Sunday, February 8, 2009
The Joshua Generation
Well folks, it's been awhile. I decided that if I have time for Facebook, I have time for blogger, and it's likely a better use of time and energy anyway.
Today I'd like to tell you a little about our whirlwind three-day trip to Washington, DC for President Obama's Inauguration. As many of you know, I was a reluctant participant in that event because it involved repeating the cross country travel extravaganza that turned so disastrous over Christmas. (But I got a $200 travel voucher from Southwest Airlines after I wrote them a Dear John letter which the customer relations personnel found "entertaining to say the least." More on that later) Rachel and I booked our travel on November 6th, before everyone else had the same idea. We also booked a return flight on Tuesday at 6 pm and then in the proceeding months we realized just how difficult it would be to move from the Mall to BWI by 4 pm. After many phone calls to United and Expedia, we learned that if we canceled or changed our flight it would cost us about $400 so we just decided to go and hope for the best.
We arrived, without incident, into Arlington at 11 pm on Saturday night. Eileen and John kindly picked us up from the airport and then we drove around the monuments and the Mall to check out the pre-Inaugural scene. I remembered just how beautiful DC is, especially on a clear winter night (from a car or other warm space). The creamy monuments contrast against a black sky to create an austere city, which on that night was electrified with parties and planning. We drove by the Canadian Embassy, whose columns had three large banners flapping in the wind: "Congratulations. Barack. Obama." I'm pretty sure I did not see any such salute for Bush's first or second Inauguration. There were flags everywhere, and toilets. People, I have never seen so many port-a-pottys in all my life. There was no need for fences or barricades--there was a small army of green, plastic, 8-foot structures preventing access to critical points of the Mall.
As soon as we got in the car I was so glad we made the trip. After a most wonderful meal (which, true to form at E and J's lasted until 3 a.m.) we went to bed, where we were serenaded by the celebratory cheers of the Adams Morgan revelers. The next morning we went to All Souls Unitarian Church on 16th Street for a celebration of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, JR. The previous week I'd seen President Obama on George Stephanopoulos's show, and he mentioned wanting to find a new church community. I immediately thought of All Souls, though I'm sure the President would be ridiculed for attending a Unitarian church. All Souls is one of very few churches I've known that is not part of the "most segregated hour in America;" its members represent every hue, every fashion persuasion, every generation, and its pastors match that diversity. The best thing about the church, other that its commitment to social justice and creating a safe spiritual haven for all people, is its fabulous choir. I never left that church without feeling moved to tears by the choir, which often sings old gospel songs like "Wade in the Water" and "Motherless Child," so I knew I was in for a stirring hour and a half in the pew.
The church was filled to capacity, and a few people sat on the floor or stood in the aisles. The choir opened with a South African freedom song, "Siyahamba" as they danced their way to the front. The pastors were dancing, as were the congregants, and the energy and enthusiasm were palpable. On the eve of Martin Luther King day, we were also celebrating the achievement of Barack Obama, in a room full of people who never thought they'd live to see it. The pastor welcomed the congregation, and at first mention of the historic day awaiting us on Tuesday, the congregation erupted in cheers and stood. Words fail to describe the joy and the importance of the occasion. I spent most of it in tears, watching the the tiny octogenarian in front of me nod and clap and sing in her purple suit and matching church hat.
The pastor chose a celebratory but cautionary story from the Old Testament, in which God takes Moses to the mountaintop to show him the Promised Land he will never enter. The pastor, like so many of the congregants, felt doomed to linger on that last page of Deuteronomy, in which the Promised Land has been spotted but not yet entered. This year, the pastor felt like turning the page. In the first chapter of Joshua, the people enter the Promised Land, but they do not kick up their heels and relax, having arrived. Instead they continue on in their labors, and this is what was asked of us--that we not see President Obama's election as cause for rest but instead find a way to keep working toward a better life for all people. The hard work lies ahead, the work that requires standing shoulder to shoulder, taking up a cause that is not necessarily one's own except by virtue of membership in the human race. The pastor likened us to the Joshua Generation; we've crossed over, but the work is not finished and history will wait to see what we do after the crossing. The service included several beautiful songs, including "MLK" (by U2) and "Lift Every Voice and Sing" and many moments pregnant with joy and celebration in addition to a few that were devoted to remembering the people who worked toward, but did not live to see, the election of an African American President.
After church I took the Metro to Union Station to meet Maurice for lunch. I have never seen Union Station so crowded, and I've never seen so many ways to sell one man's image. In about ten minutes, I saw Barack Obama's name or face on the following items: charcoal drawings, quilted purses, afghans, flip flops, magnets, key chains, lanyards, shot glasses, beer glasses, sweatshirts, t-shirts, jean jackets, posters, photographs, plastic dolls, fans, postcards, pins, pens, books, and flags. It was bizarre. And people couldn't get enough of it. There were crowds around every kiosk selling this stuff. Additionally, Pepsi had decked the halls with signs that said "Oh Boy!" and "hope, hope, hope" on which the letter "o" was replaced with its logo. I tried to navigate my way through the station without hitting any bewildered tourists, and without disrupting the Latino Inaugural Ball, for which there was a 20-person band playing.
On Sunday night we had some friends over for dinner, and then watched a little bit of the concert on the Mall (which we did not attend because we figured standing still in the frigid air with hundreds of thousands of strangers is something that really only needs to happen once). When Obama spoke we all ran into the living room and sat in perfect silence listening. I snapped a photo which failed to capture the moment, but it was one I won't forget because it reminded me of old movies that take place during war times, and you see the whole family gathered around those old radios (and usually the mom is knitting or mending socks)...On Monday we tooled around the city some more, and happened upon a large balloon George Bush at which we were invited to throw one of the hundreds of shoes that were scattered in front of him. A band was playing, and people were thrilled to give George his well-earned goodbye party. We went to Buffalo Billiards, where we enjoyed some overpriced adult beverages, and socialized with (read: took photos of) the original "Rednecks for Obama" who gave us some free bumper stickers.
On Tuesday we awoke at 6 a.m. and scurried to assemble our supplies for the day which included: toilet paper and hand sanitizer, fruit, water, energy bars, Julia's Empanadas, instant hand and toe warmers, and foot-sized cardboard pieces to stand on. We each had on at least four layers of clothing, and each carried a supply pack and a camera. We actually left the house by 7 which was nothing short of a miracle, and we headed down Columbia Road toward Connecticut. While we walked in Adams Morgan, we saw a few others walking with a purposeful stride, but as we approached Dupont Circle, we saw more and more people headed toward the Mall. By the time we reached Farragut Square, we were absorbed into a mass of people all walking the same direction, taking over one of the largest streets in DC, and surrounded by police. Eventually we were barricaded into the route to the Mall by string of Metro buses that blocked every intersection and corralled us all into a crowd that seemed to have its own irreversible momentum.
We walked toward the Capitol until we could not move any further, which placed us fairly close to the Smithsonian Castle. It was about 8 am. It occurred to us that we were going to be very bored for the next three and a half hours. Luckily the Inaugural Committee had the brilliant idea to replay the free concert on the jumbotrons, so at least we had something to look at besides the shoulders of the person in front of us. After about two hours in the 17-degree weather, I felt completely frozen. I could no longer feel my feet, and no cardboard or instant toe warmers could reverse the process. After the concert we watched the procession of who's who (and who's that?) and Marcus provided us with many laughs by loudly shouting "Hey, there's that guy!" whenever someone unfamiliar appeared on the monitor. As time passed, my personal space decreased, and this discomfort failed to at least provide me with additional warmth. However, it did provide an exemplar of a crowd on its best behavior, and that was nice to see. I expected people to fight and get territorial, but I saw none of this.
The crowd was increasingly vocal as the bigger political celebrities were paraded out to the stands. Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter got big cheers, as did the Clintons. Former President Bush was neither booed nor welcomed. But oh, when President Bush was sighted, the crowd began singing "Nah Nah Nah Nah, Hey Hey Hey, Goodbye!" and I'll admit, I felt kind of bad for the man. This was of course, followed by the Michelle, Sasha, and Malia sightings, over which the crowd went wild! But when we first glimpsed P-E Obama, the crowd erupted in screams and a flurry of cell phone photographs. The woman behind me said she thought she might faint and I got ready to absorb her impact. She pulled through, but cried softly and kept repeating "I never thought I'd see this day."
I'll never forget the screams of the crowd and the sheer enthusiasm expressed by people willing to stand still in frigid temperatures to watch something they could have seen better at home on television. I felt so fortunate to be able to participate in such a momentous national occasion, and it's a moment that will sustain me when my faith in our country is shaken again, which will undoubtedly happen. Barack Obama is just a man, and he is a politician. He is not a miracle worker, or a god, or a saint. But he managed to make people believe in their government and in the power of democracy. He stirred something in our collective unconscious that motivated us to vote, to campaign, to watch debates, to stand in the freezing cold to wave signs and register voters, and to witness a moment in our nation's history, together. His election makes me hopeful that the next time I venture beyond our borders I won't find myself apologizing for being American.
I hope we will work shoulder to shoulder from this moment forward. I hope we can capitalize on our momentum and do great things. I hope.