Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 1.29.09

The Culmination of Many Dreams
A Eugenean’s view of the inauguration
by Julie Garton

Attending the inauguration was an endurance challenge, like walking a marathon, skiing all day and attending a Grateful Dead concert all on the same day! But my friend Nina Fink and I feel fortunate that we were participants at this unique, historic, amazing event.

People were incredibly nice and in great spirits. With the windchill, it felt to be about 10 degrees. Being among all those people is hard to put into words, but there was a sense of unity, that we’re all in this together. There was lots of eye contact, and trust replaced any fear you might normally feel in such a large crowd. People were jubilant and reverent while listening to the speech.

As silver ticket holders, we were behind the pond but in front of the two million nonticketed people. We were standing but had space; they had not overticketed our section as I heard they did in others. Directly in front of us, the Capitol building seemed dressed up for the occasion. Just to our right we could see the coverage on the large screen Jumbotron. There were Jumbotrons set up at intervals the entire length of the Mall, and during the speech every word echoed from the audio delay.

During the musical performance by Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, et. al., a peace descended over the crowd, the sound system in perfect synchrony. As if on cue, a flock of seagulls took off from the pond and flew in a free-flowing dance above it, swirling and dancing to the notes of the beautiful music. Their dance moved down the crowd and directly over my head, and with tears streaming down my face I found myself thinking of the notion of freedom and that desire in humanity to be free of strife, free of oppression, free of fear.

The hope that Obama inspires in so many was palpable that day. The American experiment continues, and if life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are the destination, then justice is the path. Obama’s election felt just. The change that people desire is for a truthful leader. He feels believable, trustworthy; the hope is that he is. 

When the program was over, the Jumbotron showed W. getting into the helicopter. A minute later that helicopter took off from the Capitol building and started to fly away along the length of the Mall. Like a climactic ending to a Hollywood movie, they cranked up the music; the crescendo of strings, horns, and drums peaking as the entire crowd waved west to east, many among us taunting, Na na na na, na na na na, hey, hey, good-bye!!

God, I thought, is it really over? The Bush/Cheney era had been oppressive to my naturally optimistic nature, but I hadn’t been entirely conscious of this fact until I started to feel the shift inside myself right then. A bubbling up of repressed energy rose in my heart. I could believe in all that is good again. It was happening right now, right here.

The crowd was dispersing, and we were astounded by the vast amounts of garbage left behind on the ground. Garbage cans were nonexistent due to the security threat. Nina and I found a couple of large garbage bags on the ground and started picking up trash. It felt good to stretch, bend, grab, lunge, stuff it in, twist, grab, stretch, reach, fill it up. For 20 minutes we did our service yoga, warming our bodies, doing our part. Other people joined in. Words and ideas from the new president’s speech still pin-balling around my mind, I was grateful for the menial work in front of me so I could think.

Obama’s speech offered me a connection to the history of this country that I had never felt before. George Washington was at least partly personally responsible for my beautiful life. I loved chewing on this thought and more: This idea that we’re trying to distill the highest ideals of all humanity and live them out. That each generation receives the precious gift from the previous, and we have the responsibility to not only protect it and pass it on, but refine it and improve it. The ideals are universal, the hope of humanity itself, which explains why the world has fallen in love with Obama. Besides all of his obvious personal qualities, he is an expert in constitutional law. He gets it. Keep the focus on the highest ideals, and just maybe we will all get there.

It was too cold to just stand around, so we headed out on our four-mile trek back to the apartment in Arlington where we were staying. The masses were departing, trying to find the route to warmth and sustenance. Roads were barricaded, and fences had been erected to control the crowds. No volunteers or event officials were anywhere to be found. Folks had broken down a fence and were stepping over it and up a wall onto the sidewalk. We were following, but as I started to walk over the trampled fence, I noticed a family looking confused and drained. The elderly mother was in a wheelchair. Nina and I helped them to negotiate the logistics of lifting her through the fence onto the sidewalk. We went on our way after ensuring they were all OK, only to be told halfway down the sidewalk that there was no exit at the other end, just a small hole in the chain link fence that people were crawling through to get out. Again, there were no volunteers around, so Nina and I started letting everyone know that there was no way out, that we would have to walk around the block. 

Just then a woman about my age (mid-40s) reached out to me. “I need you,” she said as she grabbed my arm. She was having her first ever panic attack, and clearly was freaking out her husband too. We spent about 20 minutes with them, talking her down, getting her to eat a snack and breathe into her scarf. We showed them the way to the open street, where we joined up with the walking masses.

As we walked, I contemplated Obama’s call for responsibility and service. Yes, live it every moment; it is just a way of being. Of course I will help; it is the right way to be. We’re on our own to a large degree. There is not always an official, an authority or even a trained volunteer. If Obama can turn around that aspect of the American psyche, I believe that will be his greatest achievement. The end of my my my me me mine. The beginning of I am you and you are me and we are all together… 

Our walk took us past the Washington Monument and the WWII Memorial, the Vietnam War Memorial, the Korean War Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial and over the Memorial Bridge through Arlington National Cemetery. Admittedly, my knowledge of American history is comparable to limited basic cable — only six available channels as opposed to hundreds if I were more plugged in. At least I had learned a few things from ABC’s Schoolhouse Rock as a kid. In my head I was singing the preamble to the Constitution: We the people, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and ensure the blessings of liberty, to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States of America.

For the first time in my life I felt proud to be an American, a sentiment that was clearly visible on the faces of countless African-Americans I saw and met all weekend. But this day was not just the culmination of the African-American civil rights effort; it was the culmination of many people’s dreams and efforts, people of all races and all walks of life. I’m grateful I was there to witness and participate in the celebration of ideals that are greater than any one person, one race, one generation, or one nation.


Julie Garton. LMT, practices massage therapy at Garden Massage in the south Eugene hills.