A vacation in Washington, D.C., is paradise for me. I know, there are other, more romantic, places in the world to go: Venice, Bali, the Bahamas. But I’m a D.C. fan. Having lived in other countries as a child, I came to appreciate the good old USA at an early age, and I’ve been in love with it ever since.
It’s not what Washington is that means anything to me (the bipartisanship, hypocrisy, corruption). It’s what it stands for, and not what it’s supposed to represent, either, but what it actually does: freedom, justice, well, freedom and justice; there doesn’t have to be more. (I do think I was the only one in the theater who cried during Spielberg’s Amistad. “Who we are is who we were.” Amen.)
So, given my affection for the founding premise of the United States of America, I thoroughly enjoyed my last visit a couple of weeks ago. The sun was out, the temperature warm, and I left my hotel room one day, some six blocks from the National Mall, and walked by myself for nearly five hours. I strolled from the Washington Monument to the U.S. Capitol, all the way back to the Lincoln Memorial, past the Vietnam Wall, on out to Jefferson, and then to the Smithsonian, where I rested and shared lunch, on a bench, in its flower garden, with a squirrel.
Sciurus Carolinensis. Gray squirrel. You’ve seen them; they’re everywhere. In the west, we call them, well, Western Gray Squirrels. They’re about 18-19 inches in length, including their bushy tails, and you see them hanging out in trees in almost every residential neighborhood or municipal park, or crossing the road to get to the other side. Perhaps you know them better by The Audubon Society’s Field Guide to Mammals. “One of the top game animals, this squirrel provides sport and meat for many.”
Hmph. We ate banana and Oreo cookies. The squirrel sat beside my bench, in the grass, in the shade, nibbling. Just when I think I’m alone in all the world, I’m really not. And “who we are is who we were,” so, in Washington, D.C., I’m crowded by the ghosts of our ancestors, predecessors.
“I have sworn upon the altar of Almighty God,” I quietly recalled Jefferson’s sentiment from the dome of his Memorial, “eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” I liked the way that sounded, especially minus the last five words, so I repeated it to myself without them, and gave another cookie piece to my companion.
I know all about Jefferson (he was the basis for a novel I wrote, one about a modern-day Jefferson), so I appreciate the controversy: a slave-owning abolitionist. Someday folks’ll look back on the cats I’ve kept and question my morality, too, who knows?
But, oh, the things we take for granted. The Declaration of Independence. Elections. Voting rights. Individual freedom and expression. I realize we don’t have them fully within our grasp, but we’ve got them more than we don’t. And we have economic power, if we’d only use it. We could do wonderful things if we gave up other things to get there. But most of us want our Pantene so it doesn’t matter what Procter & Gamble has to do to animals in the process to get it.
Instead we complain a lot and do little. And the violence continues. I always say we get what we ask for. And so says slave-turned-Congressional statesman Frederick Douglass: “Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.” In the end, when we do nothing, what we ask for is all we deserve.
A group of French tourists passed, catching my attention. I assumed they were French; though I couldn’t understand a word they were saying, I did grasp their meaning. They had found the most incredibly fantastic thing in Washington: a gray squirrel! Their voices hit a fever pitch; they quietly crowded around us, talking wildly, pointing and picture-taking, kneeling closer, extending hands, coaxing, admiring, and then following the squirrel along the lawn curb as it hopped toward a tree. Even I took a second look. “Ooh-la-la!” they exclaimed, almost in unison, as the squirrel bounded up the trunk. “Ooh-la-la!”
Frederick Douglass, Thomas Jefferson, and Sciurus Carolinensis. Ah, yes, the things we take for granted.
Try to remember where we’ve been, who we’re working for, and then keep fighting the good fight.