Monday, October 31, 2005

Rosa Parks

Some mornings when I sit down with the paper, there is news that makes me cry a little bit. That’s what happened last week when I read that Rosa Parks had died. I read the articles, thinking about all I had learned about her as a child, and then as a teaching assistant in an undergraduate course on the civil rights movement. I thought about writing something about her and what she means to me—something about the power of individuals to make a difference, about the importance of standing up (or sitting down) for one’s beliefs, about what finally drives people to act against injustice.

But the main memory that kept coming back to me was sparked by the mention of E.D. Nixon, a leader of the NAACP in Alabama, who Rosa Parks had called after her arrest, and who helped organize the bus boycotts in Montgomery. His name had been on the list of people and events that students in the class I was a TA for had to identify on the final exam. While I didn’t do any statistical analysis, I think that was the one that my students got wrong the most. But they didn’t decide to leave that one blank, but took a guess. Most wrote that he was the president who resigned after the Watergate scandal. Did they not know what President Nixon’s first name was? Did they not know how to spell Richard? I suppose they were just taking a guess, hoping for the best. There was one answer that really stood out to me, though, something to the effect of:

“E.D. Nixon was the governor of California when the Black Panthers stormed the state Capitol with automatic weapons. He later became President of the United States, but was forced to resign because of Watergate.”

Fabulous: mix up a couple of people irrelevant to the question, bring in and exaggerate an event that had nothing to do with the man you are identifying, cross your fingers, and hope for the best. I called up the other TA and read her the answer. (That’s right, when you said silly things in your papers and exams in college, your TAs were sharing and laughing at you.)

Because that was all I could think to write, I didn’t write anything.

As soon as we read that Rosa Parks would lie in state in the Capitol rotunda, The Husband and I decided that we had to go.

We arrived at the Capitol South Metro station a little after 5, and followed groups of people out toward the Capitol building. I had read that the funeral procession would arrive at 5:30, and that the viewing would begin at 6:30. We approached a guard and were directed down to 3rd Street. We cut in at 1st Street, along with everyone else, thinking we had found the end of the line. Then we followed that line all past the reflecting pool, down onto 3rd, and then saw it wrap back around the other side of the pool. We felt triumphant as we settled in at the end of the line to wait. The line was moving, but we realized quickly that we were moving because they were setting up lines to snake people back and forth, and we were filling in that space.

Soon we were back on 3rd Street, and were only shuffling along in the line. It was chilly, but not too cold. The blue of the sky behind the Capitol was deepening, while in the opposite direction the sky behind the Washington Monument was lit with pale gold, although the sun had already sunk below the horizon. I studied the Capitol dome, glowing bright white against the darkening sky. I remembered the first time I’d visited Washington, three and a half years ago. We took a shuttle from BWI to the home of some friends who live in Alexandria. The driver was chatty, and tried to engage all his passengers in conversation—I remember him asking a van full of strangers who they believed was at fault for the problems in Israel. After dropping off a few passengers in the District, the shuttle turned a corner, and I saw the Capitol dome lit up against the sky. My excitement made the driver realize I had never been in Washington before, and he was excited to show me more. To what I’m sure was the dismay of an older couple who just wanted to get to their hotel, the driver took a route that would give us a view of the White House, before getting lost on our way to our friends’ house. But more than the White House, I remember that first glimpse of the Capitol. I remember my awe at seeing the dome all lit up at night for the first time, and it still impresses me. I like to say that when I get tired of seeing the dome at night, it will be time for me to leave Washington. I spent a lot of time looking at it last night, and I don’t think I’m tired of it yet.

People became friendly in the line, striking up conversations with strangers. A group of people somewhere behind us spent some time singing—“He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” “Jesus Loves Me,” “The Star Spangled Banner.” A little boy behind us, probably about three years old, was a bundle of energy running up ahead to give high fives to a man a few yards ahead of us whom I’m sure he didn’t know, then back to his mom, over and over again. I had brought a book, but even with the lights along the lawns, it was difficult to focus enough to read.

We wondered what was going on, and The Husband suggested I call our friend Jeff, and ask him to check on the Web or on television to see if there was any news of what was happening. It was nearing seven and the line was no longer moving very much. My feet and calves were starting to ache. Eventually, I decided to call Jeff, but didn’t get an answer. I thought about trying to call someone else, but finally, a little after seven, we saw the flashing lights of the motorcade approaching along 3rd Street. Cheers went up throughout the crowd as buses rolled by—first the empty 1957 bus, then several full Metro buses full of Mrs. Parks’ family and friends. I stood on tiptoe, trying to peer over the top of the crowd, and saw people waving in the buses.

After they had passed, I turned to The Husband. “You know, given my experiences taking Metro bus on my commute, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that they’re late getting here.”

Still, the line didn’t move. A woman in front of us called her father in New Hampshire and asked him to turn on the television. From him, we found out that the casket was being carried in to the Capitol by an honor guard, and that Bush and some congressmen were there for a ceremony. We were told that the cameras were turned off in the rotunda for a prayer. The woman’s father said he would call back if there was any more information.

Our line crossed over onto another lawn. We felt that we were making progress. The singing groups started up again, this time with “Joy to the World.” At last we could see people moving up onto the steps of the Capitol.

At 9:45 we were out of the line that snaked back and forth. Someone asked the guard who was letting us out how much longer she thought we would have, and she speculated it was an hour. I wanted to believe her, but I thought she was probably just making up an answer. As we followed the edge of the reflecting pool closer to the security point, we realized how chilly it was. We were exposed to the breeze now, and didn’t have a crowd around us to help keep us warm. In exchange for losing our warmth, though, there were occasional benches and curbs to sit down to rest our feet. After five hours of standing, it was nice to give my legs even a quick break.

Moving up hill towards the security checkpoint, I heard the little boy behind us, now in his stroller, say, “Mommy, are you okay?”

“Yes, I’m okay. Are you okay?”

“I’m okay. Mommy? What are you doing?”

“Freezing!” People around us laughed. It was an hour since we’d been told that we had an hour left to go. Another guard told us it would be another forty minutes, and assured us that Metro was staying open until one.

Twenty minutes later, just past 11:00, after going through the metal detectors, we climbed up the steps and walked around to the west of the Capitol, looking down towards the lines that we had been in all evening. We couldn’t see the end of the line, but we could tell it was even further away than when we’d first started. We walked slowly looking out over the Mall. The Washington Monument towered beyond the lines of people, and just beyond that, I could see the arches of the World War II Memorial. At the end of Mall, the Lincoln Memorial was also lit up, and I thought of Martin Luther King giving his speech there more than 40 years ago. I thought about him suddenly being asked to take a leading role in the boycotts after Rosa Parks’ arrest only a few years before that. I wondered if he would ever have imagined her receiving this honor.

We were no longer behind the people we had been waiting in line with. Instead we followed a couple and their son up the steps. The boy was a miniature version of his father, formally dressed in a suit, a long overcoat, and a hat. The men were asked to remove their hats has we entered the building, and everyone lowered their voices.

As we entered the rotunda there were ropes guiding people in a circle, and as we passed a guard, I at last saw the deep shine of the small casket. We paused as we reached the far side of the casket. I watched more people file in. In whispers, people thanked Rosa Parks as they made their way around; some were crying; a woman crossed herself. I remembered to look up into the dome just as we left. As we moved back down the marble steps, I realized that I hadn’t noticed any of the paintings or statues. The small casket had been the only focus.

We emerged from the Capitol and made our way slowly down the steps, looking out over the crowds of people and the view of the Mall once more. When we reached the bottom of the stairs, we quickened our pace and headed home, wondering at the number of people that remained. The line stretched far beyond where we had joined it six hours before, looping around corners, and we couldn’t tell where it ended.

I am glad I went. I am pleased that Rosa Parks was honored in such a formal way. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to pay my respects to an important woman. I am moved by the murmurs of thanks from people of all different backgrounds. But I think the most important part of the evening was the wait in line. My feet hurt and my legs ached after six hours of shuffling through a line. But it was important to see the crowds that turned out, to feel that I was a part of something, to understand how much one woman symbolized to so many people.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Washington moment

I was walking down M Street after work yesterday when my dad called. A few minutes into the conversation I had to ask him to hold on for a moment: I couldn’t hear him for the sirens that were approaching. Two police cars moved through the dregs of rush hour traffic slowly, sirens screaming, followed by a limousine, a black SUV with men in sunglasses watching out the windows, and then another police car. When they had passed and moved far enough along the block, I brought my phone back to my ear.

“Sorry,” I said. “Just a little motorcade. How was your trip?”

Saturday, October 15, 2005


Yesterday on my commute home, I thought of something I wanted to write down, and reached into my bag for the little notebook I make a habit of carrying with me. When I flipped it open, I saw that it was the notebook I’d used in Italy in May and realized that I’d never written anything after the trip. I read through it, remembering where I’d been sitting as I wrote on each day. The Husband and I were in Italy for about ten days, but the notebook really only covers five in any detail. We’d spent the first few days in Rome, and when we arrived in Florence to meet up with friends, I think I lost interest in using my down time for journal writing and spent it talking with Becca and Alex instead. After the first five days, my notes are very quick, and there are lists of things to do and restaurants to try that aren’t necessarily in my handwriting, as I would sometimes hand the notebook to my friend Becca to jot something down.

What surprised me when I was reading through the notebook was how much I’d already forgotten. I remember the piazzas we sat in and the churches and museums we saw. I remember how much I loved the old, winding roads of Rome, and that I felt desperately aware and happy that I was finally in the city I had wanted to see for so long. I remember walking along the Arno on cool, quiet mornings, and feeling hot and tired at the end of our trip as we climbed up a hill toward Piazzale Michelangelo for a view of Florence. I remember that I ate pizza and gelato every day, and that we laughed a lot with our friends, sitting on benches in piazzas around Florence. But there are lots of little things I had forgotten:

As we descended into Florence, I was struck by how much the landscape reminded me of California, and my wonder at the similarity continued as we watched out the window of the bus that would take us to the train station. The hills looked more like the ones in California than those that I see on the east coast, and the houses had the red tiled roofs that I miss on the Spanish-style houses at home.

We decided to save some money by taking the slower train to Rome, which according to our guidebook would take less than three hours. Unfortunately, we bought tickets for an even slower train that the book indicated, and by the end of the ride, our jet lag was beginning to hit. I was fighting sleep, knowing I needed to force myself onto a regular schedule, but since I couldn’t be active or get a lot of fresh air, it was hard.

At Arezzo, as we pulled into the station, there was a lot of yelling and drumming and chanting. People pounded on the train as it slowed to a halt. Then our car was full of rowdy soccer fans, many of them wearing t-shirts that said “Perugia Ti Odio.” The group was wild—shouting and singing and chanting, while they drank beer out of plastic water bottles and smoked cigarettes into which they’d mixed a little bit of pot. The car was hot and began to smell with all the smoke and bodies. Some of the men took of their shirts: one was extremely hairy; another had a back covered in pimples. The couple that sat across from us were a little less enthusiastic. Neither spoke English, but the young woman spoke Spanish, so we managed conversation, and she explained that there was a big rivalry between Arezzo and Perugia. The whole thing was amusing to watch, but it was a relief when the fans reached their destination. It was even more of a relief when one of the conductors passed through the car and moved us into one with air conditioning and without the smells that the fans had left behind. We were able to get comfortable and relax, and we watched an almost full moon rise above the hills to the east.

I can’t really comprehend the age of things here. How can I get my mind around the idea of something being 2,000 years old? But I love that there are new flowers growing in the crevices of such ancient stones.

We sat along a bench in Rome’s Piazza Farnese, to get out of the sun and rest our feet, along with other people, mostly Italians eating lunch. There was a little boy who purposely knocked over his soda. After his mother scolde him and cleaned it up, he yelled “Bambina!” to a little girl who is chasing pigeons, followed by something in Italian that I couldn't understand. She ignored him.

When you climb into the dome of St. Peter’s, you are right against the mosaics. You can actually touch them. I was glad, but I felt as though I were getting away with something I shouldn’t.

I love Michelangelo’s Pieta. I felt very separate from it. At first I thought that was because of all the people and the glass. But the separateness was deeper than that. I think it is something about Mary’s face.

We went into the foyer at the Santa Maria church in Trastavere. There was something happening inside, maybe a service, maybe a concert, so we just stood in where we were and listened to the organ and the choir. There was a small window in the door, but I wasn't tall enough to see through it. Outside the church there was a skinny, bent old woman begging. With her shawl and her cane she seemed like something out of a movie. I gave her a few coins.

We wandered through Trastavere reading restaurant menus, trying to decide where to have dinner. Our mind was made up for us when there was a sudden downpour. We went into the nearest restaurant, one I'd be skeptical of only a few minutes before. Things were hectic for a few minutes, as everyone who had been sitting at the tables outside had to be reseated indoors. When the waitress sat down beside us at the table when she came to take our order, exaggerating her exhaustion.

As we were checking in at the hotel in Florence, Becca and Alex walked in. We made lots of noise, greeting and hugging and laughing. I think the two men working at the desk were amused by us.

We woke up to bells ringing in one church after another. It may have been the nicest way I’ve ever woken up. We opened the windows and the air was cool and light.

The Husband said that he didn’t appreciate Michelangelo until he saw David. I didn’t understand what the big deal was about one statue until I saw it.

The Prisoners give me even more appreciation for sculpture. I can’t imagine looking at a piece of stone and knowing that I could make something take shape from it.

At the Medici Chapels, I found the New Sacristy more striking than I would have if I hadn’t just been overwhelmed by the ornate beauty of the Chapel of Princes.

Before we had climbed very far in Giotto's Tower, I asked, "Are we there yet?" Becca, who was directly in front of me, began to laugh because Alex had asked the same thing just a few moments before.

When we stopped back at the hotel this afternoon, the owner called us “the happy people.”

We ate dinner at a restaurant across the river, which was ridiculously cheap, just as the guidebook promised. A young Italian couple was seated at the opposite end of our table. We think they were laughing at us.

Who knew I liked Botticelli? I love Spring’s face and the way she holds her body.

When I wrote about our trip to West Virginia, I didn’t look at the quick notes I’d jotted down, so I forgot to describe the blueberry bogs as “vermillion.” And I’ve already forgotten what I was going to write down when I got out my notebook on the bus yesterday. I’m so glad I wrote things down in Italy to help me remember.

Pictures from our trip are available here.

Thursday, October 13, 2005


One of my favorite things about fall is the availability of certain goodies--specifically, sweets involving apples, pumpkin, and cinnamon. So once a week, I've been going to the Starbucks across from my office and treating myself to an apple cider and a pumpkin cream cheese muffin. Today, after I had eaten the muffin and was seated at my desk, I looked up the nutritional information for my snack on the Starbucks website. That tasty muffin? Has 470 calories. And 24 grams of fat.

I wish I hadn't looked that up.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Wild, wonderful West Virginia

A couple of years ago, The Husband and I decided we needed to get away. I did a little research online and picked Blackwater Falls State Park in West Virginia. Just after Labor Day, we spent a few days hiking around the park, and other parks in the area. The falls were impressive and the hiking trails along the river were peaceful.

Since the spring I had been planning a trip to Boston for Columbus Day weekend. I’ve never been to Boston and fall seemed like a fine time to head north. But a month ago I realized that The Husband and I both just needed a chance to get out of the city for awhile, so we decided to return to Blackwater, for some peace, quiet, and fall color. Because of a dry summer, the fall color isn’t what it can be, and the falls themselves were not as impressive as they were two years ago. But it doesn’t take much color to impress a couple of California kid like us, and we hardly spent any time at the falls anyhow. The important thing was that the mountain air was cool, it didn’t rain on us as we had expected it to, and it was truly quiet, in a way that we just aren’t used to.

We stayed at the Bright Morning Inn in Davis, which was free of the doilies that covered the B&B I’d chosen on our previous visit. The rooms were simple and the breakfasts were excellent. We spent our evenings at the Purple Fiddle in Thomas, just as we did two years ago, for good food and drink, and excellent live music.

Susan, the owner of the inn, recommended that we spend a day in the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area, which we hadn’t visited on our earlier trip. We took her advice and spent the morning scrambling around on the rocks at Bear Rocks. The red plants you see in the pictures are blueberry bushes. Apparently in July the area is covered with people gathering berries. We missed the berries, but Susan told us that we were lucky to seem them during the few days when the plants are this gorgeous color.

There I am on the rocks at Bear Rocks

blueberry bog

View from Bear Rocks

Later in the day, we hiked the South Prong trail. It was a rocky trail, and quiet—we saw only one other couple. We got to seem some beautiful colors on the trees, and there was another rocky outlook area with beautiful vistas.

South Prong trail

View from South Prong trail

Fall color

Fall color

Before we headed for home this morning, we went to see Blackwater Falls. They were only a trickle compared to two years ago, but they were still beautiful. We also took Susan's advice again and walked out to Lindy Point for lovely views of river canyon.

Blackwater Falls

Blackwater Falls

Blackwater canyon

Blackwater canyon

I'm feeling relaxed now. I've always been able to find peace in looking at the ocean. I'm finding that other landscapes can give me the same kind of perspective. It's hard to feel anything but peace when you're surrounded by scenes like these.