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Stories of the Inauguration

The Inauguration of any President is an exciting time to be in Washington DC, but to be here for the first moment of the Obama Presidency, the first African-American,  is something else. Almost two million souls, myself included, braved the cold and joined the throngs that crowded buses and trains to surge on to the Mall in such numbers that the officials were totally overwhelmed.

 Washington DC knows something about how to handle crowds, but not this day. It was an unprecedented  beginning, full of great expectations and subtler surprises.

 Beginnings are a narrative hot zone; it’s where there is a special drama and energy. As any novelist knows, that first paragraph or even that first chapter sets up the co-ordinates of the story about to unfold.  So what story have we just entered?  

 Judging by the sentiments of the crowd on the Mall, a new hope is at large in the land. The fact that such an election could ever happen in a country still not totally at peace with its racial past was a compelling sign of a new possibility, a fresh start. Even the foreign press discerned the mood. A well known London journal wrote in its editorial:

'They have willed into existence a reborn nation, closer to their own likeness, their idea of themselves. That energy was manifest on the streets despite the bitter cold and despite the even chillier winds of an economic recession that is biting into the very bones of the American economy. The question to which the world waits to hear an answer is how the unleashed energy of its citizens and their desire to be of service to their country will inspire under his leadership, the recovery that is so desperately needed.' "A Nation Reborn," The Tablet , January 24th 2009, p. 2.

 I was on the Mall standing in the shadow of the Washington monument, surrounded by an enthusiastic crowd that included a young couple with their six year old son whom they were taking turns hoisting on to their shoulders. He had little to say, but throughout the ceremony, Mom and Dad were providing a running commentary. It was only when the lad reached out to grab me, thinking that I was his Dad, that I realized that he was blind. At first, I was amazed that his parents would have brought him here to share a moment he could not see. “Now the Senators are coming through the door, and now here comes the Vice President,” they were saying, setting the scene,” and Wow! there's the new President.” And all the while, Dad, like some Greek Chorus, was echoing in his son’s ear this repeated chant, “Awesome, Noah, this is awesome!”

As I came out of the crowds to make my way home, I was struck by the number of elderly people, some in wheelchairs and more on walkers and canes, shuffling along Constitution Avenue. It was no day for the frail and elderly to be out, but clearly they had to be there. One thought of that biblical scene that described the elderly prophets at the Temple in Jerusalem proclaiming that they could now depart in peace because they had lived to see this day of promise.

 As for the crowd control and the officials who were charged with running the day, one can’t say much because everywhere we went, they were nowhere. Outside the Metro station at Judiciary Square in the early morning, a large sign read, “Exit to Mall” and that is what thousands like me presumed, until some dissatisfied patrons who had been in line since 5 a.m. were turned away. Contrary to the sign, they told us, this was only entry to the Parade Route. At the end of the day, around Union Station, most of which seemed closed off for an Inaugural Ball, the melee of Metro, Marc and Amtrak travelers all trying to get to the one entrance was a crowd disaster waiting to happen, with one lone official using a barely audible loudspeaker, telling people to go left, when he meant, go right. His left was our right.

 If the people we encountered running the day are the same people running the country, we are in big, big trouble. No one knew what was happening, or if they did, no one thought it necessary to tell the crowds anything. Yet, if these crowds are the people who are the country, the salt of its earth, then, we are in amazing shape. Given the provocation of crowds pushing or the panic of Obama supporters entitled with tickets but denied entry, or interstate travelers anxiously waiting unsheltered in the cold for the parade that was an hour late, and then to battle more crowds on the path home, the sense of patience and solidarity  was palpable. Clearly they were not going to let anything or anyone spoil their day, their historic day.

 That was the miracle of the Obama inauguration for me, not the speech, not the poem, and not the prayers, but the simple good will and generous humor of the people with whom I  shared the day. That will be the enduring memory. Later news broadcasts retold the story of a day where no one was arrested, and no one was protesting. As I left, having lucked into seeing the Presidential motorcade drive past at the start of the parade, I kept replaying in my head the words of the father of that little blind boy, ”Awesome, Noah, Awesome!” He was right. You didn’t have to see it, because you could feel it.  And awesome it truly was!

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 If you are in DC, come to the Golden Fleece meeting February 17th and share your own stories of the Inauguration. The details are below:

 Attention all Golden Fleece members and friends!! Join us for a FACE TO FACE meeting on February 17th, 2009 at our old stomping ground 2939 Van Ness Community Room. Lynne Fiengold has graciously agreed to host Stories of the Inauguration hosted by Denise Lee, Madelyn Blair and, back from Australia, Paul Costello!   Come and share your stories from the inauguration, and let's explore together what these stories mean about our country and our world and the challenges we face.   

"Maybe its about the power of a story that is at a beginning, and that coming together to share Inauguration stories is not about politics or party but it is a way of mapping where we feel we are as a community and a country right now and that, at the start of a story, the plot has more possibilities than a story has at its mid point.

 In being curious about the sorts of beginning stories we bring and share, we will then have a chance to step back and ask ourselves 'What do our beginning stories say about where we think we have come from, as to what has ended, and where we think we are headed in the new journey?' Also, in the economic crisis, we realize that as we begin, there are many people dealing with end stories, end of job, end of investment, end of retirement plans etc etc so it is a timely to rethink beginnings and ends

 In addition, we would like to hold a
 Job Share.  If you know of job openings or you need a job please come and bring your resume or information on the job you know
is available.  Let's help our community members in this difficult job market. 
Finally we will share an update on the upcoming International Storytelling Weekend in Washington DC April 16, 17 and 18th. 

Please RSVP to:  

Date:  February 17, 2 009
Time: 6:00 pm
Location:  2939 Van Ness St NW Washington DC -  Community Room

Directions:  Take Connecticutt Avenue North out of Washington DC just north of Cleveland Park make a right on Van Ness St NW.  The building is at
 the end of the street at the circle on the left.  There is no parking. 
 Park on Van Ness Street or out on Conn Ave.  Metro Stop is Van Ness.  Call  Denise Lee cell phone at 703 850 7450 if you get lost or map quest the address. 

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