Saturday, January 21, 2017

Writer's block and protest signs

Springfield, Missouri: The Women's March (photo by Gerard Nadeau)

I write a blog post every day—twice. I also write creatively every day. I journal every day. I teach online, so I write online lectures and comments almost every day. I post a dozen Facebook updates and dash off a few tweets every day. And I’m currently writing a textbook, which I work on—every day.

But today, equipped with a small piece of poster board, some fat Sharpies, and even some glitter glue, I couldn’t think of anything to write. I couldn’t even think of a picture to draw. 

That’s how I ended up at my local Women’s March in Springfield, Missouri, empty handed—just me, standing for something with my body and not my words.

Apparently, I need at least the length of a blog post to get my thoughts out. 

The funny thing is, if I knew someone who was struggling to make a sign, I’m sure I could think of a great slogan. Several. 

When the sign represents oneself, though, and one is a writer, that white space can be daunting.

What do I care about? Lots. What do I care most about? Which of my concerns do I want to publicly declare as I participate in an historic event? It’s something I mulled over while marching this morning. 

One thing I felt very deeply was how much I cared about all of those women marching around me, stretching for blocks in both directions. My favorite sign I saw today had at its center that familiar election slogan, “I’M WITH HER,” but emanating from it were a dozen arrows, pointing at women all around—pointing at me. And I don’t know that woman, but I was with her, and I am with her, and I will be with her. We are sisters.

An elderly man, very tall, walked beside me, his steps short and careful, and his sign articulated a fear I share: “This administration has alarming ties to Russia.” The man had printed out this straightforward phrase and taped it to a poster board, and he held it up, black and white, very frank. What probably felt like a large font on his computer looked small in the context of a protest.

Here was a guy who had a fear (which I share), and he put it in plain words. Why didn’t I do that? Too many fears, I guess, and not enough good ways to say them.

I saw a lot of one-word signs that said things like “RESIST” and “LOVE,” and signs with familiar political slogans, like “FIRED UP” and “YES WE CAN.” I could have done that, too, but it didn’t feel like enough.

Yesterday, an expatriate writer friend, Shannon Cain, posted a video of herself at her home in Paris, where she was making a sign. Shannon is one of my favorite writers, and unlike our new president’s bold brag, she actually does know all of the best words. But in her video—a closeup of her sign under construction, the audio on but her actions silent—Shannon had painted the name of the president, and through it she slowly and deliberately painted the center stroke of a bright red prohibition symbol, also known as the universal no.

Watching Shannon’s sign construction was, as one of her friends posted, cathartic, as something unspeakably wrong was happening across the globe in our nation’s capital. I watched her slow, gentle stoke, obliterating that corrupt and self-serving name, and I felt soothed. It was right to call out evil. The point was never to say something clever. It was always to say something right.

I could have put anything on my sign, or I could have chosen to bring my fierce and determined self and walk with empty hands and occasional raised fists. Either way helps the cause. That’s how a movement works. You contribute what you can. You take turns filling the needs you see. If words fail you, someone else will speak up. The people we march with have each other’s backs. We even rally for the good of onlookers and counter-protesters, even if those people don’t allow themselves to see it.

So these are my words. I guess I needed space to get them out, and when I look back now, I see they don’t convey all I’m feeling. There aren’t enough signboards in the world.

Words sometimes fail us—all of us. It’s another important reason to come together—to share the load.