Long-delayed DC trip turns out to be an emotional experience

The train ride from Washington, DC gave me plenty of time to reflect on what I saw during my five-day stay in the nation’s capital. I had finally crossed a big item off my to-do list, having canceled the trip booked for April 2020. COVID-19 was raging unchecked and America was on lockdown when the original vacation plans were ransacked. A year later, standing in front of the Jersey gates and fences that surrounded the Capitol and the White House, I felt deep sadness knowing that the country is going through a very different lockdown – brought on not just by a virus. insidious, but through domestic terrorism.

I quickly realized that visiting DC is not the same as taking a vacation. It’s a field trip, whatever your age, a learning experience that no American should shy away from. I had no idea I was going to be spending a good deal of my time holding back tears. A year ago, I was able to organize a tour of the Capitol with Congressman Jim McGovern. A year ago, I was able to book a visit to the White House. Neither was possible in June 2021. Yet I wanted to come to Washington, when democracy is still one thing.

We took the train from Providence as only one train a day connects Worcester to DC (That’s a topic for another day.) Along the way my friend Rick and I saw a lot of graffiti and dark scenes of shells that were once homes and businesses. I felt that this thought-provoking glimpse of the cities we passed through could set the tone for our visit. Across Baltimore, Philadelphia, Newark and New York, the scenery has created a sad postcard that we would hesitate to send home.

Our first night in Washington was spent walking in the hottest air this side of the Everglades. Rick acted as my guide, having visited several times already. (I have no problem following like a puppy in a situation like this. I have a bad sense of direction, and without it I would still be standing in front of the subway map doing my best Tucker Carlson.) Now I may be a jaded lady, as many have suggested, but I will freely admit that I was overwhelmed as I stood at the base of the Abraham Lincoln likeness. It would be the first of many moments on this trip where tears filled my eyes. Would I have felt this before January 6? I do not know. I know we never really appreciate anything until it gets away from us or is taken from us.

I was crying again as I visited Arlington Cemetery, and again as I walked through the American Indian Museum, but it was inside the haunting, heart-wrenching Holocaust museum where I felt the full weight of the story. Having taught war literature and particularly that of the Second World War, I believed myself to be quite knowledgeable. Nothing prepares a visitor for the harsh and horrific truths exposed. No amount of reading, no viewing of “Schindler’s List” can match the emotions evoked when standing in a cattle car used to transport Jews to their doom.

The African American Museum was well booked so we couldn’t get in but different tears fell as I stood near the Martin Luther King Jr. statue as a bus full of visiting college kids jostled each other posing for a group photo under the marble image of the slain civil rights leader. If MLK himself had chosen the depiction of his dream, he couldn’t do better: African American and Asian college students laughed and hugged their white and Muslim classmates, all behaving like children – just children. Quotes from MLK’s speeches were etched into the wall surrounding the exhibit. One shot me more than the others with his powerful simplicity:

“I have the audacity to believe that people all over the world can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their spirits, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.”

I listened to the laughter of the children while reading it. Could anyone dispute these words?

In five days, I had felt a flood of emotions ranging from fear to outrage, pride to sadness and everything in between. On the way back by train, the graffiti suddenly struck me as cheerful and awe-inspiring, and the old men sitting on lawn chairs on sagging porches made me smile behind my mask. I vowed to return to this place, now that DC’s barriers are slowly falling. I can’t help but think that we are losing pieces of America’s soul with each passing day. As we drove past the rooftops of the city, I considered that I still had a lot to learn about history and about my country, the one I love so fiercely. I’m working on it – now, when democracy is still one thing.

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