Saturday, April 30, 2011

It's Your Country

Last week found me wandering around the nation's capital, two small boys in tow, throwing coins into every fountain I came across. As the ceremonial font of all that we aspire to be, Washington, D.C., is replete with fountains: every building and monument is approached over some regal body of water. The better to see you, my dear. Or possibly it was all one big pool of Narcissus, appropriate for the launching pad of Manifest Destiny. Every time I threw a penny or a dime, I wished a different wish. (Covering all my bases.) I discovered I have many wishes; I had thought myself a simple person, a sort of emotional broken record, but it turns out there are many, many different hopes buried within.

Today, one of them actually came true. I wish I could remember which fountain it was that I had used for this particular wish: I would get right back on Amtrak, because there are some more unfulfilled desires I could really use fulfilled about now.

There is something spooky, unsettling, and moving all at once about the seat of our government. It is too clean, for one thing. It is too tasteful, for another. The sense of a showpiece, lavishly painted and pasted thinly on top of a huge ugly mess raked up to hide beneath, is a little disturbing. There are the parterre gardens outside the Smithsonian castle--breathtaking, so European!--and then there are, a short metro ride away, lumpy gray blankets the size of humans scattered under the entryways of commercial buildings. I walked by a guy standing stone-faced outside Chipotle holding up bumper stickers for sale: "Stop Bitching, Start a Revolution," and was on the bus to the Mall before I realized I wanted one. Moreover, I wanted the guts to do what it says. If ever we needed some flintlock muskets and the will to do what's right, it's now. It's going to be too late soon, guys. I'm not talking about dumping fictitious tea into 2011's harbor, either: How DARE they co-opt the symbol of a just revolt against a tyrannical monarchy for their own selfish, imbecilic, racist, capitalistic, wasteful, ruinous ends? It's a mockery of every dead boy left in the frozen mud of the colonies. Don't get me started.

There was a different sort of discomfiture brought on by visiting the new National Museum of the American Indian. Come, let us celebrate the marvelous culture of the people we exterminated! There's an implacable sadness in the pride and beauty of the place. The original Americans exist now in statues and symbolic corn sheafs carved of limestone, and it doesn't bother us all that much. "We are Americans." We are? I'm half Greek and half English/Irish--how about you? Then again, the cafeteria in the basement of the museum is the Mall's best-kept secret, though it was out to several hundred people by the time we stumbled on it, serving what I took to be interpretive native cuisine. My son said, "Put the world's best grilled cheese sandwich next to this one and it will taste like garbage," of the Navajo frybread grilled cheese. It was damn good, but I wondered about how the Navajo might have made cheese. With difficulty, maybe.

Yet there was, pervading it all, a thrill in the air. This belongs to us. This represents us, or at least our higher selves. The unimaginable greatness of so much collected history, art, books. The grand monuments to true democracy--something we could hope for the return of, if only we could overthrow the current government, whose form might best be called corporate dictatorship.

Through a fifty-degree rain we walked, past the ever-moving Vietnam memorial. This complete and potent monument, the foot of which was laid with wet and wilting carnations, the occasional plasticized photograph of smiling boy in fatigues taped over an etched name, achingly sad, shows us ourselves. Literally: we look into the infinite blackness of its polished face, at thousands of names, and we see them printed over the image of our own reflections. We are them. They are us. Down we walk, into the earth, into a grave; then up we go again, out of the earth, away.

Through the rain we continued, to what feels to me the greatest of all that is great in our history. Up the many steps; it is a hard walk up to the Lincoln Memorial, as it should be. It should be work to get here. You should feel it in your bones, muscle. Then there he sits, as big as he was in life. Monumental. This same little boy I'd brought to this same place five or six years ago. Then, I took him by the hand and walked to the side, where what is etched on the walls has never, in the history of words, been exceeded. I started to read to him the Gettysburg Address. I made it as far as "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here--" and there I stopped. The tears were rolling down my cheeks, and something squeezed my throat tight. This time, I did not bother. I read it to myself, and the tears fell inward. Meanwhile, the boys stared up at the gigantic marble man. They took pictures, they laughed, they ran. They were free.


Shybiker said...

It's dangerous to look at formal representations of power when in possession of an independent mind. Your reactions mirror my own.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

I may be a pack animal, but I hope not of a herd mentality. Though maybe I am . . . Anyway, we are supposed to question everything, right? That's how you know you're alive. And that's how you stay free.

Mark said...

Read the Declaration of Independence out loud as they do on NPR each year, and you realize this nation was forged by a group of empowered radicals. Now it's a hallowed document in DC amongst other revered monuments. Have we forgot the significance of all that? Do we practice what we once preached any longer? It seems like you visited a place that represents not what we are, but what we ought to be.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

You hit that nail so hard it'll never come out.


bill g said...

Again, love you work.
Having visited Maya Linn's Viet Nam memorial, have you had a chance to visit her "Wavefield" at Storm King Art Center?

Kevin G. said...
The above link holds an editorial penned by an important Canadian mind and voice, back in 1973.It's pretty self-explanatory.It was celebrated then, exploited and politicized by some. But a very relevant and timely message. So why repeat it today? To induce one massive group hug? Hardly.Rather to offer the opinion that the timeless ideals that the late Mr. Sinclair spoke of - almost 40 years ago - may seem to be pretty distant.But from an outside perspective,often still very much in evidence, south of the border.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Thanks so much for that, Kevin! I had no idea . . . But plenty to chew on. "We matter."

(On a somewhat related note, I recommend the movie "Glory," which I watched again last night. About the 54th Massachusetts, the regiment of black soldiers in the Civil War led by Col. Robert Gould Shaw. They were willing to walk into death for freedom. That's sometimes the price.)

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Bill, it's funny you should mention Storm King--it's the first on the "Go Here!" list I wrote for this summer. I last went before Maya Lin's piece was installed; I can't wait to see it. I take it you have?