Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Wahington D.C. I was born in the U.S. and have lived here all my life, and this is the first year I ever felt like I was really a citizen. Maybe it's a Jewish thing, maybe it's being from a liberal coastal state that was the only state that voted for McGovern in '72--and I was probably the only person in the country who believed McG would win--but I have always seen myself as fundamentally outside the corridors of power. I've never even had a desire to see them up close. No reverence, no patriotism, nothing. Until now.

Last week, in D.C. I wanted to kneel and touch the ground. I really did. There were tulips everywhere, banks of yellow and red tulips, and daffodils. the cherry trees were in full bloom, fat, pink pom pom blossoms, and the delicate purple flowering Judas tree. It's such a beautiful city. I had only ever been there before for demonstrations, had never seen the streets when I wasn't part of a chanting, freezing, have-to-go-to-he-bathroom-where-is-the-port-o-potty throng. Pro-choice, anti-war, no nukes, you name it. My memories of D.C. were all uncomfortable.

But now we were here with a president whom we had actually elected doing his work behind closed doors only a few miles from our hotel! The second day it gusted and rained outright, but still we sloshed through it in our sneakers to stand at the gates of the White House (which are surprisingly low, and look almost unguarded, although there must be invisible security all around,) to peer in in and send warm thoughts in Obama's general direction.

We bought cheap umbrellas which promptly broke; we visited some of the Smithsonian museums. I say some of them because you could camp out on Capitol Hill for a year and spend all day every day in the museums and still not see a fraction of the treasures there. We walked all over: down the mall, to the Washington monument, to the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Memorial, the World War 11 Memorial, the Korean War Memorial. Beautiful, beautiful, tired, footsore, hungry, beautiful.

We spent hours in museums--all of them free to the public. The Holocaust Museum took four or five hours. So much thought and care and elegant design had gone into the creation of exhibits that would showcase the most brutal wrong-headed behavior the human race is capable of. That was the supreme contradiction. The building itself had a deliberately industrial feel, as if you were in a depressed Germany, perhaps between wars; red-brick walls, factory decor. There was a whole exhibit especially designed for children, where you could walk through the replica of a house where a Jewish boy named Daniel lived, touch his toys, see his schoolbooks, and hear his mother and sister laughing in the kitchen as they made cookies.

You followed Daniel's story as he was thrown out of school for being Jewish and then sent with his family to live in a ghetto, and finally a concentration camp where his mother and sister were killed. This was the historical record of a real family: photographs, old steamer trunks, clothing, and wallpaper.

There was a railway compartment that was a replica of the one that concentration camp inmates were transported in; you could walk through it and feel its dimensions. There was a huge glass case filled to the brim with human hair that was cut from the heads of women and used to stuff mattresses. i don't know how the museum's curators got hold if the hair. Unthinkable. There was another glass case entirely filled with shoes--many many small children's shoes, and women's shoes, all dirty and dusty.

I heard sniffling behind me. C was crying, and he cried throughout our four hour visit. If a book should be an axe to break through the frozen sea within us, as Kafka says, then that museum was designed to be a similar kind of axe. I felt numb and shut down: I had had too much Holocaust in my youth, I couldn't, wouldn't, couldn't let myself go there again. What thawed me were C's tears. I could feel with him and for him and through him. It was piggy-backing, it was cheating, but his example helped ease and open my own heart. I was so moved by his stamina. As long as our visit took, as many stories piled up, as overwhelming as the heartbreak was, he just didn't shut down. He allowed himself to be overwhelmed, and he kept feeling. He did not try to protect himself. Of all his great qualities, this is the one that moves me most. That specific kind of courage.

The part that got me was at the end, the stories of the survivors--one woman ended up marrying the American soldier who liberated her camp; fifty years later they told the story together. And the stories of all the rescuers, the many many people who risked and sometimes lost their own lives saving and hiding Jews. Would I have had that courage? Would I have risked torture, or having my whole family sent to a concentration camp, in order to help people I didn't even know?

And what about the victims I pass every day on the street, the homeless and drug addicts? What about the people in Darfour, or anywhere else around the world, who are in danger?


We also visited the Museum of Natural History, along with about 10,000 schoolchildren, all of whom, like C, were on their spring break. Deafening. Still wonderful, especially the dinosaur movie which we watched in an IMAX theatre (along with about 10,000 schoolchildren) and 3-D glasses. If, in geological time, the dinosaurs ruled the earth for 48 minutes, the human species has been here for 48 seconds. That's right, an eyeblink. You and I as individuals? Less than nothing.

And: it was a meteor which destroyed the dinosaurs, brought their long era to an end. It crashed in the Yucatan, and recent advances in infra-red photography now show that there have been a lot of meteors that have crashed into the earth over the millenia, and very likely another one will wipe out us humans if we don't do it to ourselves first.

So have some chocolate cake!

That was my first thought: whoo-pee, freedom!! Freedom from this impossible stupid pressure we put on ourselves with the illusions of control and accomplishment. I don't have to revise any more essays for publication, update my resume, swim a mile, or even floss anymore. It really doesn't matter in the long run.

Of course in the short run there are quality of life issues. And a mortgage. But this overall weight of feeling like every little thing we do or don't do--I went to yoga class, good girl, I ate a cookie, bad girl, and on and on-- has some tremendously important bearing on our lives, on our very survival--it feels better to go through my day without that. Just living, like the dinosaurs.

The human species may not survive, and perhaps our demise could pave the way for a more evolved life form. We don't know; we don't even understand our little 48-second eyeblink. Had the dinosaurs not become extinct in a global atmospheric catastrophe, we humans could not have developed. No matter what the creationists claim, it would have been impossible for fragile, puny, thin-skinned big-headed two-leggeds to evolve with hundred-ton armored monsters crashing about everywhere.


I think C would have been quite happy to live inside the Air and Space Museum for a year or two. He got to see a replica of the first space capsule, and the Wright brothers' earliest aircraft, and a bunch of other cool stuff. And I got to soak in the art museums, including a wonderful Louise Bourgeois exhibit at the Hirschhorn. And we didn't even scratch the tip of the iceberg.

D.C. is a nerd's paradise, the proverbial candy store for insatiably curious kids who can't get enough amazement into their craniums. There is a museum for every possible interest you can imagine, and we only had time and stamina and foot-energy for a handful. I didn't get to see the Folger Shakespeare Library, and C didn't get to see the Museum of Design, and neither of us saw the American Indian Museum, and the African American Museum wasn't even open yet. So we'll be back maybe next year, sore-footed slack-jawed, puny, and rapt. Which seems the right scale for humans.


Anonymous said...

amazing...you tell it well...
i hope to see at least some of this story
one day
one day while i am still in my
human body

Anonymous said...

I read, and I don't comment very much, but letting you know how much I love your time, your writing, your analysis, insight, and care for description. Thank you!

Alison said...

Thanks you!


Anonymous said...

You cast a valuable eye on valuable objects and make your universe a richer place of life and experience both for yourself and for all those who share it.

Anonymous said...

You cast a valuable eye on valuable objects and make your universe a richer place of life and experience both for yourself and for all those who share it.

Anonymous said...

we want you back, please return blog withdrawal
not good :)