First Place | Nonfiction Writing Contest XLVIII | 2019
NEW MILLENNIUM AWARD FOR NONFICTION
Laura Rose of Bucks County, Pennsylvania for Gracias a la Vida
Rose will receive $1,000, a certificate to mark the success, and publication both online and in print.
This is the author’s first literary award for nonfiction.
Gracias a la Vida
I carry most of what my daughter and I need. In my clear backpack, I jam two bottles of water, four Clif Bars, a change of socks, a waiver relieving our bus captain of all liability, a bandana (“hold it over your nose and mouth in case you’re tear gassed”), two emergency rain ponchos, a map of the D.C. Metro, an extra pack of cigarettes, a zip lock bag to hold my dirty socks, and another zip lock bag stuffed with ibuprofen, Neosporin, and Band-aids. In a separate backpack that will remain locked on the bus, I’ve stuffed a book, three bottles of Diet Coke, a one-pound bag of peanut butter M&Ms, a family size pack of Twizzlers, and a sleeve of Thin Mint Girl Scout Cookies, because when it comes to caffeine and carbohydrates, I do not fuck around. It’s 6:20 a.m., and my sister-in-law, my daughter, her friend, and I are on a chartered bus from Philadelphia to the Women’s March in Washington. The four of us don’t wear pink hats. We don’t carry signs. We simply bring our desire to be present, to put our bodies in a space, to say no.
My sister-in-law is chattering away and I’m already annoyed. Scrolling through the news feed on my phone doesn’t help my mood. The march has already been pronounced a failure by at least three newspapers. Women are bickering about everything from logistics to intersectional feminism to whether pink pussy hats undermine the seriousness of the cause. The march is pointless, they say. Ridiculous. What, exactly, do these women hope to accomplish?
I play with the question the way a tongue plays with a loose tooth, but the answer requires an eloquence I’m unable to muster before sunrise.
* * * * *
Parts of the day I remember in smears. Buying a sash from an energetic woman in her thirties and wearing it like a suffragette; steadying myself on the D.C. Metro, my hand one of seven clinging to the same pole; spilling out into the softly lit station surrounded by white, black, and brown women, all of us awash in the joy of our arrival; belly laughing at protest signs ranging from the clever (“Not mein tiny hands Gropenfuhrer”) to the sublime (“Krusty Krab Unfair!”); the high-pitched woooos! we raise in unison while exiting trains and boarding escalators, as children wave to us from overpasses, as we tumble like cells through the capillaries and venules of the streets, until the streets become veins that propel us toward the heart: A dais where Gloria Steinem, America Ferrera, and Angela Davis are speaking.
We never get there.
This I remember in stark relief: The human clog at 7th and Independence. A mass of backpacks and North Face jackets and butts against hips against shoulders. We’re packed so tight that if I wanted to, I could lean forward and rest my head on a stranger’s shoulder. There’s no cell service. We can’t hear the speakers or see the Jumbotron. We stand in place for more than an hour chanting, “Start the march! Start the march!” We jostle and fidget. We stare impotently at our phones.
My daughter shoots me a plaintive look.
“It’s o.k.,” I say. “We can watch everything on TV later. The important thing is that we’re here. Physically here.”
She nods, then whispers, “I have to use the bathroom.”
A single portable toilet sits 30 feet to our right. It may as well be in Duluth.
“You’ll have to wait,” I say.
My feet are on throbbing and my Clif Bar tastes like a combination of peanut butter and particle board. For a second, I want to cry. Then a wisp of a song floats over our heads. This girl is on fire! It buoys us for a moment, then word ripples through the crowd that there’s too many people to march. We’ve filled up the entire route. There’s nowhere to move, nowhere to go. We’re stuck. How are we supposed to start a movement when we can’t even move?
That’s when my crazy brain kicks in and starts whispering its crazy shit.
We make one hell of a soft target, it says.
If one person falls, we all go down like dominoes, it says.
I swig some water and pop an Ativan. “Maybe we should make our way back and find the girls a real bathroom,” I say.
Everyone agrees this is a good idea, and the four of us join hands and snake our way through the flesh and coats and signs to the sidewalk 20 feet away.
Once we’re back on the bus, I charge my phone and look for news of the march. Initial estimates number us at 500,000, but the commentators don’t seem impressed. They doubt that this outpouring of frustration will translate into anything real. The question on every pundit’s lips: What now?
I must admit that I didn’t appreciate being asked about my plans to change the world before I’d even had the chance to change my socks.
* * * * *
How do you turn a march into a movement? You start with a promise. It’s the promise you make to your daughter the day she screams, “Shut the fuck up!” to boys chanting “Build the wall!” in the school cafeteria; the promise you make when your openly gay friend vomits the morning of November 9th; the promise you make to your Guatemalan co-worker as she dabs her eyes in your office; the promise you make to your God: That you’ll do what’s right, that you’ll fight for those who will be hurt the most. You have no idea what that looks like, but you start by showing up. You get your ass out of bed early on a cold Saturday in February, and huddle at the public library with 75 other middle-aged women to brainstorm a resistance strategy. The women shout things like, “hold our legislators accountable!” “protect minorities and immigrants!” and “protect our health care!”
The funny thing about showing up and shouting is that if you do it frequently enough, eventually they make you a leader. I can chart the past two years of my life by the streaks of meetings across my calendar: Meetings with the Women’s March leader, Tanya, who, with her bright teeth and encyclopedic recall of state legislation, encourages me to find an issue I care about and focus on it. Indivisible meetings where I learn how to put pressure on my legislators. Meetings called, “Having Courageous Conversations About Race” that devolve into something more like, “Nice White Ladies Who Didn’t Realize Until Now That The People They Love Are Racists.” I go to my local Democratic Party meeting. I find a local chapter of Standing Up for Racial Justice. I go to my day job. I come home. I go to meetings. I eat Motrin like M&Ms. I feel pulled everywhere, my efforts going then nowhere. And then I meet Anna at a protest. As we hold our signs demanding that our congressman demand Trump release his tax returns, she turns to me and says, “I know you.”
“Yeah. I see you on Facebook all the time. You rock.”
“Yeah. I’m telling you, girl. You rock. Can I give you a hug? I want to give you a hug.”
I’m too bewildered to say no.
Tanya invites Anna to our next planning meeting—we’re no longer 75 women in a library, but six at a kitchen table—and Anna sits across from me, flashing her bright brown eyes in approval as I declare that we should stop being nice and start being disruptive. She listens more than she speaks. She laughs at my jokes. She says she wants to get shit done.
We barely know each other, but for the next two months we work together to get shit done. We organize a postcard drive to save the Affordable Care Act, and when Senator Toomey refuses to meet his constituents, we get hundreds of people to send Senator Toomey potatoes through the U.S. Mail to express their disapproval. We go to meetings together. We meet more people.
By July everyone is overwhelmed and exhausted; then organically, as if we know our survival depends on it, the dozens of grassroots groups that sprouted up in February begin to coalesce and define their missions. And when Tanya runs for school board and must focus on her campaign, she merges our Women’s March group into another one. Anna and I are invited to their next leadership meeting. Uneasy with the change, Anna asks if the two of us can meet for coffee beforehand. We sit on a bench outside Starbucks and talk as the sun goes down.
“I don’t know these ladies like you do,” she says. “What’s their deal?”
“I only know one of them from my Democratic committee,” I say. “The other five I know just as well as you do.”
“No. That’s not what I mean.” She leans back and stares deep into the summer twilight. She’s wearing a cross made of rosewood, a Blessed Virgin bracelet on her left wrist. “Listen,” she says. “There’s something you gotta know. I’m Puerto Rican.”
“You don’t look Puerto Rican.”
“I know. And you should hear the shit people say about Puerto Ricans when they don’t know you’re one.”
For the first time I really examine her features. She’s my age, but her skin is smooth and fair. Her nose and mouth are delicate like a doll’s.
“I’m darker than you,” I say.
We pull up our sleeves and press our forearms together. Her arm is milky white, mine has a farmer’s tan. We laugh.
“So, you see. You know these ladies better than I do, because—”
“Because I’m white.”
“Listen, the community is scared. People are getting picked up. My people are worried they’ll get picked up, too. And I have friends, Mexican friends, who I haven’t seen for months. They won’t come out. They’re afraid to come out of their own homes.”
“I was at church the other week, and there was a police car parked outside the sanctuary. God knows why it was there. It didn’t have anything to do with anything at the church. It didn’t have anything to do with us at all. And people were afraid to leave!” She rests her elbows on her knees and shakes her head at the sidewalk. “These white ladies, they know nothing about that.” She studies my face. “I hope I’m not offending you. Did I offend you?”
I assure her she did not. I try to tell her what I know of my people, white women. How our status depends on maintaining our façade of goodness, on being nice, on making others in our circle happy whatever the cost, on ignoring our whiteness. How many of us are afraid to make noise. How we willfully refuse to confront our own shadows. How we would rather perform elaborate mental gymnastics to maintain our innocence than face the discomfort of knowing we are part of the problem.
“Do you think these ladies are like that?”
“I don’t know. I hope not. Probably.”
Turns out they are. When we discuss the group’s mission and I suggest including a paragraph on racial justice, there’s an uneasy silence. Would Anna and I like to take care of that? they ask. When I suggest we join the movement to shut down the nearby Berks County Residential Center—one of three immigrant prisons in the country that incarcerate mothers and their young children—one of the ladies offers to organize a Christmas toy drive instead. When Anna speaks about getting out the minority vote, the ladies tell us the county’s current strategy is to put time and money into other efforts, because chasing the minority vote is a waste of resources. Anna lurches forward and buries her head in her lap. My right eye pulsates. I suspect that we both had a simultaneous aneurysm.
Over dinner the next week, Anna and I plot our strategy. This new group is large, with more than 5,000 members, but we agree to focus on immigration, DACA, and minority outreach. We won’t ask for permission. We’ll simply use their connections and reach until they get tired of it and kick us out.
* * * * *
How do you let someone into your heart when you’re an introverted, middle-aged woman with a full-time job, a family, and so many secrets? You start by listening. Over drinks, you learn that Anna’s 81-year-old mother crochets scarves and swears like a Puerto Rican sailor and that her father died from kidney failure on a hospital bed in her living room. He was a flawed man, a heavy drinker, but she still traveled to his childhood home in Utuado and sang “Mi Viejo” as she scattered his ashes. You learn she’s a Spanish teacher and a singer, that Latin jazz is her art and one true love. Then you slowly drop your mask. You confess that your father is an unapologetic racist, verbally and physically abusive, that you barely speak to him even though he has stage-four cancer. You explain that his blows left you with a hatred of bullies and a visceral need to protect those who can’t defend themselves. You talk about your favorite books and the pleasures and tortures of writing. You realize that you both are artists. You agree that if it weren’t for the state of the world, you sure as hell wouldn’t be spending all your time on meetings and protests.
* * * * *
“If you want to help immigrants in our part of the county,” Tanya says, “you’ll have to hook up with Maria Flores.”
Tanya, Anna, and I are sipping cocktails at a family-owned Mexican restaurant a half-mile from my house. The ICE raids have started, people are disappearing, and Anna and I want to do something, anything, to help. I have an idea for a fundraiser, but don’t know where the money should go or where it’s most needed. Should we start an account to pay for immigration lawyers? For burners? For safe places where people can stay when ICE comes calling?
Tanya shakes her head. “They already have that stuff.”
She suggests we start attending the meetings of an immigrant rights group a few towns over, and that we raise money for them as a goodwill gesture. In return, we ask them to mentor us. Then, using their model, we can start our own thing in our area. In the meantime, she’ll reach out to Maria Flores. Maria is a superstar activist in the Latino community. She’s hard to get a hold of, though. She has her hands full.
* * * * *
How do you turn a march into a movement? You give things up. You use your vacation time to deliver letters and petitions to your congressman even though his staffers treat you with disdain. You join the immigrant rights action group and learn the ropes from their leader, Jesse, a flaky hippie Quaker who drops everything to dash to immigration hearings and prisons. You give up hope of ever cooking a hot meal for your family again. You put out your own money to rent a movie theater, pay for the film rights, and promote a documentary screening that you pray will not only cover your up-front expenses, but raise thousands of dollars for the immigrant group’s legal fund. You take it on the chin when the fundraiser fails. You meet new people who introduce you to more people. You learn Puerto Rican swear words. You discover that Quakers may be unobtrusive, but they get shit done. You strain your eyes from staring at your phone. When your daughter wants your attention, she says, “Mom, can you please stop resisting for just one minute?”
* * * * *
“Come hear me sing,” Anna says. She fronts a Latin jazz ensemble, one of the best in city, and she’s dying to share this part of herself with me. “If you don’t come this Thursday, you won’t be able to see us perform until January.” She smiles. “I prepared something special for your birthday.”
I don’t want to go. I’m tired. I’m delivering a petition urging our congressman to pass a clean Dream Act after work that day. And to be honest, I’m still smarting from my dud fundraiser. I just want to stay home and read a book. I tell myself that I deserve to relax after the week I’ve had, after the year I’ve had. Except that’s not quite true. I don’t want to go because I’m afraid. For months, Anna and I have called ourselves “resister sisters,” but the thought of hearing her sing, and knowing she wants to sing something for me, makes me feel unmoored. I don’t want to care too much for her. I don’t want to become too close. I don’t want to lose her.
Instead of telling her this, I say, “You’re not going to make me drag my old ass out to a club on a Thursday night, are you?”
It’s a weak joke and she doesn’t laugh. She purses her lips and says, “Ay dios mio. You’re not going to come.”
* * * * *
Ninety percent of success is simply showing up. You put your body in a space; you put a stake in the ground. If you don’t want to lose the things you love—your country, your community, your art—you show up to meetings and protests and the blank page. You even drag your old ass off the sofa and drive to a jazz café on a frigid November night.
Near the end of her first set, Anna introduces the song she prepared for me. It was written by Violeta Parra. She tells the audience that she’s chosen the song because, “Violeta Parra struggled and had many, many hard times, but she still blessed us with her beautiful art.” She finds my eyes in the crowd and smiles. “The song is called ‘Gracias a la Vida.’”
In the coming months, Jesse will put me in touch with four Dreamers, and the Quakers will get us all an appointment to lobby our congressman about DACA. Anna and I will raise thousands of dollars for Puerto Rican hurricane relief. Maria Flores will finally call us back, and we’ll organize a 300-person protest to help her community fight the police department’s plan to partner with ICE. Everyone we’ve met since the Women’s March will show up: grassroots activists, the NAACP, the Human Rights Council, the ACLU, Latino businessmen, Democratic Committee Chairs, immigrants, students. And when the student activists from Parkland, Florida, rise up, we will bus down to D.C. and march for commonsense gun reform. At another march, Anna will nurse me with Gatorade when I’m on the verge of heatstroke. We’ll get kicked out of our Women’s March group. My father will die. Anna and I will be recruited as statewide grassroots activists for Indivisible. I will cry when Anna sings at her mother’s funeral mass. And still we will fight. But we don’t know this yet. Right now, there is only a guitar and Anna’s strong, pure voice:
Gracias a la vida, que me ha dado tanto,
me ha dado la risa y me ha dado el llanto;
así yo distingo dicha de quebranto,
los dós materiales que forman mi canto,
y el canto de ustedes que es el mismo canto,
y el canto de todos que es mi proprio canto.
Gracias a la vida.
* * * * *
How do you turn a march into a movement? You listen to someone sing your song in a language you don’t understand. You let yourself be loved. You let your eyes fill with tears of gratitude. You become a friend.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laura Rose, an advertising copywriter and manager, lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, with her husband and daughter. Her nonfiction has appeared in Narrative, Memoir Journal, and Bucks County Writer. She is also an activist and grassroots organizer for PA Statewide Indivisible.
* * This is the author’s first literary award for nonfiction. * *
Gracias a la Vida © 2019 Laura Rose