich in family, devoted to change.

It is the exact America I wanted to see too. One dedicated to freedom. One that loves and supports each other. One full of grace. Strangers coming together in the most finished moments of our lives to demand what’s right. Women of color leading the charge. Unheard voices made the loudest. Communities intersecting. Mothers passing bullhorns off to make space to feed babies. People with book smarts and people with street smarts finding answers together. Breaks for dance parties, parties for break dancing.

***

I’m not going to say that the months after the March weren’t dark for me. They were. I was scared to be back in New York with all of my comfortable destruction. The March did not erase the depression, it couldn’t, but the experience showed me a hard truth — waiting to die was not a life.

It was terrible to face. I knew I needed serious help. I knew, because of a movement, that movement was my only option. Change everything and maybe I’d have a chance.

Maybe I already had. Maybe thousands of Hail Marys got me to Assata’s Chant. Maybe the force of all that womanly divination and sweat of girls put me smack dab in the middle of millions of women for a reason. Maybe one man speaking one true sentence to my face opened my eyes. Maybe all I needed was a peace room and pink waves in the streets to carry me.

From that view I saw alternatives. To progressive spaces controlled by white men’s ideas. To our dominant structures and dialogues. To my own self-hatred. From that view I could see something radical and ancient. I saw women leading with love. Maybe I could do it too. Maybe I could lead with love. It would be a March-on-Washington-change.

In January, everybody wanted to know: Is this a moment, or is this a movement? I asked myself the same question. There was only one answer. The movement had already started. I’d miss my chains. I thought they were what held me together, but there was nothing left to lose. I was already in motion.

I started therapy, I spent time with good friends and family, I tried to be nice to myself. I watched seven seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race followed by seven seasons of The Golden Girls. I made ice tea and called it Love Tonic. I vowed to never wear stilettos unless the patriarchy was dead.

They were small things, but they felt like footing, like marching forward. Six months later, with each passing moment, that’s what I’m trying to do — left, right, left, right, one foot in front of the other. Like “Ella’s Song” says, we who believe in freedom cannot rest.