“I was born on a tree-lined street in a Jersey suburb. I have been secure and safe all my life.”
A friend who’d been one of NBC TV News’ first female international correspondents told me this a long time ago in New York City. She was ending that career to become a mother and we were searching for what we had in common (we met at a writing workshop). I told her that I was born in an Israeli kibbutz that was the reincarnated version of a kibbutz bombarded to smithereens in the Israeli War of Independence, where my parents had fought just a year earlier.
Since then, growing up here, going to school, gaining skills and some confidence, I’ve become part of an educated middle class living in rural Massachusetts, a good life that resulted a tiny bit from my own efforts and to a much greater degree from events I had little or nothing to do with.
There are many of us, I think, trying to work out how we, living a fairly secure and safe life on tree-lined streets (in my case, more in the middle of a forest), can be mensches in the deepest sense of the word.
Last week I stayed in a house half a mile from the DC border, and last Friday morning I dawdled on the street corner after waving to a young boy who boarded a school bus. A basketball hoop hovered on one side, and I thought of my friend who’d grown up on a tree-lined street, much as this young boy did, much as I do now. Suddenly, I felt the urge to go to Capitol Hill. I’d been there on a few occasions, but not in a long, long time, and certainly not since January 6 when marauders had taken it over, sending Senators and Representatives into hiding.
I took the Metro to Union Station and walked from there to the Capitol. Not to think too much or figure things out. In the past few years, I’ve read enough analyses of modern America and its cultural, racial, educational, religious, and economic divides, and I didn’t feel any wiser. I think at the very time I was there the Congressional hearing looking into the events of January 6 was taking place.
Frankly, I think that all the hearings and Congressional inquiries around this are a waste of time. Those who understood the gravity of what happened don’t need those investigations; those that don’t won’t change their minds as a result. The details that emerge may be important to historians, but it’s used as political theater for which I have no patience.
Now is what counts for me, questions like Who are we? What do we need to remember? What do we need to forge?. All I wanted was to walk up the broad avenue that leads to the Capitol, feel ground under my feet, maybe pick up the resonance of those many feet back on January 6, and the many more before them.
This was a sought-after land when my parents came here in 1957. I grew up highly sensitized to what happened in Europe in the 1940s but oblivious to what others suffered and endured right here. The slow expansion of consciousness began with my reading of The Autobiography of Malcolm X and started me, stupid student that I am, on a slow journey of bearing witness.
I won’t fool you, sometimes it just tires me out. I feel like: Can’t I stand on one thing? Just one thing? As a Zen practitioner, I have a small sense of what that one thing is, but I’m not much different from anyone else, I’d like to find that little slip of ground that’s solidly mine, no more pushing of boundaries, no more and this and this and this. Enough change.
It was a gorgeous day, there should have been thousands of people walking those steps. There were none. Fences barred the entry up front. A tourist entrance in back of the Capitol was shut down. The place looked deserted except for a group of some 50 people, mostly American Cambodians, protesting under a nearby tree against Chinese presence in Cambodia, women carrying posters of children and brothers in prison.
I walked from one end of the Capitol to the other slowly, like a pilgrimage. There wasn’t much nostalgia. This enormous building stands for many years of nitty-gritty give-and-take and tough-edged compromises, the brutal pruning needed to govern a diverse nation. What goes on inside is certainly not as pretty as the outside.
As I write this the Democrats have yet to come together on a promised infrastructure bill. They get little sympathy from me. If you control the White House, Senate and House and can’t pass a critical bill, you obviously can’t govern and probably shouldn’t be there.
That day I walked back and forth, alone and quiet in the warm light, footstep after footstep in resonance of millions. Then I walked back to Union Station and got on a train. I’d need an early start the next morning to get home in one piece. That’s what I wanted to do, get finally home in one piece.
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