A series of posts written during our trip to Washington, D.C. in January, 2009, to attend the inauguration of Barack Obama.
After a long (11 hour), but interesting and chatty drive down here yesterday, we got a good night's sleep and spent this morning with J.'s brother and sister-in-law at their Quaker meeting in Fairfax County, Virginia. The historic meeting house sits on a small parcel of land bordering a large Army base - an irony that's of course not lost on any of the members, and also borders George Washington's extensive Mount Vernon lands. Several tall white oaks shade the building, along with the largest holly tree I've seen outside England, and the ground is covered with the bristly seedpods of sweetgum trees. Beyond the meeting house is a graveyard that goes back to the 1849 gathering of the community and continues up to the present.
It felt somehow appropriate to begin our visit by sitting in silence for an hour with these fifty Quakers, many of whom work for various Washington agencies or non-profits, thinking with them about the new leadership and about peace. Only a few rose to speak during the hour; one woman said she had been considering how she had participated in mocking the outgoing president during the past eight years, as a coping strategy, and wasn't very proud of that. She mentioned learning recently that he had had a sister who died when they were both children, but George had not been allowed to participate in the ritual or the mourning. "How do we know how he was affected by that, especially his language ability? There is so much we don't know - and it reminds me of the need to try to be compassionate toward everyone, even those whose behavior we cannot understand." I try to stretch myself in that direction too - it isn't always easy.
During the hour, I wasn't really trying to formally meditate, and watched my mind ranging over many topics. I thought quite a lot about Anglican worship - what I love about it, and yet how much I miss this kind of shared silence, contemplation, and simplicity. Still, I felt quite far away from insight, or even prayer, until the last few minutes when another woman rose and suggested we might reflect a little less on the hope we place in our leaders, and a little more on how each of us can further the cause of peace. It is, of course, the question that causes many of us to despair, because our efforts seem so futile.
"How can I be peace?" I asked myself.
"You must start by stopping the violence you do to yourself." The answer formed in my mind with the immediate, silver clarity I recognize as truth. I may be calm and compassionate toward others, but I'm still capable of tormenting myself, though less so than when I was younger and didn't pick up on it as quickly. The insight was correct: it's what I most need to work on. Our greatest chance of affecting others positively occurs in our immediate circles of friends and associates, but the effect we can have is always limited by what's inside ourselves.
I think this is something that distinguishes Obama from most of his predecessors: he is someone who not only knows himself, but is on the way to mastering himself. When the world saw him speak on election night, he seemed happy but not triumphant, and he spoke with great seriousness. The old Anglican prayer about "comforting the suffering, and shielding the joyous" speaks to that human need for balance - the opposite of what many of us experience, and even seek, in our emotional lives. This gravity and equanimity in the face of whatever comes is hard-won in life; not many people ever have it, because it takes both insight and work.
As Shunryu Suzuki said in a chapter of Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, we polish a tile not because it is possible but because it is impossible, and still we should do it. In an article I read about Obama's spiritual life, written when he was running for the Senate, he acknowledged as much, saying it had taken the first forty-eight years of his life to figure out what seemed important to base one's life upon, and he expected he would be devoting the next forty-eight to trying to live what he had learned so far.
We were very fortunate to be given invitations, passed along to my sister-in-law by someone from another state who couldn't attend. These will supposedly admit us to the ticketed standing area behind the reflecting pool...after we manage to get into the city and through the security checks. We're not sure if they'll allow J. to enter with his camera and an extra lens; if they don't, we'll go into the Mall itself along with the non-ticketed public, which will be fine. At the right in the picture above are two of the special metro tickets issued for this week. We probably won't use them - we're betting on the buses as a sturdier mode of transportation tomorrow, and if there's a problem, at least we know we can get off and walk!
See you on the other side...
(click for larger view)
We're back home in Alexandria, warmed by a hot bath, a few glasses of celebratory wine, my brother-in-law's delicious shepherd's pie.
I really don't know what to say about the day. For me, it was all about being in that enormous crowd -- a crowd that represented the other America, the America that has felt imprisoned and betrayed by the last eight years.
The TV coverage, apparently, didn't show what really happened: when Bush was introduced, a "boo" arose from all those millions of people that must have been completely audible; it was extremely loud. And when his helicopter lifted off, a cheer arose along with millions of uplifted arms, waving goodbye, (quite a few, I'd say, with middle finger raised) -- all the length of the Mall. I was a little surprised, and didn't participate in the booing, but it was not so much rudeness as it was a spontaneous shucking off of a tremendous burden and source of despair, and an acknowledgment that this man never represented us, he was not of us, and Obama is clearly someone entirely other. The day for me was all about being part of that tremendous crowd who felt that America was being taken back, repossessed, by the people who have felt so disenfranchised all this time. Their presence, and the fact that they had traveled so far to be there, was not just a personal desire but also a statement to the world that there actually is another American spirit, and it's still alive.
We were quite close -- in front of the reflecting pool, close enough to see the people speaking at the podium but not to identify them, and able to look back and see the throngs on the Mall - absolutely astounding. I went back and forth between watching the real thing at the Capitol and watching the television screen.
And man, it was cold! And what a long walk it was back home - I am aching - we walked all the way back from the Capitol to Arlington, across the Potomac past the Pentagon because the crowds were so huge
and the buses so non-functional. Getting there, and getting through security, was pretty easy.
But as for processing the day further, understanding my own feelings, and writing something deeper -- that is going to have to wait a day or two.J. took a great many pictures and we'll be posting the best of them on a linked website soon. Tomorrow we travel back home, so look for something here on Thursday.
I can tell you this: today I was very proud to be American.
We arrived back in Montreal around 9:00 pm last night - it was a long drive but easier coming up I-95 and I-87 than the trek down through Connecticut and lower New York. I wrote in the car through the Adirondacks, trying to outline an essay which we decided to send to the Montreal Gazette along with a portfolio of photographs. If they don't take it tomorrow, then of course we'll publish it here; otherwise there will be a link.
I had hoped to edit some videos I shot, but didn't get to it today; I spent the whole day trying to write the essay I'd started in the car, encapsulating the experience, and I only think it's partially successful. Maybe a fresh eye in the morning will help.
Thanks for all the comments; I appreciate your reading and everything you've added, and am sorry I haven't been able to respond individually as I usually try to do. Back to normal blogging soon!
REFLECTIONS ON THE INAUGURATION
Tuesday morning, we left Alexandria, Virginia at 7:30 am and took a bus – the only allowed road traffic on the highways and bridges - into Washington. The driver let us off at 14th and C. Walking with a gathering multitude -- families and friends holding onto each other’s coats to avoid being separated, elderly people, some clearly very poor, wrapped in blankets; disabled people in wheelchairs decorated with flags and Obama paraphernalia -- we made our way to the Mall and the security checkpoint, where we were scanned, patted down apologetically, and waved through by cheerful officers.
For the next couple of hours, Jonathan took photographs from a vantage point on one of the huge stands that held an array of loudspeakers. People with cameras approached his coveted perch and asked if they could switch with him for a few minutes, or if he’d take a photo of them with the flag-draped Capitol behind them. I helped one elderly black gentleman climb up the slippery metal, and held his feet while he snapped a few photographs. Back on the frozen ground, he thanked me, and said he was from New York City. “That’s my grandson,” he told me, gesturing proudly toward a boy who stood near us. “I’m going to be 80 this year – the same age as Dr. King.”
“Did you march with him?” I asked.
“I certainly did.”
“He’d be happy today,” I said.
He nodded gravely: “That he would.”
On the huge video monitors on the edges of the Mall, members of a children's choir recited bits of American poetry. One of them spoke the words of Emma Lazarus’s poem engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free...”
That’s who we are today, I thought. Tired, many of us poor, and all of us yearning to breathe free. I looked around and smiled: but if we’re huddled, it’s only against the cold. The people thronging the Mall were not giddy, as on the night of the election. Now they waited patiently, with a certain soberness – the daunting reality facing the new president had sunk in over the intervening weeks - but there was definitely joy, anticipation, and a sense of shared witness and shared pilgrimage: the constant question was "where are you from?" and the answer, "Los Angeles," "Iowa," "Memphis," was often followed by the words, "I just had to be here."
Near me, a burly first aid worker knelt in front of an elderly woman in a wheelchair and massaged her frigid feet before putting thermal packs in her shoes. "Is that better, dear?" I heard him ask. The choir began singing "Amazing Grace," and a lot of the people around me joined in. I did too, and suddenly found myself wiping my eyes.
The crowd was patient, but they were alert and reactive. When Ted Kennedy appeared on the TV screens, everyone cheered. Senator Joe Lieberman was hissed. John McCain and the past presidents, including George Bush, Sr., were greeted with polite applause. The biggest cheers of the day, other than those for the Obamas, were for Bill Clinton. But when George Bush, Jr. and Dick Cheney made their entrances, loud boos swept the Mall – unreported by the television media, but certainly heard by everyone on the podium. The lack of reporting about the size of demonstrations, and the depth of American dissatisfaction and dissent, had been among the most frustrating facts of the past eight years, while the administration’s appearances in front of dwindling audiences were carefully-orchestrated and televised. On this day, however, that dissatisfaction was going to be heard.
So, too, was the crowd’s overflowing joy. When the caravan of Secret Service vans and Obama’s limousine drew into sight, cheers rippled all along Pennsylvania Avenue up to the Capitol, and people ran forward to try to catch a glimpse. The cheers for the Obama children, the new First Lady, and the President-elect were deafening.
But everyone was riveted during the oath of office. Afterwards, the young black woman in front of me turned to her companion, tears running down her cheeks, crying, “At last! Finally I can say President Obama!” We all turned and hugged our neighbours, crying and laughing in relief, happiness, and incredulity: the country had its first black President - a man who was about to pledge to turn the country around.
During the President’s address the crowd listened attentively. The comments near me were soft: “He’s got a good heart;” a few “Amen, brother”s; a surprised “He’s really giving it to him!” when Obama repudiated the past administration’s policies. The speech signalled a clear break with the past; the difficulty of the task ahead; the need for all of us to contribute; and the desire to extend America’s hands in friendship and peace toward the world. “For all his oratorical skills, I think Obama ultimately wants to be known as a doer, not a speaker,” reflected one observer afterwards. The new President's inaugural address – simple and direct, without many rhetorical flourishes, would seem to back that up.
There was no question about the historical significance of the day in the struggle for racial equality, and the high number of gay and lesbian couples, people of other ethnic groups, Native Americans, and women in the crowd indicated how much this milestone meant to other minorities. But it was also the end of eight devastating years. The moment when Bush's helicopter lifted off and the cry went up from all those throats was something I'll never forget. It wasn't until later that I realized, bizarrely, that it had reminded me of that endlessly-replayed moment of toppling the statue of Saddam Hussein. In that case, still photographs later revealed that what had looked like an enormous crowd had actually been a staged event. But on Tuesday, the jubilation and relief couldn’t have been more real. As the departing helicopter flew down the length of the National Mall, millions and millions of people cheered, jeered, danced, sang, and raised their arms wide in a universal gesture of freedom. This president who, with his colleagues, had betrayed America’s core values at home and abroad, was finally leaving and we, the people, had replaced him with someone who felt like one of us. Everywhere, the same phrase was repeated, "Finally -- I can breathe again! I can breathe!"
The crush of people leaving the Mall and trying to get home or to the parade route was even greater than in the morning. The buses back to Alexandria weren’t running yet at all, so we decided to walk. Somewhere on the bridge over the icy, wide Potomac we walked for a while with an older black man. He limped and carried a cane, and told us he was a cab driver. “I mean no disrespect,” he said, “but I am glad to see these men gone. They’ve done so much damage; I really feel they should go to jail for what they’ve done.” His gentle voice deepened: “They did it for their own profit... and were arrogant about it, while ordinary people lost everything, including their hope.”
It was a long drive back to Montreal. About halfway up, outside New York City, we stopped at a highway service area. In the large fluorescent-lit restroom, hung with warning signs like ‘Ladies, Watch your Pocketbooks!”, and “All Employees Must Wash Hands!” a middle-aged black woman, stooped beyond her years, shuffled across the floor, sweeping bits of paper into a long-handled dustpan. I went out and approached one of the fast-food counters, where another woman, only twenty or so, stood waiting for customers. “Could you make a latte that’s half regular and half decaf?” I asked.
“No,” she replied, in the defeated low voice I’ve sadly heard in poor black workers all my life. “We can’t do that.”
“I’ll have a tea then,” I said. “Small is fine.” My chest constricted as she turned away to fill my order. I wanted so badly to give her some of what I'd received, and had no idea how.
“That’ll be a dollar-thirty” she said.
I pulled out a bill and the change and handed it to her. “I’m on my way back from Washington,” I tried, the words tumbling out into the space between us. “From the inauguration yesterday.” She looked at me, startled, the recognition dawning that I was trying to tell her something. I met her eyes and said, “It was a wonderful day.”
Slowly, shyly, she broke into a broad smile. “Yes,” she said, finally, but in a much stronger voice, “Yesterday was a really good day.”
“For all of us, I hope,” I said firmly.
She handed me the tea across the counter, and for a moment we locked eyes.
“Thanks very much,” I said, nodding, and turned to go, my eyes suddenly brimming with tears.
A letter to Teju Cole:
Well, the euphoria is behind us and the hard work just beginning. I’m sorry you weren’t able to be in Washington, to experience the crowd and to feel more American than you’d probably admit to. On the other hand, I suspect you would have felt a part of yourself standing to the side, as I did. I didn’t find the inauguration as moving as election night, nor did I share the intense catharsis so many people there seemed to feel. I guess I was aware of something else out there, outside the security fences ringing the Mall, kept at bay for that one day but still malevolently present on the periphery. Here we were, a crowd of tree-huggers and children of slaves, old draft dodgers and peaceniks, and the poorest of the poor – a mob of outcasts and sinners for sure – who for this day had been passed graciously through the gates to stand as witnesses on the frozen turf of this symbolic home-ground of democracy.
And yet the memory returned, of another frigid day, not long ago in New York, when we were herded into pens rather than being allowed to march in protest of the soon-to-be Iraq War, controlled by mounted police, snipers on the rooftops and helicopters overhead. And how many others in that inauguration throng had marched in Selma, or endured the dogs and water cannons and rat-infested jails – those lucky ones who didn’t suffer worse? During Vietnam our photos had been taken, our names put on lists, our passive bodies carried out of college administration buildings.
The forces that held the hoses and threw the tear gas canisters and shot the students have not, by any stretch of liberal imagining, vanished just because someone who seems familiar and sympathetic has taken over the chief office of the land.
This is no time to be naive.
After the election, Teju, you wrote that to you “there's nothing sadder than what Jesus called ‘white-washed sepulchres.’ You wondered about the “psychic weight of the more than 600,000 people we've sent to an early grave in Iraq,” and the plight not just of the middle class, but of the truly poor. I wonder too.
I wondered about it on this trip as we drove past some of New York’s high-security prisons, part of a system that now houses 1 in every 100 male Americans – and 1 in 8 of all black Americans. What kind of karma is being generated not only by Guantanamo, but by our own domestic prison worlds behind the razorwire and moats? Or in the military hospitals where returning veterans who’ve lost limbs, spouses, and sanity languish, mostly forgotten by fans singing God Bless America during the seventh-inning stretch? I also think about the fact that in my 56 years of privileged white life I've only had two close friends who were black - you and one other - and the unspoken fact that some white Washington-area residents stayed away from the inauguration simply because they were afraid.
But the flags, the bands, the banner-strewn facades, the pat phrases about American exceptionalism – my God, I’m sick to death of nationalism! Ultimately, the rhetoric has to change past those things “every senior politician has to say,” as the media puts it. Maybe there’s a chance it will. Maybe one day there will even be room for some humility, some remorse, some redemption.
(click for large view)
Walking home from the inauguration on the eerily-empty highway, we ended up walking right through the deserted parking lot of the Pentagon, past the Pentagon Memorial on the side where the plane hit, and finally up the hill past Arlington National Cemetery. From the rise there, crowned by the new Air Force memorial, you see an ironic panorama: the rows and rows of white military grave markers on the left, the fortress-like Pentagon of the generals and admirals on the right, and in-between, a gleaming white phallic symbol.
The problem is that I’ve seen too much in my lifetime, and it’s broken down my idealism...not into cynicism, which is like death, but into realism about both human nature and political cycles. Our capacity for greed and violence is as boundless as our capacity for love, and I sometimes see those being the two weights in blind Justice’s balance. We fall in love, and out of love; the scales swing one way and then the other. Incrementally, society has become somewhat more humane over history but for every step toward freedom, liberty, equality and compassion there are opposing forces willing to fight to the death to hold onto the status quo.
The day after Obama’s election, we received quite a few emails from friends saying, in different ways, “you can come back now.” I understood where that was coming from, and appreciated the sentiment, but we didn’t leave our birthplace because of one man, but because of the pervasive values and choices of a society. The ascendancy of another, far better man isn’t going to make us abandon our new home in this gentler, more self-reflective place where we feel able to be citizens of the world and not merely of one nation, even though I am and always will be American, and want to do my part. I fervently hope his keen intelligence and deep convictions about right and wrong will be able to withstand the battering he’ll begin to receive from those hell-bent to resist change. The look on his face, as he came down that corridor toward the sunlight and the waiting crowd on Tuesday, is for me the most haunting image from the day. He gets it, but do we?