Of Interest To Each Other
Tuesday's dawning of the much-heralded new day in America was perhaps not irrevocably, indelibly, altogether new - so the cynics will rush to say - but in a relative universe, we'll take it.
Consider: We saw a smart skinny black guy with an exotic name, a former community organizer and constitutional lawyer who espouses a seemingly genuine progressive vision, take office as our 44th President.
He spoke, first, of being humbled, and grateful, and mindful of the past.
He spoke of "men and women obscure in their labor," of slavery and sweatshops, of segregation and Khe Sahn.
He spoke of hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity.
He spoke of principle and the rule of law, the spirit of service and our common good, of "a willingness to find meaning in something greater than (our)selves."
He spoke of his belief that "the old hatreds shall someday pass."
He even spoke of greed.
Calmly, as if it were a given, he said that "a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous."
He said that "our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please."
"As for our common defense," he said, "We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals."
He said the time has come "to choose our better history," and who among us, weary to the core, could argue?
He spoke with eloquence, insight, restraint.
He spoke (can it be?) in full sentences, and seemed to mean what he said.
And afterwards, the vast, multi-hued crowds rejoiced, truly.
It was, of course, only a speech. A moment of glitz and elation. A stirring spectacle for a bruised country, and a watching world. A pause before the real work begins, before we the people make it so.
Still, for now, we'll take it.
For many of us, the most extraordinary part of the day was the people, the close to two million who made their arduous way there for reasons hard to pin down - because it was history, because it was time, because they had to. There were people standing in line at 4 a.m. in the cold, frozen-toed but exuberant.
"It's worth it!" exclaimed Sylvia Schoen, of Phoenix, Arizona, eight rows behind the inauguration stand, in a CNN story. "It's like we can do anything. Look what we just did - the people. The people did this. Not the politicians - we did it."
This, at this bleak moment of time, is what feels transcendent.
The ability of Obama to inspire others. His ability to make so many believe, despite all that's come before, in the power of American government to advance the common good.
His ability to allow us to imagine the day when we no longer cringe as our kids, each morning at school, put their small hands on their innocent hearts and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, with its soaring, as-yet-unreachable "liberty and justice for all."
Obama is, of course, just a guy, albeit an uncommonly smart and competent one. In his remarkable invocation at Sunday's 'We Are One' inaugural concert, the openly gay Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson - whose words were mysteriously missing from HBO's airing- noted that our new president is "a human being, not a messiah."
Robinson prayed to a "God of our many understandings" to bless us with tears, anger, discomfort at the woes of the world. Facing those hard realities, he asked his God to give Obama "a quiet heart . . . that he might do the work we have called him to do, find joy in this impossible calling."
Inevitably, for some of us, his words and the sight of those expectant multitudes on the Washington Mall summoned up earlier moments of hope and history. The crowds were smaller but didn't seem it in August 1963 when Martin Luther King roared, "Now is the time," in his "I Have a Dream Speech."
"We will not be satisfied," he memorably proclaimed, "until justice rolls down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream."
The mood was likewise electric when anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela appeared on the Boston Common in 1990. He was 71, and he had just been freed after spending 27 years in prison for believing that all men and women are equal under the law.
The crowds were packed elbow to elbow. Mandela was four hours late. In the long glad lull, Ladysmith Black Mambazo played while people danced, joyful, triumphant. When Mandela finally appeared on the stage, grinning broadly, he did a little jig. The place went wild. We will never forget.
On Tuesday, shortly after Obama's inauguration, it was reported that Mandela sent him a message. Calling Obama "a new voice of hope," he told him, "You will always be in our affection as a young man who dared to dream."
The dreaming goes on. And the work begins.
Tuesday's ceremony ended with inaugural poet Elizabeth Alexander reciting a "Praise Song for the Day."
"Praise song for struggle . . . she said. "Praise song for every hand-lettered sign; the figuring it out at kitchen tables. On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp - praise song for walking forward in that light."
She, too, summoned earlier words. She once wrote a poem about poetry that sounded like it was in fact about politics, at least the kind we believe in. "Poetry . . . is the human voice," she wrote. "And are we not of interest to each other?"