Capitol recollections

Morning breaks over the Capitol. March 2018.

I was eleven the first time I saw it with my own eyes. 6th grade field trip. In those days, parents could ride on the bus with the children; they didn’t have to follow behind in a car. That is how my mother got to go. She volunteered to chaperone. She didn’t have a driver’s license. I think it was the first time she’d ever been to D.C.

All along the mall, teachers strategically organized students for photos with the best view of the Capitol behind them. Everywhere you looked were rows and rows of children, many carrying small flags. Not all were American, but all seemed excited. I walked, listening to the musicality of many languages I couldn’t understand.

I cannot remember if it rained, or what we ate, but I recall the beauty of my country’s capital enchanting me. In some gift shop I bought a crinkly parchment reproduction of the Declaration of Independence. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness…I was happy that day. The Declaration came with a feather pen, to my delight. Then I spied a horse ornament on a glass shelf behind the register. Dark, stormy gray mingled with cream, frozen in the act of rearing up, forelegs arcing in the air, powerful muscles so realistically rendered, mane flowing in an imaginary breeze.

I did not know, at age eleven, that a horse symbolizes courage. That it can also represent overcoming adversity and caring for one’s emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being.

I only knew this twelve-inch plastic horse was beautiful and mighty. Captivated, I handed my last dollars to the clerk who wrapped my horse in layers of paper. I cradled it close all the long bus ride home.

It remained on the shelf in my bedroom until I married and moved out.

I’d return to D.C. again via Amtrak at nineteen, to meet my cousin who lived there. He would accompany me to an audition for acting school in New York City (that is another story). It was winter, icy-cold. Bundled and laughing, we roamed the windswept streets, past the lofty steps of the Capitol, talking of life, of the future, of being mavericks of the family.

Life takes many an unforeseen turn. He died young. I never went to acting school.

I had a family of my own instead.

Over the course of years, my husband and I made several visits to D.C. He’s a history-lover, an original poli sci major turned pastor. We took our children when they were small. Our last visit was early spring, 2018, with friends. What I noticed most on approaching the Capitol in early morning: the deep silence. Few people were out. The brooding sky made a compelling backdrop for the ornate dome, topped by Freedom. I took a picture. I tried to remember my first visit as a child, how enchanted I felt…long before I understood that relationships can disintegrate in unimaginable ways. In families, communities, countries.

The day after the attack last week, as I turned on my computer screen to meet with young elementary students, I felt numb, unfocused, ill-prepared. One by one at the appointed times, the children popped in, their faces aglow because…it might snow! A pandemic, ten months of reinvented school and life, volumes of ongoing, unfolding horrors in the news…yet they greet me with when is the snow is supposed to start?

It set a little part of my hippocampus jingling. Snow, as a literary symbol, means innocence, purity, tranquility. Even blessing.

Suddenly that old storm-gray horse souvenir resurfaced, vivid, nearly tangible, in my memory.

Strange.

I can’t say it’s symbolic of the American spirit. What does it mean to be American?

Maybe it’s symbolic of a child’s spirit. What makes it so mighty?

All I am sure of is this: a longing for overcoming and well-being.

For all.

*******

My previous post is a poem on the power of words to wound and heal: When.

Here are words inscribed in the U.S. Capitol:

On the Rostrum of the House Chamber – “Union, Justice, Tolerance, Liberty, Peace”

Behind the vice president’s chair in the Senate Chamber – “E pluribus unum” (“Out of many, one”)

On the stained glass window of the Congressional prayer room – “Preserve me, O God: for in thee do I put my trust.” Psalm 16:1

*******

with thanks to Two Writing Teachers for the Slice of Life Challenge, in itself a testimony to the power of stories and community.

32 thoughts on “Capitol recollections

  1. I was talking with a family member who wondered, aloud, as this was happening if the insurrectionists had ever done a school visit to the Capitol. Had they ever taken a trip to DC as children? Did they not understand the history and the fact that this was the citadel of American democracy? I was unsure of how to respond at the time, but I’ve been thinking a lot about it. Your post makes me think that it’s quite possible they never went there like you and I did as children.

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    • I read a long piece in the Wall St. Journal about a VIrginia loner arrested in the Capitol riot, who reminisced in the interview about his awed visit as a child. So rough to fathom the transformation a life can take in a sour direction to lead to this.

      Liked by 1 person

    • It’s incomprehensible, that our own citizens should do this. I keep imagining “what if” people had been there with children to visit and value, and found this mob. Innocents are always harmed when people resort to destruction. It’s a place beyond ideologies. I have been thinking a lot about mental health and how anger distorts reason – how have we so lost our way in caring for each other.

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  2. I’m overwhelmed by the powerful imagery in this piece. The contrasting experiences across time work so well to evoke how so many are feeling right now. These lines are so haunting: “I tried to remember my first visit as a child, how enchanted I felt…long before I understood that relationships can disintegrate in unimaginable ways. In families, communities, countries.” Love that you circled back to the horse souvenir at the end–it gives me hope!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for noticing and appreciating the imagery, Amy. I love symbolism. I am always looking for it. What amazed me most about the horse symbolism (as we pretty much know it means strength and even courage) is that it’s a reminder to care for one’s emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being. Definitely a foreshadowing and a timely memory now.

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  3. I can’t imagine what it was like to be a teacher in US after this attack. No matter how you look at it, the whole event seems unbelievable. It’s great that the promise of snow brought children excitement and joy. We have had snow for a week now and it makes the world so beautiful.

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    • It’s a deep sense of loss, Terje. Surreal. The children reminded me of the magical borders of their perspective. It was needed. I find healing and peace in snow, a beautiful, restorative hush. I honor that others don’t see it this way — but I would love more snow.

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  4. Your words, “what I noticed most was the deep silence” – oh, how I love visiting the Capitol in those early morning hours! Yes, it is beautiful. This has been a tough week. I live in the D.C. area; the news has been ever-present. I love that you wrote so beautifully of your Capitol memories. Thank you for this! It is healing.

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    • We always felt safe visiting there, Maureen. We’d comment to each other on how clean it was and how easy to navigate. We loved visiting. I can imagine how much more haunting it is, living nearby in the wake of the attack…I thought long and hard before writing this and am most grateful to know you found it healing. That means much to me. Maybe small pockets of healing will spread out and cover our country.

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  5. I was not expecting to have a steady stream of tears fall down my face while reading this Slice. Your beautifully described memories give off a sense of fragility. Life is fragile. The balance of the keeping the Union and Peace is fragile. I was in the DC just eight months after 9/11. We walked through that city with a sense of awe and pride. I really hope to see some of those feelings return to this nation soon.

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    • I wasn’t expecting to inspire such tears, Anna Maria! I think, though, they are born of the sense of loss that threads through the post. I was writing from that place. “Life is fragile. The balance of keeping the Union and peace is fragile” – I cherish these beautiful, true words of yours. “Awe” is my OLW for the year and that, too, was woven into the writing – yes, let us be about reclaiming awe, and honor, and caring for one another. It will never come through division.

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  6. Meaningful and beautifully written post, Fran! I love how “their faces aglow because…it might snow!” brought back your memory of the horse. How you could feel the horse in your hand and remembered your childhood feelings about the horse connecting it to the awe, joy, and excitement of what your student’s were feeling a out snow. Perhaps, you made the connection of the the word freedom, also. Wild horses mean freedom; the capitol means freedom. Perhaps your students were thinking unconsciously of the freedom from the pandemic that the snow would give them. The freedom to be in the moment of watching snow fall is joy and excitement. Playing in snow is joy and excitement. I always get excited when it snows. It immediately brings me back to that childhood awe. Yesterday, it flurried and magic pulsed through me.

    Your questions “I can’t say it’s symbolic of the American spirit. What does it mean to be American?” and “Maybe it’s symbolic of a child’s spirit. What makes it so mighty?” makes me think of the aminated children’s movie, Spirit. Bryan Adams’s music plays throughout the film. It makes beautiful connections of Native Americans, wild mustangs, and the westward expansion with the theme of freedom. My children and I loved watching that movie over and over.

    I’m happy for you that you have time with your students to be in a safe place, even if it’s virtual, teaching and enjoying them. Thank you for your powerful post that I resonated with.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Gail, I remember your love and appreciation for the mustangs and their powerful, spiritual connections to indigenous Americans. So strongly associated with freedom. Very connected to the Capitol and its statute of Freedom on top. I am glad you spoke of these Americans with such honor; our country’s history there is one of deep wrongs. I think, as I was mentally holding my horse statuette again, I was wondering about it as a symbol of courage – as in, have we lost the true meaning of courage, and dignity? How I appreciate all of your thoughts and explorations with snow, and freedom… you used my OLW for the year, “awe,” and I think may be the greatest thing about a child’s spirit. Without it – we get into a jaded, increasingly dangerous place.

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      • Fran, thank you for your reply. I know you meant your horse as a symbol for courage. Unfortunately, I think many people have lost dignity and courage. I love reading everyone’s comments to your writing and reading your gracious and heartfelt replies. Your post has been healing for many people. Be proud of your words; you were courageous by posting them. You are a gift to many.

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      • Gail… I’ve said many times that if I was offered any power, I would choose healing. If my writing does that…my wish has been granted. Thank you for these precious words! I believe one of your greatest gifts is encouragement – which we all need, more than ever.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I was looking back at photos after the attack and remembered taking this one… it sparked the whole post. Memories flooded back. I’d used the word “moody” and changed it to “brooding” at the last.

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      • I agree with your change to brooding. Perfect picture for your post. I’m happy that you were able to visit the Capitol so many times. Both our girls visited DC on an eighth grade field trip. I had chaperoned so many trips over the years, but I knew I couldn’t ride in a bus all the way to DC without worrying of becoming carsick. Therefore, I’ve never been there. Maybe someday.

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  7. Your post is beautiful, captivating, and OH so sad. I too wonder if they had ever experience Our Capital before? Did they know the history or how our country had worked to resolve so many differences in these halls. I too wonder if we can help shape a new generation who understands the potential of rhetoric to cause unmeasurable harm?

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    • The next generation is very much on my mind, Anita – I think that’s why I ended up writing through my childhood eyes. “The potential of rhetoric to cause unmeasurable harm” – that is a vital lesson, indeed.

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  8. Fran, you always write with such beautiful imagery and powerful eloquence. The way you engineer the mood in the piece, from the little girl entranced by a place and a toy horse, to the now ominous reality that has overtaken our country– breathtaking. Well done. Thank you for sharing this with us.

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    • Lanny – I so appreciate your response – especially since I hesitated to post! It came from such a sense of loss. I wanted it to honor this place so important to our country, and “the freedom for which it stands,” after it was so horrifically dishonored. The reappearance of the horse in my mind seems a twofold thing – have courage, yes, and be part of that caring for the emotional, spiritual, physical well-being of our country, which ultimately means each other. Again – thank you so much.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I traveled three years with a group of 5th graders to DC. The awe and wonder of those kids are captured in your memories and the kids you teach today. This was in the late 90’s and I’d never have imagined that this kind of disrespect could happen with our very own American citizens.

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    • It’s surreal. I always felt safe there, Margaret. DC was always so clean and beautiful; the kids (my own & those from school) were always so excited to go. “Awe” – my OLW – is exactly how I felt as a child. When we lose our sense of awe, I think we lose our way.

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  10. From the Writer’s Almanac:
    Interlude
    by Linda Pastan

    We are waiting for snow
    the way we might wait for a train
    to arrive with its cold cargo—
    it is late already, but surely
    it will come.
    We are waiting for snow
    the way we might wait
    for permission
    to breathe again.

    For only the snow
    will release us, only the snow
    will be a letting go, a blind falling
    towards the body of earth
    and towards each other.

    And while we wait at this window
    whose sheer transparency
    is clouded already
    with our mutual breath,

    it is as if our whole lives depended
    on the freezing color
    of the sky, on the white
    soon to be fractured
    gaze of winter.

    https://www.spreaker.com/user/prairehomeproductions/the-writers-almanac-tuesday-january-12-2

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Fran, the image of the peaceful dome contrasted with the aggressive violence last week brings to mind both sadness and hope. As I watch the beginning of the impeachment trial, I think back on the quote you shared, “Union, Justice, Tolerance, Liberty, Peace”. The lines in the poem reminds me that the country needs to be released from acrimony and hate. We need to revert back to the calmness of winter and hunker down in peace. Will it happen? I surely hope so.
    “For only the snow
    will release us, only the snow
    will be a letting go, a blind falling
    towards the body of earth
    and towards each other.”
    Your post is timely in such a subtle way.

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    • Carol – yes, oh yes – our country must be released from acrimony and hate. Destruction is all that can come from those. We do have to find a calm that so often comes with snow – I cannot help linking it symbolically with the kids asking when will it come, when.

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