Finding Community at a Protest, a Meditation After the March for Science

“Those who can make you believe in absurdities, can make you commit atrocities,” I write in asymmetrical, ugly letters, leaving red and purple stains on my fingers. It’s Earth Day, April 22, 2017, and I am making a sign for today’s March for Science, feeling confident that Voltaire would approve of his words being used for this particular purpose. My husband and step-kids are all earnestly busy making their signs; I notice that my sign is, by far, the least artistically appealing of all. Once we complete this calligraphy exercise, we wisely wrap the signs in plastic lest they disintegrate in the rain, grab umbrellas, and jackets and head out. A train carries us to Smithsonian metro station and spits us out into a muddy, damp afternoon on the National Mall in Washington DC.

As we start marching under the grey sky, I am quickly reminded that there is surprising comfort and even peacefulness to be found in the midst of the most expansive of crowds. The waves of humanity embrace me, they hold me up, they cradle and carry me, and I feel a special warmth among human beings who uphold the same values as I do. We walk in the middle of DC streets, devoid of cars and full of strong, thinking, kind, angry human beings, and it occurs to me just how beautiful this experience of a protest is.

Almost everyone around me carries a sign. It’s as if every person’s most urgent thought manifested itself into reality, somehow materialized into a message written in haste in large colorful letters. Now, everybody’s thoughts are visible, transparent, open for you and me to see. I let this sink in for a moment, contrasting this novel concept with an experience of walking down a street downtown on a regular day, sans protest. I have no idea what a passerby or a person behind me in a Starbucks line is thinking. As Guy de Maupassant wrote almost a century and a half earlier in his story “Solitude”, “no man knows how another is thinking.” And yet today, I get to see everybody’s thoughts, to laugh at the witty ones, to sigh at the sad ones. Today, I know that the very reason people are marching shoulder to shoulder is because a shared conviction led them to the Mall on this chilly, wet Saturday. Today, everyone, including me, is literally wearing their hearts on their sleeve, and it’s liberating.

What does this sea of thought-signs tell me? Let them speak. “Science Belongs to Everyone.” “Science Serving the Common Good.” “Science Speaking Truth to Power.” “I believe in God and Science.” “Science Pursuing Truth, Saving the World.” “Where is the Love for the Earth and Everything on It?” “The Oceans Are Rising and So Are We.” “Science, Not Silence.” “Science Protecting Our Communities.”

A protest is a community. Every minute I spend in this crowd, someone smiles at me, strikes up a conversation, gives me a thumbs up in response to my sign or asks for a permission to photograph it.

The human beings that comprise this crowd are interlocked in a web of a thousand acts, interactions, emotions – and it’s this web that carries the day forward so beautifully.

People make eye contact, a lot. They thank each other for being here. They look into the faces of strangers with distinct hopefulness, so different from the usual mixture of reserve and caution, and that hope lets them discover kind faces everywhere they look. Here I am reminded, at a visceral level, of a remarkable line written about protest by Courtney Martin: “There’s little else that can make the hardened heart supple again like pounding your feet into the streets beside perfect strangers joined in common cause.”

And then there are the chants. “Science Not Silence!” Every time this chant erupts, I get goosebumps. Oh, how I love my fellow humans, shivering next to me, soaking wet and chilled to the bone, many without rain jackets or umbrellas. How I love them for being here, for caring, for creating community. In time of “post-truth presidency”, here I am, surrounded by people who march for truth.

A protest is an unexpectedly soul-feeding experience. It’s an exercise in intense togetherness, which doesn’t feel suffocating or claustrophobic, even to the deeply introverted among us. 

No one seems annoyed; no one makes a casually sarcastic remark when their foot is stepped on twice in one minute.

A protest reminds me, against all reason, of worshipping in a community. The people around me might have different theories as to what God we serve with our unruly chanting, but the powerful fact remains that shared values, shared vision, and shared interpretation of what it means to be human led us to come to these streets today. Our clumsy chants are our hymns. Our commandments are many. They might differ from person to person, but there is a deep understanding that injuring our common home Earth, disregarding truth, and being hateful towards other human beings are wrong and that it’s our moral obligation to be here. To rephrase Rebecca Solnit’s beautifully striking sentence in “Hope in the Dark”, hope shoved us out the door. We hope for, believe in, march for, and act for a different future.

There are many moving moments during the march, as if someone has thrown, with a generous hand, sparkles of joy into this dreary day. A woman on crutches participates in the march. A man in a wheelchair takes part in the march. A tiny boy, incredibly serious, carries a sign that is significantly bigger than he is.

Yet another heartening moment sneaks up on us later in the day, as the march is concluding.

A white-haired lady approaches us and gently asks if we would be kind enough to take a picture of her small group. But of course we would. Once the picture is taken, she produces a bag and takes out a little scroll, golden and white, tied tightly with a golden string. She gives it to my step daughter and instructs her not to open it but to pass this Earth blessing along to someone else. “We are from California,” she says by the way of explanation of her passing blessings around, and it makes a great deal of sense to us. I look into her face – gentle, wise, patient. “God bless you,” I tell her as I’m about to walk away. Suddenly, I feel her hand grasp mine and I know she has something important to say. “She does,” is all she offers, and it takes me a moment to realize that this was her answer to my “God bless you.”

If you enjoyed reading this meditation, you might also want to read “Dark Night of the Soul” and “At the Intersection of Art and Writing“. You will find more essays on my homepage, MariaFafardWrites

Hello, my name is Maria Fafard and I am delighted to meet you! I read old books, travel to thin places, think about meaning of life and write about all of these things. I care about people, ideas, and books, believe in power of liberal arts, try to nurture creativity in others and myself, and strive to live a meaningful life. I believe that travel in the physical world is often a symbol for seeking in the realm of mind and spirit, and that wherever we are, countless gifts of joy and wonder are offered to us every day – but we have to be present enough to look up and accept them.

If you have enjoyed reading my blog posts, you can follow me here on WordPress (by scrolling up, locating a ‘Follow the Blog via Email’ section on the right of this essay, inputting your email into the window and clicking on the ‘Follow’ button.), on Medium, and on Twitter (@mariafafard). Thank you and I am looking forward to talking with you on your favorite platform!


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