I struggled to write about being in Washington this past inaugural week, on the trail of weeks of personal and professional challenges. I wanted to convey the poignancy of being present at the making of history, and also the perspective of my life’s experiences making sense of this place in time and space. The enormity of doing it well so overwhelmed me, I almost did not write at all.
Then my daughter of 13 years, both my reason and inspiration for this enormity, tonight gave me my inroad by sliding in her new dvd, Across the Universe. If you have not seen it, it is a beautifully constructed dramatic musical rendition (thanks to Lennon, McCartney and Harrison) of the 1960s. My first Revolution.
In the year MLKing was assassinated, I was my daughter’s age. In the riots that followed, I became a questioner, a protester, a radical, a revolutionary. As that time drew to a close, and another age entered, I became a grown up and abandoned childish things. I worked, saved, matured, made a career and then another, had a family, got old, returned to school, and just recently lost half of my net worth. A Washingtonian of over 20 years, I have migrated from awed to jaded by my minor witness to our political process.
But I, perhaps like many, realized that what happened here this week, that what happened in our country the past year, is a major demonstration of a change that is now embodied in the American people, culture, and society. Without the revolution I witnessed earlier, some thirty years back, I would not have been standing on the National Mall this week, crying and waving an American flag, and appreciating the weight of my own cultural history.
But I also suspect I would not have been there if our vast lost assets were still in play in various investment accounts. Not me, personally, of course (I wish). But I think it took an economic catastrophe to shake the old foundation, and allow the new growth to move in. Somehow, this past year, I keep revisiting deep loss and re-growth. What a strange and wonderful time I live in.
I want to tell you about the inauguration celebration. It was exhilarating, heart-breaking, exhausting, frustrating, elevating, and memorable is too trite a word. Locally, we were warned for weeks to anticipate record crowds, and then record cold conditions, and then (locally we heard) not so well planned events and programs. Washington, DC , is not a very big city, and has many management shortfalls even under ideal circumstances. The local spin was approaching ominous, suggesting that VA/MD/DC residents stay home and off the roads for Big Day. For weeks, we have been given half-finished transportation and road/bridge closure plans. We were often more confused after a report was released.
Some of my contacts told me that the inauguration promo we received here was different that what the rest of the country received. Certainly, the information about where, when, how to get there, was shrouded in unclarity and appeared either confused or secretive. I appreciate the need for security, but also, I thought that transparency and returning the grounds and process to the People was part of what this was about. I remain ambivalent.
Regardless, I determined very early that I would take Alison to the swearing in ceremony…even from some distant spot on the National Mall. (We were there for the MillionMOm March, and I knew what almost a million felt like on the Mall. But I would come to know what differences the addition of security, secret service, and cold weather could make.) I began to feel like this was Alison’s time. I even held our own home-grown formal party for Alison and her young friends, to dress in their finest and sip sparkling cider, and celebrate themselves.
Although Chris and I opened our humble check books for our president elect, it was the other member of our family who opened her heart to the entire process. Alison is the one of us who canvassed the streets for Obama support, wore her Obama buttons, and wrote the essays to articulate her belief in our system and her candidate. She inspired me, as did all the other young people who worked and believed and who also share in this victory. Yes, they can and they did.
So to be present for History was a natural progression, especially since we live in DC. We decided to test our stamina by venturing to the Inaugural Concert. We were sadly disappointed; after hours of manuevering, we were turned away at the gate. We were so close to the entry we heard the argument between the police and the Secret Service: the police argued there was lots of space inside, the Secret Service trumpted them by saying they thought any more people would be unsafe. Alison cried, and my identity as the most-competent-person-I-know, crumbled. We hung around for the next few hours, since we could not cross the barricade to get home, but could not hear or see anything. I have to get her the DVD; every time I see it, it will humble me.
So, on Tuesday, we woke before dawn. Chris and I got Alison, her friends, and my cousins who were visiting, up and out early. We walked the 4 miles to the Mall. It was 18 degrees out, and the ground was cold. I have never in my entire life, in all my travels, seen so many people move into an area to assemble. The photos you have seen cannot approach the immensity of so many people, and the enormity of the moment.
We waited for many hours, with about 2 million of our closest friends, and then watched the out of sync Jumbotron near us (we were the ones on the north end of the Mall, in front of the American History Museum) as our 44th president took the jumbled oath. In some ways, I realized we were all holding our breath, lest the Secret Service or those snipers over looking us be needed. But some moments are too big for thoughts of safety. We cried. We hugged. We took pictures. We recorded the moment in our emotional memory. and then we waited over an hour to move a block, realizing that we had been fenced in while we wept.
It was clearly about crowd control, and I understand. And mostly, I think they did a good job of balancing security with participation. Though I would not have said that thought while I held my sobbing daughter, shut out from the concert. And I bet those who thought they had vip tickets to the swearing in, but were turned away, feel betrayed. Regardless, there is a greater good, and it comes today with the closure edit for Guantanamo Bay. I am a grown up , and a Washingtonian, and I think I can distinquish between pagentry and policy.
In the aftermath, I have tried to sort out what it all means to me personally. Chris helped me, after watching that film tonight, Across the Universe. Uncharacteristically, he said it is about consciousness evolution. Without the atrocities of Vietnam, American collective consciousness would not have come to challenge authority as we did and continue to do. Without that pivotal moment in our history, we would not have come to Today. Although we did not prevent it, we at least questioned this Iraq war before it even started. Perhaps next time, we won’t have to go to war at all.
Maybe one scene in Across the Universe gives me a deeper visual explanation: soldiers in a Vietnam like delta are doing a group carry to the background song She’s So Heavy (the Beatles). They are carrying the Statue of Liberty.
With enormity of purpose comes enormity of process, including for each of us individually.
Thanks for sharing in my own story.