Wednesday, April 4, 2012


It’s early morning – just light -- and I’m running toward the United States Capitol.  Atop the famous dome, the bronze Statue of Freedom is standing, dressed in her flowing robes, the fiery orange sky her backdrop.  The temperature is a perfect 65 and a flock of urban birds, maybe pigeons, cough and croak from the bare naked limbs that lean over the sidewalk.  This is my last day in D.C. and I’ve caught a bug that I can’t seem to shake – sentimental, sappy, idealistic patriotism.
I got here a couple of days ago, in a haze of jet lag, and have been breathing the charged Washington air ever since.  Yesterday, we walked by the Capitol on our way to the Senate offices and were stopped by armed policemen guarding the crosswalk.  They weren’t letting anyone walk along the north side of the building.  At that moment, we didn’t want to ask questions, but later we heard that an incoming motorcade had caused the ruckus.  Maybe it was Obama or the Russian Prime Minister or an Emir from a Middle Eastern nation.  In D.C., unlike where I live, that’s actually possible.  Heck, it’s even likely, considering the President lives about a half mile down the street.
This morning, those blockades have been removed, and I jog undeterred by the Capitol, but Secret Service personnel guard the massive front steps and permanent fences prevent unauthorized access to the inner sanctum.  I was here years ago, when I was a young and passionate environmentalist doing God’s work, and my group was able to wander, unfettered, through the Rotunda and out onto the balconies between visits to lobby our senators and congressman.  By the looks of things today, if you’ve got business here, you go in through the back door or a side entrance and everyone else stays outside looking up at the dome.
The sun is starting to peek over the low lying scud and I turn west so that it’s behind me.  I skirt the reflecting pool, then start down the mall.  It’s spring and two-and-a-half miles of green grass stretch before me.  The Smithsonian Museums of the American Indian, American History, Air and Space, Natural History, and Art line up on both sides of the mall, shrines to our nation’s best.  Inside these buildings are artifacts, art, and archeological remnants that represent what we want to remember about our history, what we wish we were today, what we hope will inspire us to do better, be better.  Yesterday, in the Library of Congress, I set my eyes on a rough draft of the Declaration of Independence.  It was written by Thomas Jefferson in long hand, with words marked out, alternate statements penned in above, and notes in the margins.  The paper was crispy with age and the ink faded, but even from my side of the glass case I could read it.  “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for [scratch, scratch] one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…”  Some who read this document may see contradictions between the written words and the actions of the authors, or may infer ignoble motives.  But, at least for these few days in D.C., I choose to attach honorable intent to the text – there will be plenty of time later to revert to cynicism.
At the crosswalk, the street light turns red and I pull up short.  Traffic blows by as the signal counts down from 60 seconds.  The wait gives other morning runners a chance to catch up with me and by the time we get the white light to go, there’s a small entourage of us that launches off across the street.  None of us are looking at our feet, instead, we stare up at the needle that is the Washington Monument.  Here, leafless Sakura cherry trees extend their arms, as if offering to us passersby their masses of rosy petaled blossoms.
MLK, Jr. delivers I Have a Dream from
the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963
I listen to the sound of my soles striking the concrete sidewalk, in time with my inhalations and exhalations.  I run alongside the reflecting pond toward a monument at the water’s far west end.  As I get closer, a shape takes form in the shadows behind colossal columns: a head, shoulders, arms.  President Lincoln is sitting on a throne, ensconced in his white open-air palace.  Breathing hard, I jog up the stairs, approach the Great Emancipator, and try to make eye contact, but he’s gazing over my head.  I turn around to see what he’s looking at:  the still pool, the Washington Monument, the future, the past.  Forty-nine years ago Martin Luther King, Jr. stood right here and took in this same view while he delivered his I Have a Dream speech, exhorting thousands of on-lookers to keep the faith, to fight for justice and equality, and somehow, in the process, avoid turning to bitterness and hatred.  Introspective, I turn back towards Capitol Hill and I wonder if I have it in me to rise to that decade’s old challenge. 

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