My eyes travel to the top of the slim white obelisk penetrating the blue sky. Bright, fluttering flags ring the monument. A glorious day in my nation’s capitol, a nation in which I haven’t resided in over four decades. Is this patriotism that I’m feeling? This mix of nostalgia and pride? It’s been many years since I last visited Washington, D.C. Now I’m with Nico, my 38-year-old son, born and raised in Chile, and his girlfriend, as he sets sight for the first time on these monuments, the National Mall, the Reflecting Pool, the round-domed capitol and the just inaugurated African-American Museum. The flags and monuments and museums tell the stories of a nation – its founding, its growing pains, tragedies, errors and triumphs. They have the power to evoke in me the idea of my country.
As if a preface to visiting the nation’s capitol, bits of American history and geography surface during our drive from New York City to Washington, D.C. The freeway doesn’t allow much of a view of Philadelphia. But then – “Look over there. Isn’t that the tower of Independence Hall? Yes, it is!” Even from a distance, I identify the familiar spire rising above the surrounding buildings.
“Nico, that’s where the Declaration of Independence was signed.”
He hadn’t 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 Betsy Ross was?”
To his negative I explain about 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 has clearly allowed him to absorb more than just what the curriculum offered.
Our chat is peppered with new discoveries.
“What river is that?
“Think it’s the Delaware.”
We decide that the large body of water on our left is the Chesapeake Bay.
“This must be Maryland.”
Five states within a few hours. A revelation to my West Coast geographical mind set.
Upon arrival, we head for George Washington University and the last session of the yearly Peace Corps Connect conference. 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 tells us he has been reading about the sustainability practices of Native Americans. To our amazement the main exhibit explores the cultures of the Inca Trail, which extends the western length of South America through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and central Chile. Serendipity? We wander through displays highlighting the accomplishments of the Inca peoples: a facsimile of an intricate rope bridge used to cross deep canyons, intricately woven textiles and photographs of steep hillside agricultural terraces. But what catches my attention is the sacred Incan tradition of reciprocity (ayni). 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 proposed at the Peace Corps Conference by journalists Sarah Chayes and Sebastian Junger. They make a strong argument that the alienation of individuals in our society has its roots in a lack of community and sense of the common good. Values of cooperation and solidarity struggle to survive in our society where the almighty dollar rules. Not a heartening picture.
These momentous concepts percolate in my mind as we continue our stroll along the Mall to visit to the National Botanical Garden, lamenting we have so little time as we pass by one imposing museum structure after another. We contemplate the war monuments: World War II, the Korean and Vietnam Wars, which again takes my thoughts back to Sebastian Junger’s analysis of returning soldiers’ alienation in our deeply divided modern society which foments a culture of greed and fame.
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. Bright faces reflecting anticipation and pride. The air vibrates with rock music and dance performances, while savory smells waft from soul food kitchens.
In the late afternoon we climb the marble stairs of the Lincoln Memorial to stand before the solemn sculpture of Lincoln and contemplate 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 there for thousands to read and reflect on 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 direct 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: “a house divided against itself cannot stand….?”