Midnight at the Lincoln Memorial

The only word that comes to mind is “magical.” After watching the early election returns with friends and observing a hushed moment of unbelieving silence at 10 p.m. when ABC called the election for Barack Obama, I did what has been in the back of my mind to do since Obama got the nomination. I drove through town to the Lincoln Memorial, parked my car illegally, and walked through the quiet grove to the great wide marble steps of that monument.

There were three or four other people there and a few security guards. It was misting. The steps were wet and slick. The guards were chatting among themselves and listening on their walkie-talkies to their compatriots guarding the White House where the “real action” was. (Apparently, about 2000 people gathered in Lafayette Park.)

I walked up to the foot of that massive statue of Abraham Lincoln. The words of the Gettysburg Address are carved along the walls. In his speech Lincoln reminds those standing in that muddy Pennsylvania field where so many died that “we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”

Dr. King preached from here to a crowd of 300,000 marching on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Marian Anderson sang from here when the the Daughters of the American Revolution denied her entrance to Constitution Hall on Easter Sunday 1939.

By 11:45 p.m. there were about 50 people beginning to gather together on the steps. There was a quiet peace broken by occasional fire works from across the city and celebratory horns honking on streets below. Barack Obama was slated to give his acceptance speech at midnight. Everyone was fiddling with Iphones and other gadgets tracking the news and trying to figure out how to get a radio signal. Finally, a guy from London pulled a real radio out of his coat pocket and set it down on the steps. As Obama made his way into Grant Park in Chicago, our radio savior pumped up the volume.

If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.

I have to say that the small gathering broke into tears.

When Obama quoted Lincoln, there was a nod of recognition. “We are not enemies, but friends…though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.” And then in a rhetorical sweep that seemed to heal 40 years of painful history, he echoed Dr. King.

The road ahead will be long. Our climb will be steep. We may not get there in one year or even one term, but America – I have never been more hopeful than I am tonight that we will get there. I promise you – we as a people will get there.

The increasingly damp crowd shared a good laugh when Obama said:

And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world – our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand.

As Obama’s victory speech came to an end, our tiny community clapped and hollered and whooped and did a little dance there on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Strangers hugged each other, held each other, cried on each others shoulders. The Europeans in the crowd said how proud they were to be there and share this moment with America.

It was a magical moment.

I drove back through the streets of D.C. People were everywhere. Horns were honking in celebration. People were dancing on streetcorners and waving Obama signs. Dupont Circle was mobbed with revelers cheering and laughing. In front of the Ethiopian restaurant on 18th street, there was a crowd of men singing the “Ole Ole Ole” soccer song and waving signs. At the corner of 18th and Columbia, a guy was playing a guitar and dancing.

Before leaving the Lincoln Memorial, I walked to the steps where Dr. King preached on August 28, 1963, when I was two and a half months old. There’s a small engraving in the marble to mark the spot. One hundred years after Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address, King said:

This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. … But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.

We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.

At about 1 a.m. I parked the car in the alley behind my house. The city was still ariot with joy. I figured it was time to dry off and get a good night’s sleep. … but my face was hurting from all the smiling.

Welcome world, to America’s “invigorating autumn.”.

Dublin: How to Pray When You Have a Desk Job

At Trinity University in Dublin, along with the Book of Kells, there were other medieval manuscripts on display. The Book of Armagh, the Book of Darrow, and (one of my favorites) the Book of Mulling were all there to ooh and aww over.

Illumination of St. John from the Book of Mulling

It is perversely comforting to find the monks and nuns of the Middle Ages wrestling over the same issues we wrestle over today. In particular, how to pray when you have a desk job.

One display case held a copy of a sermon preached at the Durham Cathedral in England sometime in the 1100s. I was really touched by the details and the craft.

Medieval Allegory of the Scribes Tools

The parchment on which we write is pure conscience;
the knife that scrapes it is the fear of God;
the pumice that smooths the skin is the discipline of heavenly desire;
the chalk that whitens it signifies an unbroken meditation of holy thoughts;
the ruler is the will of God;
the straight-edge is devotion to the holy task;
the quill, its end split in two for writing, is the love of God and of our neighbor;
the ink is humility itself;
the illuminator’s colors represent the multiform grace of heavenly wisdom;
the writing desk is tranquility of heart;
the exemplar from which a copy is made is the life of Christ;
the writing place is contempt of worldly things lifting us to a desire for heaven.

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Martin Espada’s new collection of poetry

My friend Joe Ross is blogging over at LiveWrite about Crucifixion in the Plaza De Armas, the newest collection of poems by Martin Espada. Joe writes:

Just the other day, I received a copy of Martin Espada’s new collection of poems Crucifixion in the Plaza de Armas. While many of these poems are published elsewhere in Espada’s work, it is beautiful to have them in one collection. This book represents a gathering of all his Puerto Rico poems. As he says in the Introduction: “…they are all set, in whole or in part, on the island of Puerto Rico.” In a sense, these are poems of “place.” Yet sometimes the “place” of these poems, is more political or emotional than geographic.

Joe and I were honored to have Espada contribute his fantastic poem “God of the Weather-Beaten Face,” about Iraq war conscientious objector Camilo Mejia, to the poetry collection against torture we edited called Cut Loose the Body.

Read Joe’s whole review of Crucifixion here..

Election Day: Voting in the Last Colony

I used the fact that I still haven’t adjusted to the time change after returning from Ireland to Washington, D.C., to my advantage this morning. I got up at 6 a.m. Went to Dunkin’ Donuts for coffee and chocolate glazed. Then went to 14th and Columbia Rd. NW to cast my ballot for the first truly progressive candidate for president that the U.S. has seen in some time.

When I arrived at 6:45 am, I was about 400th in line. Stunning. I stood with neighbors and former co-workers and people who I only know because I’ve seen them on the street. We laughed and joked and generally said how great it was to be able to stand in line and cast our vote. Everyone acknowledged that the District of Columbia, the continental United States’ last colony, would go Democrat, but no one was going to miss the opportunity to vote.

I haven’t felt such positive, happy excitement and determination in America in a long, long time. Even the school kids riding the city bus past the polling station lines, wrote notes of support on their lined notebook paper and held them up to the bus windows as it drove by.

I stood in line for about an hour and a half. The system inside the voting station at the Latin American Youth Center was a little chaotic, but functional. I used my Number 2 pencil to “connect the arrow” and ran my ballot through the reader. The nice woman at the machine gave me a “I Voted” sticker and thanked me.

It is done. I left the polling place, nodded to the D.C. polling station police, and walked the entire line back to my car. There must have been a thousand people in line when I left. Is it wrong to add that the sun broke through the clouds just at that moment and the birds seemed to make their morning calls just a little louder than usual? I don’t know. But something sure feels good..

Ireland: The Photo Not Taken

Okay, look. I was in a tiny Hyundai rental car driving on the right-hand side of the road with a right-hand steering column at 100 km/hr. It was raining. I wanted to get to Kildare to visit St. Brigid’s Cathedral. I had things on my mind, okay? Like remembering that it was okay to drive the round-abouts backwards and to all ways make “short left and long right” turns. And to avoid hitting sheep. In the middle of all this, we flashed through a town on the N7 that said Moneygall.

Yep. The birthplace of Barack Obama’s great-great-grandfather Fulmuth Kearney. There was a sign on the way into town that said: “Welcome to Obama Country.”

I should have turned around and gotten a photo. I mean, it’s historic, right? The first African-American president of the United States and I’m in the town of his ancestors days before the most important election in modern history. I should have taken the photo. I even said that out loud in the car. “I should turn around and get that photo.” I kept thinking, there’ll be another sign on the way out of town. There will be some other sign on the Moneygall main street. But it’s a town with a population of 298. And there was road construction. And did I mention the rain?

There’s a fun Washington Post article from last year outlining Obama’s connections to Moneygall.

“Sure, it’s great!” said Henry Healy, 22, a villager who said family records indicate he is distantly related to Obama. Like many Moneygall residents, he is suddenly following the U.S. presidential race more closely and rooting for his kinsman. “It would be brilliant if he won because for one thing, he is related to me, and also it would be good for the village.”

And today’s Irish Times also has a nice piece:

Residents of Moneygall, on the N7 Limerick road, are gearing up for a US election party in Ollie Hayes’s Bar in the town tomorrow night.

“There’s a huge amount of excitement in the area now that election week is finally upon us,” said Canon Neill.

“We have Hardy Drew and the Nancy Boys playing their song There’s No One as Irish as Barack Obama and we hope to be celebrating with early indications from the US as the night unfolds,” said Canon Neill.

“Mr Obama said he’ll visit the ‘little village’ in Ireland that has adopted him, so we hope to be able to roll out the red carpet as soon as all the votes are in.”

So … while I have three or four hundred pictures of sheep and ancient Celtic beehive huts and scones in a farmers’ market and clam chowder and friends, old and new, I missed the shot of a lifetime.

Ah well. I guess I’ll just go vote. Slainte!.

Dublin: Scraps of Yeats

While in Ireland, I went twice to the William Butler Yeats exhibit at the National Library of Ireland. It’s a really good exhibit. Before going, I probably knew more than the average American about Yeats, but not much more. This exhibit really made the learning fun and interesting. It’s a great look at a time and place in Irish history that was fermenting with experimental art and revolutionary politics.

I liked that it showed the creative bent of the Yeats family. His father, sisters, and brother were all artists. They’ve been called the “most creative family in Irish history.” I also noted that his mother is described mainly by her depression and withdrawal. Families are complex.

"For the Road" by Jack B. Yeats
"For the Road" by Jack B. Yeats

As a poet, one of my favorite parts of the exhibit was the section that unpacks Yeats’ process for writing poems. Drafts and drafts of original handwritten sheets are in the exhibit with explanations of why he made the revisions that he did. I was especially intrigued by the “prose sketch” he did before any poem. He outlines what he was trying to achieve; made lists of images and words; worked out basic rhyme schemes and meter; and finally set about actually writing the verse.

But the best thing for the readers here is that the whole exhibit is online. It’s a truly amazing feat of interactive learning. The National Library has the most Yeats archival material of anyplace in the world and most of it has been sorted and presented in this exhibit. I spent hours in the actual exhibit and will probably spend hours more scouring the online version. Take a peek!

And since it’s All Hallows Weekend, I thought I’d include a little ghostly scrap.

All Souls’ Night
By William Butler Yeats

Midnight has come and the great Christ Church bell
And many a lesser bell sound through the room;
And it is All Souls’ Night.
And two long glasses brimmed with muscatel
Bubble upon the table. A ghost may come;
For it is a ghost’s right,
His element is so fine
Being sharpened by his death,
To drink from the wine-breath
While our gross palates drink from the whole wine. …

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Howth: What the Heck’s the Book o’ Kells?

Our writers’ conference has officially ended. We had our reading last night and said our goodbyes over breakfast this morning. Today, Katie Chilton and I took the DART into Dublin. First on our itinerary was The Book of Kells at Trinity College library.

The Book of Kells was written around the year 800 AD. It contains the four gospels and is written on vellum made from 185 calf skins. It contains a Latin text of the Gospels in tiny script with amazing decorations of illumination in the margins, in the text, and whole decorative pages throughout. The manuscript was given to Trinity College in the 17th century. Two volumes can normally be seen each day, one opened to display a major decorated page, and one to show two pages of script.

Today’s pages were the illuminated title page from the gospel of Mark and a text page was Matthew 5:35-48 (“You have heard it said: An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth …”)

Cat, mouse, host - Detail from the Book of Kells, Trinity College, Dublin
Cat, mouse, host - Detail from the Book of Kells, Trinity College, Dublin

One of my favorite images is apparently a reference to a medieval joke/conundrum: It shows a cat chasing a rat or mouse that is eating a Eucharistic host. The unanswered question was: If Jesus says “I am the bread of life and whoever eats of this bread shall have eternal life,” and if the host is truly turned into the Body of Christ so that all who eat of it will have life eternal, then what happens to the mouse who nibbles on the Eucharist in the middle of the night? And what about the cat that eats the mouse?

Ah…the human tendency to make simple things complex. What would we do if we couldn’t dither about such conundrums?.

Howth: A Woman Priest in Ireland

In the Irish Times on Tuesday, there was a nice commentary by Ginnie Kennerley. She’s a Church of Ireland (Anglican) priest and editor of Search magazine. Kennerley gives a little peek into her world as one of Ireland’s first women priests and the surprising warmth and receptivity she’s felt among the Catholics in Ireland, many asking her, “When will our church get round to it?”

A SURPRISING thing about being one of the first women priests in Ireland has been the extent to which it has taken me out into the wider church community. It aroused an interest which was much wider than in my own church, and this offered the opportunity for a good deal of exposure to students, congregations and clergy of other churches – all of it enriching. …

Ever since my childhood in England, with a grandmother, an uncle and an aunt who were Roman Catholic converts, I had been aware there were spiritual riches in the Catholic and the Orthodox traditions; this awareness fed into my occasional Christian Unity Week sermons down the years. Invariably there was a warm welcome on these occasions – so warm that one could be forgiven for impatience with the power plays between the churches’ representatives.

“When will our church get around to it, I wonder?” was a common remark at country events where people who had never met a woman in a collar pressed round to shake my hand.

I’ve been following the women’s ordination movement with great interest. You can track some of my musings in Rocking the Boat, an article I wrote for Sojourners..

Howth: ‘There’s No One As Irish as Barack O’Bama’

We had a great day in Dublin going to “James Joyce’s Tower” in Sandycove where Ulysses begins. Then had lunch at the National Library where we were able to watch the finals of the Poetry Out Loud contest.

I spent a fast hour in the National Gallery peeking at the Irish art of Sean Keating, Paul Henry, and Jack Butler Yeats (WB’s brother) and some of the classics: Caravaggio’s The Taking of Christ (1602), Diego Velázquez’s Kitchen Maid with the Supper at Emmaus (about which Denise Levertov wrote her poem The Servant-Girl at Emmaus), and Brueghhel and Rubens’ Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1628).

Dublin, St. Andrews Street, October 2008
Dublin, St. Andrews Street, October 2008

But we can’t forget that the American elections are only 15 days away. While Republicans and Democrats are doing their best to highlight their differences, there is one commonality among the four candidates for President and Vice President that none can deny their Irish roots, writes genealogist Megan Smolenyak in today’s Irish Times.

It is Barack Obama’s Irish heritage that seems to have surprised most, and I confess that I own a t-shirt that sports the title of the Hardy Drew and the Nancy Boys song: “There is no one as Irish as Barack O’Bama.” That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but even the candidate was intrigued to learn of his Irish roots and has hinted of a possible visit to Moneygall, Co Offaly at some point.

Why Moneygall? Because that’s where his third great-grandfather, Fulmoth Kearney, lived before heading to Ohio in 1850. Many don’t realize that tracing the place of origin for diaspora descendants is usually quite a challenge, and in the case of Obama, I considered myself lucky to find a couple of tombstones in Ohio for Fulmoth’s father and brother that steered my research to Moneygall.

Their story is a version of the oft-heard famine tale. Members of the extended Kearney family began emigrating to America in the late 1700s, but it was the 1848 death of Fulmoth’s uncle Francis in Ohio that sparked the departure of his immediate family. In his will, Francis left land to Joseph, Fulmoth’s father, but only if he came to America to claim it. Joseph left in 1849 and Fulmoth and a sister followed in 1850, with Fulmoth’s reluctant mother and remaining brother and sister making the journey in 1851.

Recent research into earlier generations of the Kearney line by the Irish research firm, Eneclann, has revealed a colorful family history of wig-making, land-dealing and politics, extending to Dublin.

Slainte, O’Bama!.

Howth: Where Molly Bloom Said ‘Yes’

Dateline: Howth, Dublin, Ireland, overlooking the Irish Sea

Probably the most famous bit of modern Irish literature is James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). Set in Dublin, it tracks a day (June 16, 1904) in the life of one Leopold Bloom. Joyce was experimenting with language and fracturing the established order of the novel in a way similar, perhaps, to Faulkner.

Taking Homer’s epic, Joyce makes an ordinary advertising salesman Leopold Bloom into the hero and all the daily adventures he encounters as he makes his way around Dublin. At the famous conclusion to Ulysses, Molly Bloom, Leopold’s wife, has an several page soliloquy in which she recalls her decision to accept her first date with Leopold when he wooed her on Howth Head.

Yesterday, Katie Chilton and I walked up to the trailhead that leads out to Howth Head. First we stopped for a few minutes to revel in a house where W.B. Yeats grew up. (Yeats wooed the fiery revolutionary Maude Gonne also on Howth Head.)

Finally, we headed out on the cliff trail and hiked up to the head. It’s a rugged, beautiful, terrifying height over the pounding surf. We watched crabbers pull in their pots. From the look of the “refuse” in the crevices of the rocks, I’d say Howth Head is still a place for lovers.

Howth Head, where Molly Bloom said 'yes'
Howth Head, where Molly Bloom said yes

Here’s a portion of Molly’s soliloquy from James Joyce’s Ulysses.

…the sun shines for you he said the day we were lying among the rhododendrons on Howth head in the grey tweed suit and his straw hat the day I got him to propose to me yes like now yes 16 years ago my God after that long kiss I near lost my breath yes he said I was a flower of the mountains yes so we are flowers all a woman’s body yes that was one true thing he said in his life and the sun shines for you today yes…

…I was a Flower of the mountains yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him and yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will yes.

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