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Kingston, NY, Friday, Jan. 23, 2009

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'Coming Round Right' to Renewal and Reconciliation
By Judith Gayle | Political Waves

''Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free," goes that old Shaker hymn, Simple Gifts, so splendidly rendered by Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman and others at Barack Obama's inauguration. It hit our ears only a few moments after Aretha Franklin offered a version of "My country 'tis of thee," that growled, scatted and soared, startling those who thought the simple tune might remain so in her accomplished hands.

The sampling of entertainment offered in these last few days matched the sensibilities and diversity of the sea of faces in the multitude that stood in the freezing cold to watch the 44th president take his Constitutional vow. Their energy was a song, as well -- a hum of excitement, pride and amazement; a heartbeat of yearning and hope. In an emotionally powerful moment of words and music, they became part of the energetic whole.

The invocation by Rick Warren, anticipated by so many, seemed a rambling bit of business; given his 15 minutes in the world's eye, Pastor Warren seemed undone by the magnitude of the moment. Not so Rev. Lowery, a man whose life has been committed to the cause of civil rights and who not only delighted the crowd with his benediction but slapped a wide grin on Barack Obama's face. The former seemed steeped in religious exclusion -- the latter invited us all in, based on our personhood and not our religious preference.

Pastor Warren has recently encouraged his flock to jihad for Jesus in the way that Hitler Youth served their Fuhrer; he may have a rationale for these comments, but I don't think many but his faithful are listening. Talk about your basic misunderestimation of this new energy that's filling every nook and cranny; that bus is pulling out of town! The ticket to stay or leave in this new era seemed to be stamped on the faces we saw Tuesday; not a single Republican seemed more than grim and pained.

A handful of catcalls for George Bush and Dick Cheney seemed newly visceral, coming in the wake of years when protesters were rounded up and held in pens far from an actual event; good taste and manners may sometimes fall away in an active democracy, but dissent must never be silenced. The bungling of the oath, itself, by Justice John Roberts (causing Obama to pause and wait for him to rephrase) required a second oath the next day to reaffirm legality. The televised cut-aways to Bush's face when Obama spoke sternly to the end of past policy and a return to American ideals pointed up the nation's awareness that we have not lived up to them.

These last few days have seemed the territory of time travelers, to me -- a cosmic space where threads of the past have woven tightly with the fabric of the present to reveal its design for the future. We are always in multidimensional circles of experience, understood by shamanistic societies world-wide, reviewing and reconfiguring what has gone before -- often in the form of wounding -- and redefining ourselves as we step forward into the future; we had an opportunity this week for closure, for remembrance and for reflection.

Obama took the Lincoln train route to the Capitol for his ceremonies; the echo of Lincoln has accompanied this young man of color since he announced on the steps of the courthouse in Illinois and culminated when he placed his hand on the Lincoln Bible. It appears that his presidency is a direct legacy of the Emancipation Proclamation, hundreds of years later; he stands before the world as confirmation that all of us who marched and worked for equality did not toil in vain. So many who suffered and died for such a moment seem uniquely present, very much with us, at this moment in history.

More than one commentator has reflected that Obama's train ride reminded them of the one that brought Bobby Kennedy's body to the nation's capital. The resonance with all things Kennedy-esque cannot be avoided, with a young president both confident and vibrant; his strong, fashionable wife and delightful young children. We hear Jack's thick Bostonian brogue as a back-beat to Barack's call for service and sacrifice, his encouragement of our better aspirations. We lost Jack and Bobby, we lost Martin and Malcolm -- the man who leads our nation today stands on their shoulders, as do we all.

Like Kennedy, Obama speaks for a new generation; one to whom questions of equity in color, gender and equality is no longer an if/or -- it's simply past due. They have found their post-racial, post-partisan voice, if not its actuality, and they want solutions, not squabbles. The elders may be dismayed by their enthusiastic dismissal of old grudges and truisms, but it's their time and they cannot be shouted down. Obama speaks to and for them as they discover that citizenship is their responsibility and heritage, that government is for and by the people; as they pledge to become more than they thought they could be, aspire to greater things. As they seize the day.

The very event that brought planes into New York City and launched the tribal vengeance of two wars was echoed by another last week, as a dedicated pilot, a plane full of brave travelers and the immediate response of ferry personnel showed us all a competent, heroic and happy ending to a miraculous ditch into the Hudson River. It felt like a circle completing -- a snake eating its own tail, a sacred hoop of experience. It felt like benediction and closure.

As all these loose ends tied together to form a circle of experience, I can't help think of Shaker elder Joseph Brackett's song of simplicity, and wonder how many of us know the lyrics:
'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.
I've listened to people talk endlessly about the very concept of words this week -- about their inability to describe their emotions or to define this period in time. I've heard the old-timers say they don't remember this kind of energy before, even in the days of John Kennedy. I've heard even the most callus of politicos marvel at the unity and goodwill that this inauguration has prompted. Much airtime was given to their expectations of Obama's speech. The speech turned out to be less inspiring than they expected: the event wasn't. It blew them away.

The speech itself was spare but tight, poetic without delivering a much-anticipated take-away quote. It was a speech of preparation and redefinition for this nation, a speech designed for the ears of the world. I thought it hit all the right points, somber though it was, and signaled a return to rationalism and science; his inclusion of unbelievers restored respect for skepticism and intellectualism. The inclusiveness of his message returns the nation, with a deeply respectful nod toward the traditions of the faithful, to its secular path and reinvigorates the intention of the founders who so carefully separated church and state.

Obama confirmed a return to constitutionalism, an intent to collaborate respectfully with foreign powers, to turn away from the good/evil dialogues and find what works for a world teetering on chaos. Fully as important was his rejection of elitism and imperialistic ambition; he did not promise to further democracy around the globe, but to reach out a hand to those who would take it in good faith.

There are countries that are not happy with this new turn. Hamas and Israel put their bad business on hold to see where Obama stands, feeling out the new tone in American governance. China was happy as a clam with George Bush at the helm of this nation, and has discovered they may not be so cozy with Obama. His address was shortened a bit in the Chinese press, where the word Communism was removed, as was this particular phrase: "... those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent -- know that you are on the wrong side of history."

The Conservative pundits seemed nonplussed that Obama was speaking to us of the old values of work and duty, shared sacrifice and national pride -- said Obama, "This is the price and the promise of citizenship." Conservatives have spent 30 years co-opting both values and patriotism as theirs alone; it was never true, of course, it was simply a matter of their version and that of progressives differing. We have seen eight years of theirs play out in the hands of cynical men and women; the years ahead will give us all opportunity to find the larger definition of what is truly valuable and patriotic.

In my heart, which has been touched so often these last days, I celebrate a return to constitutionality with something powerfully akin to a cosmic out-breath; the rule of law is revered by Obama and Biden, both constitutional lawyers, and their impressive legal team. Like the UN and diplomacy -- indeed, even nuanced thought -- the Constitution has become disposable in this decade, except for those moments in which it was used like a club to keep someone in line.

This document, like the avatars that prompted religious expression itself, is revelatory -- it is not a moment frozen in time to be worshipped at a respectful distance, considered not a part of ourselves but something outside of us; it is a living, fluid set of marching orders to which we must constantly aspire.

The man who took the oath as 44th president of this nation could not have done so with the three-fifths citizenship he was granted at its writing; if the Constitution did not have the capacity to stretch itself to include all of those it shelters, many of us would still be in slavery and indenture. I await the day that the Equal Rights Amendment includes women everywhere under the legitimacy of its wide arms. Rather than the unyielding Do-All and Be-All that Conservatives wish it to be, it is a creed that was designed to grow and shift to adjust to the times and experiences of the people who need its vision and protection.

The final words given in Obama's first address as President surprised me. He might easily have quoted the soaring prose of Lincoln or Kennedy, but instead he selected an obscure message delivered by our first president, George Washington; preparing himself for what appeared to be a near impossible and perilous battle. He picked a quote from the American Revolution, and urged us to consider the future generations that are depending upon us.
So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river.

the Capitol was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

'Let it be told to the future world...that in the depth of winter, when
nothing but hope and virtue could survive...that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].'
It is evolution that is upon us, a revolution of ideas and intent. It is the fluidity of the democratic process that pushes us forward, mindful of the documents that define this nation with its necessary checks and balances. It's the renewal of our contract with one another and the revelation of our personal, political and global growth that opens the door into our fledgling, and battered, new century. It's a becoming that cannot be defined in words, in music, in faces or hearts but is all those things, come together to both close out the old and celebrate the new. Beware if you do not open yourself to feel the magnificence of this moment -- you will need its inspiration in the days ahead.

"The lines of the tribe shall soon dissolve," said President Obama, who represents a new way forward and who some consider an old soul, likely to tutor all of us who are stuck in our old patterns and unwilling to bend toward the generational shift that has taken place. A young man who can stand before a nation such as ours and counsel it to grow up has amazing gravitas, apparently earned by his own moderation and humility; I'm amazed that we haven't heard screams from the Old Guard on this matter, alone. Apparently we have come to a time when we, as a nation, are willing to listen.

To those who say he is untested and inexperienced, I can only point to a campaign, a transition and an inauguration we have not seen the likes of, say the experts, in modern history; to those who say his politics are not progressive enough or visionary enough -- even as he restores the Constitution, closes Guantanamo, declares Iraq the responsibility of Iraqis and begins the chore of reversing Bush's policies -- let me just say I believe the revolution of hearts and minds is very well begun.

Our new president issued his first Proclamation on Inauguration Day, summoning the words of Abraham Lincoln and our own better angels. Even the far lefty-liberals who are set to micromanage his policy proposals and cabinet picks can't argue with its intent and tone. He declared Jan. 20, 2009 a Day of Renewal and Reclamation, calling "all of our citizens to serve one another and the common purpose of remaking this Nation for our new century."

We have hard work ahead; difficult choices and challenges that have no quick fix. It will take our patience, commitment and inspired citizenship to make our way through them. But we are -- finally -- all in this together, all on the same uniquely American page if we choose to be.

Our years of inertia are behind us. We are well begun. And to quote the good Rev. Lowery: "Let all those who do justice and love mercy say amen."

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