Today’s Daily Stoic writing prompt: How can I rekindle my principles and start living today?
“To heal, we most remember.” — Joe Biden, January 19, 2021, at the lighting of the memorial for the victims of COVID-19.
It was just a one-minute clip. In the early twilight, these words from the President-Elect from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the wave of 400 lights illuminating along the reflecting pool between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, and the sound of a tolling bell. But it was enough to break through the thudding numbness of the past four years, but especially of the past year, and evoke the tears that stubbornly would not flow before. This was the missing grace in ceremony we have been bereft of these last years.
Those 400 lights stood for over 400,000 who have lost their lives to COVID-19 in the United States, but make no mistake, they stood for more than that. The reflecting pool is sacred ground in Washington, part of the Mall that stretches out from the Capitol, to the Washington Monument, to the Lincoln Memorial. There is no more meaningful ground. This is the same space where Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have A Dream” speech to 250,000 civil rights marchers in 1963. But it was hard to forget the events of two weeks ago, the assault on the Capitol building now shimmering silently at the other end of the Mall, and that was surely intentional as well–because America’s wounds are more complex and deep, and the healing needed is not just from a deadly virus, but from the chronic conditions made manifest in the past few weeks (and months). This, I believe, was wholly intentional, as was the fact that it was Biden and Harris, not yet installed in their new offices, who claimed this space and filled the vacuum of silence regarding the losses. It is hard to believe that simply showing empathy and caring about the impacts of a deadly pandemic would be a political statement, but (to use that now-trite phrase) here we are. The outgoing administration was given every chance to unite the nation against a mutual threat that knows no partisan boundaries, and they did not. The outgoing administration was given the opportunity to express compassion and sorrow, but to that administration, mourning is a sign of weakness and failure.
I watched the preludes to the inauguration ceremonies starting at around 10 am. I put on my pearls as I did on Election Day as a tribute to Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who I wish could have been there to swear in Kamala Harris, to whom pearls have their own significance–although Sonia Sotomayer was nearly as worthy.) I kept on as well the eight-pointed star with the garnet drop, my own symbol of resilience and resolution, that I had put on on the evening of January 6 (listening to the Shostakovich 8th symphony, the work that evoked it). And I wore, for the first time since before the pandemic, a sweatshirt I purchased at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum right there, steps from the Capitol, reading “Failure Is Not An Option”, along with the flight patch of Apollo 13.
I watched the limousines carrying the President- and Vice President-Elect through empty streets lined with barbed-wire topped barricades, past those very grounds where a coup had so recently been dared, yet the sun shined, and thousands of American flags stood in for those who could not be there, as much because of the pandemic as because of the violence. I remembered walking those very grounds myself–once, as a wide-eyed junior high school student; a few years later, as a high school student, and then, as an adult, in 2016. I watched the limousines pull up to the east side of the Capitol, where Biden and his wife, and Harris and her husband, stood at the bottom of the stairs and walked up, four abreast, honour guards lining the sides, and I had just the faintest flutter of concern, as to how I should recall this if something went wrong in the ceremony. I later watched as the various guests emerged through the halls of the Capitol–down stairs so recently stormed, through the wide galleries so recently desecrated, past statues where insurrectionists had posed for selfies, but yet, I also remembered walking these halls myself. These passages are familiar. I saw places where I had stood–once, twice, thrice. And someday soon, I hope, others will be able to stand there again, and to know and feel the beating heart of a nation.
As the scene coalesced on the west porch of the Capitol, a CNN commentator, mentioning Biden’s own career, noted one of his earlier quotes: “Failure is inevitable. Giving up is unforgiveable.”
It was a fairly straightforward ceremony, although with flashes of artistic passion. Lady Gaga wore a dramatic dress with a full skirt and a large gold bird pin that kept making me think “Mockingjay”, and while she had a few dramatic gestures in her singing of the national anthem, her voice was strong and gorgeous, with a few modulations but no melisma. Jennifer Lopez sang “This Land Is Your Land” (which, as many may know, was a Woody Guthrie protest song) and “America the Beautiful”–and broke into Spanish at one point. There was a passionate benediction by Rev. Silvester Beaman (a longtime friend of the Bidens. But Amanda Gorman is who I will remember from this ceremony. The 22-year-old, who had been the US’ first Youth Poet Laureate, had huge shoes to fill as an inaugural poet, but instead of filling them she brought her own shoes and owned them. Her poem, “The Hill We Climb”, was full of internal rhymes, alliteration, assonance, wordplay, a couple of Hamilton allusions, and a strong sense of cadence and rhythm. I am feeling some particular kinship with Gorman as she had one of the same speech impediments–problems with saying the letter “r”–as I did, but she (like Joe Biden and his stutter) has clearly conquered it. There were so many special lines in Gorman’s poem, but I will cite its conclusion: “There is always light, if only we are brave enough to see it, if only we are brave enough to be it.”
Biden’s speech itself was strong and steady. It singled out the US’ challenges–the pandemic, racial injustice, climate change–but also strongly condemned the turn away from facts. “Democracy has prevailed,” he said, calling for unity in dealing with these issues. “I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy these days. I know the forces that divide us are deep and they are real, but I also know they are not new. Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we’re all created equal and the harsh, ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, demonization have long torn us apart.” He also addressed the US’ place on the world stage, saying “We will lead not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.” And he included a moment of silence to those lost to the pandemic. And, speaking to the message I wore on my sweatshirt: ” And we must meet this moment as the United States of America. If we do that, I guarantee you we will not fail. We have never, ever, ever, ever failed in America when we’ve acted together.” Biden is not the orator Barack Obama is, but his message was strong and heartfelt. He may be a little boring, but frankly, right now, we need a little boring–someone who doesn’t demand the spotlight, but gets the job done.
And so, today feels vastly different than yesterday. The world, it seems is exhaling all at once. There was no violence, not even a whiff of it. The pandemic still rages in the US, but executive orders are now being signed to better coordinate the response and to address the deep economic issues that have only been exacerbated by the crisis. Things will not change immediately. The source of many of those deep wounds has not been removed, but the salt and acid that inflamed them has scuttled off to Mar-a-Lago. I prefer not to speak of him today. He will never change, even if brought to justice. He is incapable of understanding how he could ever possibly be less than perfect–not to mention toxic. The cancer has been excised; far more important to chase down where it has metastasized into American society and may lurk and grow and emerge resurgent.
Instead, I will spend some time this evening with the Shostakovich 7th Symphony. Perhaps, in a way, this is the August 9, 1942 for the United States–in the midst of ongoing crisis–from the virus, from extremists, and from age-old issues–for just one day they found hope, and light, and a future that could lead them through the darker days still to come.