My gaze travels up the length of the slim white obelisk penetrating the blue sky. Bright, fluttering flags ring the monument. A glorious day in my nation’s capital, a nation in which I haven’t resided for over four decades. Is this patriotism that I’m feeling? This mix of nostalgia and pride? I last visited Washington, D.C. many years ago. Today I feel like I’m seeing it for the first time, perhaps because I’m seeing it through the eyes of my son. I’m with thirty-eight- year-old, Nico, born and raised in Chile, and, Laura, his American girlfriend, as he first beholds this pulsing heart of the capital – its monuments, the National Mall, the Reflecting Pool, the round-domed Capitol and the recently inaugurated African-American Museum. The flags and monuments and museums tell the stories of this nation – its founding, growing pains, tragedies, errors and triumphs. They evoke in me the idea of my country.
As if a preface to visiting the nation’s capitol, the passing landscape while driving from New York City to Washington, D.C sparks talk of random bits of American history and geography. The freeway doesn’t allow much of a view of Philadelphia. But then – “Look over there!” I say. “Isn’t that the tower of Independence Hall? ” Even from a distance, I identify the iconic spire rising above the surrounding buildings.
“Nico, that’s where the Declaration of Independence was signed.” He’s never studied American history. Unexpectedly, I have the opportunity to imbue him with a bit of his heritage.
An overhead freeway sign announces Betsy Ross Blvd.
“Do you know who she was?” I ask.
He doesn’t. I tell the story of the first American flag.
“Do you know what the flag was made of?” he asks.
He has me there.
“Really? How do you know?”
“I read it somewhere.”
Studying for his Master’s degree in New York City has clearly allowed him to absorb more than just what the curriculum offered.
Our chat is peppered with new discoveries along the road.
“What river is that?
“Think it’s the Delaware.”
We decide that the large body of water on our left is Chesapeake Bay.
“This must be Maryland.”
Five states within a few hours. A revelation to my West Coast geographical mindset.
Upon arrival, we head for George Washington University and the closing session of the yearly Peace Corps Connect conference. A featured conversation between journalists Sarah Chayes and Sebastian Junger analyzing the ills of our country troubles us. We leave in a pensive mood.
The following day, our only day for sightseeing, we decide to start at the Capitol and walk that long open vista to the Lincoln Memorial. The Native-American Museum seems a good place to begin, after all, they were here first, and Nico has been reading about the sustainability practices of Native Americans. To our surprise the main exhibit features the cultures of the Inca Trail, which extends the western length of South America from Colombia to central Chile. An uncanny coincidence.
We wander through displays highlighting the accomplishments of the Inca peoples. I admire the rich colors of intricately woven textiles and stop to study the details of the facsimile of an intricate rope bridge used to cross deep canyons. But what catches my attention is the sacred Incan tradition of reciprocity (ayni) manifest in photographs of hillside communal agricultural terraces and marketplace activities. Ayni is the backbone of daily Incan human-to-human interaction, in which there is a mutual flow of giving and receiving. I am struck by how this concept dovetails with the ideas put forth at the conference by the two journalists. I agree with their argument that the alienation of individuals in our society has its roots in our lack of community. They assert that values of cooperation and solidarity struggle to survive in our society where materialism reigns. A deeply unsettling picture.
These momentous concepts percolate in my mind as we continue our stroll along the Mall to visit the National Botanical Garden where the natural world fills our spirits. Then, outside, maps in hand, we identify one imposing museum after another. We peek in the central hall of the Air and Space Museum, but a security guard shouts, “Either go through the security line or get out.” If only we had the time…. Oh, here are the war monuments: World War II, the Korean and Vietnam Wars. My thoughts return to Sebastian Junger’s analysis of returning soldiers’ alienation in our deeply divided modern society, where they are unable to experience the sense of belonging that they lived when in active duty.
Just beyond the Washington Monument rises the bronze-toned Museum of African American History and Culture. Barricades maintain order in the winding lines of opening- day visitors, whose bright faces reflect anticipation and pride. The air vibrates with rock music and dance performances, while savory smells waft from soul food kitchens.
The sun hangs low in the sky as we climb the marble stairs of the Lincoln Memorial to stand before the solemn sculpture of Lincoln and ponder the words of his Second Inaugural Address and Gettysburg Address inscribed on the walls. Again war and injustice are the focus, his words still relevant, still here for thousands to read and reflect upon the injustices caused by slave owners ‘wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s brows…’ From his grand marble chair, Lincoln has a view across the Reflecting Pool to the African American Museum. But his countenance is lined with worry. Does he despair that our nation hasn’t followed his counsel that “a house divided against itself cannot stand….?”