Prior to Wednesday’s desecration of the U.S. Capitol, people were posting about new year’s resolutions, a practice I find both seductive and annoying in equal measure. I ask people about their resolutions, I read about them, and I consider some of my own and then generally abandon the idea of even writing them down. Now there’s a new riff on the resolution: a word to sum up one’s intentions, a sort of linguistic guiding light for the year to come. I’ve never chosen a word either, until now. The word is remember.
I remember my first encounter with the U.S. Capitol building. I was in high school and was with my mother and one of her friends in the National Gallery’s East Wing café, the Capitol Building virtually next door. After lunch, I got into a conversation with someone dressed in something an ancient Druid might sport who was proselytizing outside the museum. He was argumentative and so was I. And I was delighted to be engaging with someone so different from everyone in my sheltered 16 year old life. My alarmed mother was comforted by her friend, a woman I saw as worldly and sophisticated. “Don’t worry. Let her talk with him. She’s learning.” Later, in my 20’s, I lived seven blocks east of the Capitol. I walked by that dome every day on my way to catch the train to my job in Baltimore. There were Fourth of July fireworks and concerts on the Capitol lawn. I didn’t spend much time in the Capitol building itself but passed it frequently, walking down the lawn toward the Hirschhorn museum or cruising by on a bike toward Rock Creek Park or the Potomac. I remember meeting an ex who worked in the press gallery for lunch, walking through the tunnels that connect the legislative chambers to the House and Senate office buildings. I was starstruck spotting a legislator who had been recently in the news. There were early morning jogs through the Capitol grounds as I tried to keep pace with a much faster Marine runner, while I waved at the Capitol police in their security boxes. I remember it in spring with cherry blossoms, in winter with snow, in sticky summer, and in the crisp perfect days of fall. I remember the full tableau: the Supreme Court on one side, the Library of Congress on the other, the museums that lined the mall, the Shakespeare Library. All part of a scene so majestic that I felt lucky every day to live there, like some of the magic and idealism embodied in those buildings might rub off on me.
There have always been marches, protests, and other gatherings in that area. The AIDS quilt in all its devastating tenderness, a military parade during the first Iraq war, the March for Science my son and I attended a few years ago, causes too many and varied to count. But that space was never one in which I was afraid. There was a generosity there, an inclusiveness; this was a place where ideas and Americans came together in a physical space that transcended the human frailty or heroism that those buildings might contain. As the rioting unfolded on Wednesday, I fell speechless. But in that silence the images tumbled in and I began to remember.
Apparently, I am not alone. Arnold Schwarzenegger is remembering Kristallnacht and saying that Wednesday represented our own night (or day) of broken glass. Maureen Dowd is remembering her father, once the head of Senate security, and his own siege during another violent incident on the house floor in 1954. Many of us are remembering this summer when police seemed ready for anything except peaceful protest as Black Lives Matter demonstrations unfolded. There is ample evidence that there was advance knowledge that Wednesday’s event would not be peaceful; why weren’t the police preparing for violence on Wednesday as they did for a march intended to uplift Black lives? Did they remember their summer choices?
My word is remember too, because, as this current political crisis engulfs the news cycle, the pandemic crisis still plagues every corner of this nation, vaccines or no. Just this week, one friend lost a parent to COVID; another has a mother in the ICU. Even if deaths have not been directly caused by COVID, so many have had their grief shaped by this virus. My own father died at the end of July almost certainly of COVID, although that is not on his death certificate. He has yet to be properly buried as he will be, finally, in April at Arlington. On May 24th, the New York Times marked 100,000 American COVID deaths with a front page that listed every name with a brief line about their life. There were furniture movers, Holocaust survivors, and World War II heroes. They were 41 and 96 and 74 and 57. One man was described as having “respect for every living creature.” Now there are 300,000 plus dead. Remember.
A year and a half ago, my husband and I sat on the Capitol steps, listening to the Marine band as the sun set. We were relaxed and grateful to have some time together in the midst of what was a complicated and really too busy life, unaware of the difficulties that lay ahead. At that time, neither of us remembered to think about the pandemic of 1918, which bears such striking resemblance to the current public health crisis. Neither of us were remembering the authoritarian who was not fully held to account for his misdeeds following a failed coup attempt only to ascend to power in more horrible form several years later. (That leader would be Adolph Hitler.) We could not have imagined that we would be locked away from caring for our parents, that we would have to tell our oldest son that we could not see him for two weeks when he takes weekend trip or attends a gathering with his friends. We can more than imagine those things now.
There is so much that we still don’t know. How many students have dropped off the grid during online schooling? How many students are safer from school yard bullying and racism because they are at home? How much domestic violence has been hidden from view? How much sobriety or sanity has been lost due to isolation and constant anxiety? These are questions that must be asked, answered, and the answers committed to memory. Now we know what happens when we defund our public health infrastructure. Now we know what happens when we undermine the value of history and science. Now we know what echo chambers produce. Now we know what happens when we become so cynical and nihilistic as to erode our capacity for empathy and generosity. And, oh, how we want to move on from that knowledge, attribute this pain to an aberrant year that has ended. But there is a price for moving on too quickly, to not fully inhabiting what we experience, whether that experience is a personal loss or societal upheaval. That price is forgetting. If we’ve learned anything during 2020 and these first weeks of 2021, it’s that sorrow floats, to quote John Irving. These questions, challenges, characters, and storylines will come back. We will see them again. Unless of course we feel these awful realities, inhabit and interrogate them. Unless, we remember.
Photo Credit for Capitol Building Photo: Skylar Searing. Follow him on Instagram @raelyks.