Last week, I felt like I needed a change. I was impatient with my beloved, who says that any time he just likes spending time with me, then cocoons himself in TV, phone, and laptop all at once. Fine, I said, if you just want to spend time with me, we can do it somewhere else and used a bunch of points to book train and hotel to Washington DC, despite his protests. We would take the train down early Sunday morning with minimal luggage, drop our bag at the hotel, and hit the National Mall before the museums even opened. Once it was fait accompli, he got into the spirit of things, researching and making his list of monuments and museums, and deciding that we should get up before the sun on Monday – President’s Day – and catch the Lincoln Memorial in sunrise light.
We enjoyed this trip so much more than previous trips, I’m not sure why. Perhaps because we stayed so close to the mall and didn’t have to take a trip in from a hotel in the middle of nowhere. Perhaps because we didn’t journey far outside the mall, where you are mostly insulated from the reality of commuters and commercialism. We didn’t have a car, so we didn’t need to fuss about parking. We didn’t have a timetable – aside from golden light – so could take our time anywhere we wanted to go.
Yes, we were surrounded by hordes of giggly selfie-taking MAGA wearing teenagers bused in from neighboring states for an infusion of democracy and history, and families with small children who also thought it a good way to spend the weekend. Nowhere was this more apparent than at Air & Space — where we waited in a line that stretched around the building, despite the fact that we were the only ones unaccompanied by a boy-child under 12 — with all its hands-on exhibits that I joyfully put my hands-on, only to remember later that I had forgotten to bring hand sanitizer and had probably been exposed to the flu, colds, measles, and god knows what else. Oh well.
Afterwards we wandered over to the Jefferson Memorial. Under scaffolding, it gazes across the tidal basin at the White House, surrounded by his words about the importance of the government he had given his life to serve. About the ideals that the country’s leadership should serve.
The design of the mall impressed me more this time than previously. It is as if the designing of the Capital, the White House, the Supreme Court, the Washington Memorial, the Jefferson, the Lincoln Memorial is intended to remind those who work there that the work that they do is above them, that they hold a sacred trust on behalf of The People to protect and serve their country. Even marred by the reality of scaffolding and security apparatus, by the parade of food trucks, the low-flying airplanes departing from the nearby airport regularly and loudly, these monuments to Democracy stand.
And we could not help but wonder how anyone who had taken an oath of office could not help but be inspired by it all to think beyond themselves, to remember the history, to uphold the intentions of the founders.
And yet they do. Every day. They put self and party first, beholden to their donors instead of to the people, they make decisions that would have the founders spinning in their graves.
Punctuating the grandeur and majesty of the Washington and the Lincoln are the war memorials, Grant and WWII but especially Vietnam and Korea, with their reflective walls, their tributes not to the great but to the many, the ordinary people who gave everything they had in service to a country where they lived, and to leaders that they had never met, for causes that they mostly didn’t understand. The polished surfaces reflecting the Washington Monument as if to say, we gave our lives because we believed in the promise that this symbolizes. Of a government for the people, by the people, not about one man rules.
We spent over an hour in the early morning sunrise light photographing the Lincoln Memorial and the reflecting pool, then approached and climbed the steps. Walking into the temple and gazing up at Lincoln, I was overcome with sadness, as many have told me that they have been. My husband, immersed in photographic angles, the light, felt it more when he read the words of the Gettysburg address and the second inaugural. A sense of loss, not just for Lincoln himself, but for presidents who speak so eloquently about the people and the importance of the democratic institution.
Later we visited the MLK memorial. The simplicity of it, of his emergence – in a suit, nonetheless – from the stone to gaze out over the tidal basin. Most of the monuments and memorials reflect or gaze at the Washington Memorial – perhaps in a nod to the fact that the first president stepped down after his term, of his own volition, something that seems monumental in today’s atmosphere and the fears of a president who does what he can because his party is so venal that they refuse to stop him. But the MLK has its back to the mall and his eyes are averted from the Jefferson Memorial across the water. I took comfort from the quotes engraved around him: darkness can never drive out darkness, only light can do that; right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant. These quotes, from a man to whom history had given no other reason to hope and believe, than faith, give me hope that our country can find its way back to where we were before this recent detour which shames us and casts us down before those we should be a beacon to.
Darkness can never drive out darkness, only light can do that.
I ask again, how can anyone climb the steps of the capital or the supreme court every day, surrounded by such history, and not find their hearts uplifted to serve a higher cause than their donors and party?
How have our congressional representatives, our supreme court justices, the presidency fallen so far?
We own this. This is our government. To keep it, we must vote, not make excuses about how this candidate or that isn’t perfect – none of them are perfect – or how checked out we are, or how we don’t like to make choices, or how we are too busy, but to protect and exercise our right to vote. To remind our Congressional Representatives that we are watching and listening, and that they must do the right thing, not for those who donate to their campaigns, but to those they serve and represent. To the We.
We the people.