Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Flying Through History, Eyes Open

The day just past was one of those Where-were-you-when/I'll-never-forget-that days. I've lived through a number of them. Most of them were times when we were blindsided by bad news: assassinations, attacks, natural and technological disasters. This was a rare happy one, the happiest one in decades.

A large sign at an Obama-themed art show in October captures
the new President's central message of hope and service.

This time we saw it coming. A few people of hope and courage and vision and chutzpah saw it coming two years ago. I hoped I saw it on the horizon four years ago, when a guy with a weird name gave an amazing speech at the Democratic convention. But I also distinctly remember being outside Trader Joe's about two years ago, weighing Obama and Clinton's respective electability. I was desperately worried that neither of them could win in 2008, neither the inspiring black guy nor a woman who had been targeted by right-wingers for years and years. I'm delighted that Barack Obama exceeded my hopes and confounded my fears.

Hopes and fears aside, though, we've known today was coming for ten weeks now. We've counted down to this joyous moment with eyes wide open, looking for the end of one phase of history and the beginning of another. A couple million people, perhaps, flocked to see the focal point of this moment, in person or on Jumbotron. Many people who couldn't get to Washington DC gathered elsewhere, determined to participate in our shared history. Still others settled for being connected by TV, by Internet, by Twitter and Facebook and iPhone.

I've never seen the man in person, only his cardboard stand-in.

And where was I as Barack Obama officially started his new job? I was starting mine. I was sitting at a locked desk in a small storefront, unaware that the desk key was in what I'd just been handed by a woman locked behind glass. I had turned on the computer in front of me, but there was little indication it was booting up. Even if I did, I had no prayer of watching the inauguration or inaugural speech on it. I didn't have the passwords for it yet. And, as it turns out, the computer has no speakers whatsoever. You don't need audio to do someone's taxes.

A long way from Washington, but history is here, too.

All day, as people came and went in the small storefront, cashing checks, paying bills and mostly ignoring me, I did not hear one person mention President Obama, or the amazing thing that had just happened three thousand miles away. People were too busy getting on with their lives, dealing with their personal finances, trying to survive. Maybe they had watched tv or listened to the radio before walking in. Maybe they cared deeply, but a check cashing service wasn't the place to mention it. Or maybe the daily stresses of life and money obscured their vision. Maybe they weren't looking at the past ending or the promise of the future.

But in between studying the tax forms and tax program on the now-working computer, I read today's speech, and was thrilled that Barack Obama really gets it. He knows what history tells, the potential of the future, and his role in pushing us to help create it. He knows you can't ignore stuff and put it off indefinitely, because "we can't afford it." He knows that Us and Them is no way to see the country or the world. I particularly loved this passage:

And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort — even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West — know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

My new job puts me in contact with people who need the change that this day portends as much as anyone. It's not going to be accomplished tomorrow; nor did our new President promise that it would come without hard work, communal and individual effort.

As someone who just started a new, temporary job after being out of work for four months, I was never going to be one of the people on the National Mall. I am unlikely to help build a house for Habitat for Humanity. Heck, I didn't even manage to give blood yesterday. But today was a start in my trying to give honest effort to a job that at least relieves the State of Arizona of the burden of paying me $240 a week. I hope to get up to speed soon on this tax stuff, and to do a good job for people who need help with their returns. It's not charity, it's not glamorous, and frankly I'm still nervous about learning to be both confident and competent. I'm going to have to overcome my shyness to do this well. That may be my personal improvement project of the next few months, at least as much as studying for the CPA exam.

Maybe I'm not really partiking in history, except as one of the rabble, as much as everyone else who walks into that storefront, just another person struggling in a tough economy. But this bit part is not the role of victim. Because like the people on the Mall today, I'm looking forward, eyes wide open. I can see better times ahead, and I'm willing to work for them.


1 comment:

just me said...

great entry. Many of the parts you highlighted were favorites of mine as well.
Good luck on your new job.