One recent December day, my husband and I witnessed a rare event: a moment of silence on the floor of the United States House of Representatives. It was our first-ever trip to the visitors’ gallery at the Capitol. We were still trying to make sense of what appeared to be a gathering of 435 people engaged in animated speed-dating when the gavel thundered exactly twice and Congressman Earl Blumenauer of Oregon was given the floor. The congressman spoke briefly of the Clackamas Mall shooting, in which two people were killed, three including the gunman, who took his own life. The moment of silence ensued. Then the speed-dating resumed. After a vote on something involving asthma inhalers and quips exchanged with the young intern next to us re Speaker Boehner’s strikingly varnished skin color, we left, assuming, without giving it much thought, that Blumenauer’s mild call for attention to the nightmare of gun violence would go, as per usual, unheeded.
A day and a half later, I attended a poetry reading at a Seattle elementary school where I’d been an apprentice with Seattle Arts & Lectures’ Writers in the Schools program. Parents, grandparents and squirmy younger siblings crowded into the school library to hear the fifth graders read of their passion for the color orange, for football, for horses, dogs, cats, tropical fish, recess, hot chocolate. I listened a bit wistfully, nostalgic for my own days as an elementary school parent. But I left with a smile on my face: how could one not feel hope and happiness after a morning like that?
Then I looked at my phone and saw a news alert bearing a number I thought couldn’t make sense. Must be a typo. 27 dead? At an elementary school?
And so the day unfolded, so very differently than I, than any of us, had thought it would.
Even before our Capitol visit, our east coast trip had been unexpectedly patriotically-themed. It started in New York, when we went to pay our respects at Ground Zero. Before we got to the site itself, we visited tiny St. Paul’s Church, just a few hundred yards away, where a home-made altar covered with flyers and photos of 9-11 victims still stands, right next to what was once George Washington’s private pew. A sign on the pew explained that after 9-11, exhausted search and rescue crews sat there to get their feet massaged.
Something about that layering of history moved us, on our next stop, to visit the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, where we saw for ourselves what millions of other visitors already knew: it’s the jagged crack in the bell that is so compelling. A timeless reminder that democracy is fragile. It’s not an unbreakable, forever joyously clanging bell; sometimes it’s an exhausted New York firefighter whose feet are wrecked.
A few days later in DC, we walked up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. I thought once again of Steven Spielberg’s movie depiction of President Lincoln’s personal evolution on the subject of slavery. Just as our bell-ringing founding fathers were not born revolutionaries, Lincoln did not start his political life as a committed abolitionist. The tragedy of war took him there. As we can only hope the tragedies in Colorado and Oregon and now Connecticut will take President Obama to a place of leadership on gun control; to a new era when one moment of silence on a December day will no longer be considered an adequate response to senseless gun violence.
At the end of his 1865 inaugural address, Lincoln called on the country—“With malice toward none; with charity for all”—to, quote, “do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” Peace among ourselves: in this season when we invoke the word so often, doesn’t the time seem right to do all which may achieve it?
Speaking of the season: check out The Restless Critic’s Christmas movie list, in which he reveals our family’s annual guilty pleasure film.
Our films, The Church on Dauphine Street, 30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle and Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story are now available on Hulu, Amazon and other digital sites.
Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available.
Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.