therestlessnest

where life's not empty, it's restless.

Archive for the tag “Lincoln”

The Other Washington

IMG_1174It’s the heavyweight red bicycle I’ll remember: how I swiped a credit card and punched in a code and out it popped from its parking spot in front of the Department of Labor.

Then, freedom. Off I went, up the long, gravel paths of the Mall, dodging the Sunday crowds, feeling the breeze I couldn’t quite catch when I was walking.

The Other Washington is always full of tourists in the summertime, despite the tropical heat and humidity, which on this visit was blessedly below normal. Hot or not, I like being there with the tourists. My fellow tourists: I’m one too, even though I’ve visited many times over the years, since one of my closest friends lives in the Virginia suburbs.

What fascinates me is how my own D.C. tastes have changed. How much more of a cornball, capitol-loving kind of tourist I’ve become over time.

I was a college student when I first visited Washington, D.C., in the post-Watergate late seventies. Patriotism was unthinkable. The protest era was over, and what, we thought at that cynical time, had those marches achieved? The only government building I wanted to visit was the National Gallery.

Nearly four decades later, D.C. has changed and so have I.

On my first afternoon, I visited the Library of Congress, which I love for its over-the-top tile frescoes honoring muses, poets, philosophers and scholars; its gold-leaf proclamations that “Knowledge is Power.” But this time, I found a hidden gem: a tiny plain gallery down the hall from the basement shop, where a small but powerful selection of news photos of the 1963 March on Washington were on display.

When you see those pictures of a quarter million people filling the Mall, all eyes turned toward the Lincoln Memorial where Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps—when fifty years have passed and the words of his “I Have a Dream” speech still resound—and then you step outside and take in the vast sweep from the Capitol building down to the distant monuments—then you see Washington D.C. a little differently.

One of the photos was taken from behind Lincoln’s massive stone shoulder, as if he was looking down on the crowds, blinking back a hundred years worth of tears.

Hard to believe his life ended in a little house on 10th Street, across from Ford’s Theatre where he was fatally shot. Inspired by the Library of Congress exhibition, I finally went to see it.

It was a long walk up Pennsylvania Avenue, past the statues outside the National Archives, with their solemn motto, “Past is Prologue.” Past the Department of Justice and the FBI. Across busy E Street to quiet Tenth.

A group of foreign students stood outside the Petersen House, where Lincoln died early in the morning of April 15, 1865. They studied the plaque. They quietly snapped photos on their phones. Clearly, these young people understood history better than I did at their age. They understood the notion of past as prologue.

A few days later, riding my big red rental bike around the Washington Monument, I saw many more groups of students, some of them strolling with their parents. I saw buses from all over the country. I saw veterans making their way towards memorials to the Vietnam War, the Korean War, World War Two.

So much emotion courses through our capitol on any given day, I thought as I pedaled. Some days—like the day of the March on Washington or the day Lincoln died—it’s a collective tsunami of emotion. But ordinary D.C. days are moving too. And I’m always happy to see where one takes me.

Her_Beautiful_Brain Save the date: Her Beautiful Brain book launch: 3pm, September 7, at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle. You can pre-order now from Elliott Bay, Powell’s Books, or the large or small bookseller of your choice.

Restless Brain Syndrome

DSC00853Restless Brain Syndrome: I’ve had it bad lately. Typical onset: about five a.m. Starts with: review of dreams, none of which ever make much sense, but all of which seem to crescendo up to some cliff-hanger moment that wakes me up. I can’t keep swimming this river: there’s no more water! And wait: why am I wearing a slip? Who even wears slips anymore?

From these traumas, my brain moves restlessly towards the saving light of consciousness, only to find a whole new casserole of dilemmas. My husband is right: we’ve got to get rid of that storage unit. It is ridiculous to have a storage unit. Speaking of Rustin, his latest film review ends with him saying he doesn’t think he’ll want to see Lincoln again. I couldn’t agree less.  Speaking of presidents trying to work with congresses, what about that fiscal cliff? Speaking of fiscal cliffs, I fear our checking account may be approaching one…

After enduring this for a while, I start bargaining with my brain. OK, Brain, you’re awake: so let’s stop tossing more leftovers into the casserole and address these food groups one at a time. How about we start by clearing the table of the stuff you can’t personally solve, like the fiscal cliff? In this phase, my restless brain tacks back and forth between wanting to get up and make a to-do list and wanting to cocoon deep into the pillow and see if I could somehow find another five minutes of sleep.

While this Restless Brain syndrome is nothing new for me—or for, oh, billions of other humans—there are seasons when, collectively and individually, we’re more likely to catch it. Like the flu, the restless brain favors winter: it’s dark, it’s cold, we’re cooped up with our worries. The charming ways in which our homes tend to crumble in this climate suddenly matter: a gap in the window frame is now a gateway to an arctic breeze; that tiny paint bubble has morphed into a peeling blister. Deadlines that were far away—fiscal cliff, college application, colonoscopy—suddenly loom like lethal icebergs. And in winter, we spend more time reading, seeing movies, staying on top of the news—all of which is good, but much less conducive to a good night’s sleep than the hiking, swimming, gardening of summer.

Lincoln is very much a brooding, winter film. Daniel Day-Lewis portrays President Lincoln as a man with a crushingly restless brain who paced the halls of the White House, night after night, through the Civil War’s dark seasons of slaughter. Of course he couldn’t sleep. The problems he faced make the fiscal cliff standoff look like teens playing Truth or Dare. What was so moving about watching Lincoln not sleep was: I felt like we could see him turning over every scrap of his own life experience, every trip to every battlefield, every conversation with constitutional scholars, as he worked out what he felt was his defining dilemma: how to ensure that slavery would indeed end—legally, constitutionally, finally—when the war ended.

Now, we have a whole pharmaceutical industry out there, luring us to end our insomnia with this pill or that one. And truly, none of us can not-sleep forever. But I sometimes wonder if part of the problem is: we try to move too quickly through the screen-centric tasks of our days. We don’t allow ourselves time to brood, pace, tell stories, think. So our restless brains make us do it at five in the morning. Maybe it’s not a syndrome. Maybe it’s just—the way we’re wired. 

Our films, The Church on Dauphine Street, 30 Frames a Second: The WTO in Seattle and Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story are now available on Hulu, Amazon and other digital sites.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.

 

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